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, 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, 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, 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 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...
(The entire section is 1,961 words.)