Characters Discussed

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Mrs. Helen Alving

Mrs. Helen Alving, a widow, the mother of an ailing only son. Although she reads liberal books and has extraordinarily liberal views concerning the possible marriage of her son and his illegitimate half sister, whose identity is known only to Mrs. Alving, she is an outwardly severe woman whose life has been governed by duty. As a young wife, she had fled from her profligate husband, whom she had married for his money, to seek refuge with the parish pastor, Mr. Manders, with whom she had fallen in love. Mr. Manders righteously had sent her back to her husband, and they maintained the appearance of a home for the remainder of his life. With her husband’s money, which she now loathes, Mrs. Alving has built an orphanage in memory of her husband. On the advice of Mr. Manders, she decides not to insure the building because to do so would be to show lack of faith. When the building burns, Mrs. Alving is indifferent. Although Mrs. Alving promises her son Oswald that she will administer some fatal pills to him when his mind goes, she is unable to do so at the conclusion of the play. Her revulsion and terror are unrelieved.

Oswald Alving

Oswald Alving, an art student afflicted with a disease, apparently syphilis, contracted or inherited from his father. He reveals to his mother that his mind is being blotted out by the disease, which doctors have told him was acquired early in his life. Because Mrs. Alving had sent Oswald away from home at seven years of age so that he would not realize his father’s true nature, he believes he has brought the disease on himself. In addition, he has inherited his father’s joy of life, now left behind with his art and his free-living companions abroad. Faced with mental oblivion, he comes home but finds no solace except in the contemplation of a possible marriage and departure with Regina, a young servant, in whom he recognizes the joy of life they have both inherited from their father. Incapacitated by the knowledge of his destiny, Oswald can no longer paint. He tries drink but gets little relief. After he tells his mother of his condition and his hope of marrying Regina, Mrs. Alving decides that she must tell them that they have the same father. This knowledge devastates Oswald. Shortly after he shows his mother the pills, which he says Regina would have been willing to give him, his mind goes, and he plaintively asks his mother to give him the sun.

Regina Engstrand

Regina Engstrand, a servant, ostensibly the daughter of a carpenter. Her mother, Joanna, now dead, had been a maid in the Alving household. Mr. Alving was Regina’s father. Unaware of her identity, Regina feels that she is above Engstrand, who wants her to return to him and help him run a “home for homeless sailors.” Regina, ambitious to marry Oswald and improve her station even before the idea has occurred to Oswald, detests Engstrand, who drinks and accuses her mother of immoral behavior. When Regina discovers that she is Oswald’s half sister, she leaves for the “Alving Home,” the sailors’ refuge that Engstrand will finance with money from the Alving estate, money that Mr. Manders has secured for him. When Mrs. Alving tells her that she is going to her ruin, Regina shows no concern.

Mr. Manders

Mr. Manders, the pastor of the parish. When Mr. Manders reproves Mrs. Alving for deserting her husband and for sending her young son away to become a freethinking artist, she reveals the...

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true nature of Mr. Alving, her reason for sending Oswald away, and the identity of Regina. After young Helen Alving’s flight to him, Mr. Manders, fearful of his reputation, had never gone again to the Alving house. He is present now only to advise her about the business of the orphanage, but he proves a poor counselor. When the orphanage burns as the result of his snuffing a candle carelessly at prayer services and throwing it on a heap of shavings, his remorseful cry is, “And no insurance!” Manders, a self-righteous man, reproves Mrs. Alving for her liberal reading and unwise behavior and Oswald for his unconventional views, but he is completely taken in by the rascal Engstrand, who, Manders thinks, wants to reform. He pays Engstrand to assume blame for the orphanage fire.

Jacob Engstrand

Jacob Engstrand, a carpenter paid to marry Joanna, Regina’s mother. Engstrand is a drinking man of no consequence, a rascal. Regina thinks at first that it would be improper for her to live in his home, even though at the time she thinks of him as her father. Engstrand suggests the fatal prayer service at the orphanage and later claims to have seen the candle fall in the shavings. Because he uses the occasion to get the Alving money from Manders, he may be lying. For the reward of the money paid him, he gladly assumes responsibility for the fire.

Character Analysis

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Mrs. Helena Alving Mrs. Alving is the widow of Captain Alving, a well-respected man in the community who has been dead for ten years. She is preparing to open an orphanage named after him to serve the nearby town. When Pastor Manders accuses her of failing to provide Oswald with enough moral guidance, he reminds Mrs. Alving that she has left her husband during her first year of marriage, but that he turned out all right after she returned to him. This prompts Mrs. Alving to tell the truth that she had kept hidden. Captain Alving was an awful man who was unfaithful throughout their marriage. The orphanage is to be built with all of the money Captain Alving had when he married her, and she will live on the money that she made from managing their investments after their marriage; in this way, she hopes to free herself of anything to do with him.

In the course of this play, Mrs. Alving loses her connection with conventional morality. She feels that social convention is false, and that she can put pretense behind her when she distances herself from Captain Alving’s memory after naming the orphanage after him. In the last act, though, her view on life is turned around. Instead of seeing herself as a longsilent victim of Captain Alving’s hedonistic ways, she sees that he was a victim of her.

Oswald Alving Oswald is Mrs. Alving’s son, who came home the day before the play begins. He has been living in Paris, where his work as an painter has been successful enough to earn coverage in the local Norwegian papers.

While Oswald was growing up, Mrs. Alving attempted to protect him from his father’s bad influence by sending him away to school at an early age. The one memory of his father that Oswald talks about in the play is when he was a very young boy, and Captain Alving took him up on his knee and gave him his pipe to smoke. Seeing him smoking his father’s pipe, Pastor Manders is shocked by how much Oswald looks like Captain Alving. Oswald has, in fact, grown up to be quite a lot like his father, in spite of his mother’s attempts to prevent such a fate. He smokes, and he drinks, and he has relations with women outside of marriage. Soon after Mrs. Alving tells the pastor about her husband’s affair with their maid, she finds Oswald carrying on with the present maid, just as his father did.

Jacob Engstrand In some ways, Engstrand is the mirror image of the late Captain Alving, who is frequently talked about in this play but who died ten years before the play’s time. Both men are drinkers and opportunists, willing to lie to secure their good names in society.

Mrs. Alving has hired Jacob to work on the orphanage, and he plans to use the money that he has earned to open a business in town. The purpose of the place changes—early in the first act, he refers to it as a ‘‘tavern’’ for sailors, though by the last act, when he is asking for funding from the pastor, he talks about the place as if it were a rest home for retired sailors, ‘‘sort of an Orphanage,’’ which he presents as a charity by naming it ‘‘Captain Alving’s Home.’’ In an ironic reflection on the immorality of both himself and the unfaithful Captain Alving, he describes the home as the sort of place where ‘‘a man might feel under a father’s eye.’’

Regina Engstrand During the course of this play, Regina’s character changes from that of the doting servant who is in love with the master of the house to that of a cold manipulator. She is the first character on the stage. When Engstrand comes in, she shows concern for Oswald, who is napping upstairs. Engstrand wants to include Regina in his scheme to open a tavern, offering her money to be made and the opportunity to marry a rich man, or to be paid off by a rich man who gets her pregnant, and Regina is offended by the offer. When Mrs. Alving invites Regina to sit down and have some champagne with her and Oswald at the end of Act II, Regina thinks she is being treated as one of the family because she is to marry Oswald, unaware that she is part of the family because she is Oswald’s sister.

In the last act, when she is told that she is the daughter of Captain Alving, Regina immediately asks to leave. Her concern for Oswald turns out to have been built on what he could do for her, and so she has decided immediately that there is nothing to help her ambitions.

Pastor Manders Throughout the play, the pastor speaks for conventional morality, even though he does not seem to deeply believe in the course of action that convention would require. This is made most clear in his deliberation over whether or not to insure the orphanage. He says that he would not have any problem with insuring it, but that it might cause a scandal among people who might see insurance as a sign that he does not have enough faith in God to keep the building safe. He is so afraid of the prospect of scandal that he advises against insurance.

Reality is not of primary concern to Pastor Manders. In Act II, when Mrs. Alving has regrets about not having told Oswald how disreputable his father was, Manders takes the position that it was more important to give the boy ideals than to tell him the truth. This concern for inner serenity over understanding what actually happened may account for why he so adamantly denies the attraction that Mrs. Alving says once was mutual.

Because he is more concerned with appearance than with true moral behavior, Pastor Manders is a dupe for Engstrand, who address the pastor humbly as ‘‘your Reverence’’ and pretends to defer to Manders, all the while having his way. As a result of not being able to see when Engstrand is being false, Manders actually believes that he has struggled against being a lazy drunkard, although he has no evidence of this except Engstrand’s word. In the end, he believes Engstrand’s claim that he saw Manders start the fire with the candle, even though the pastor does not remember holding a candle in his hand, and he runs away from all of his responsibilities in the town, rather than face up to the possible negative opinion that would follow from the fire.




Critical Essays