Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1508
Ghosts is Henrik Ibsen’s effort to substitute the modern scientific concept of heredity for the Greek idea of fate. More important, it is a mordant attack on society and societal standards. In explicitly stating that these standards are responsible for Mrs. Alving’s tragedy, Ibsen inflamed even the liberal sensibilities of his day. The play can still be read as a study in what has come to be known as the science of semantics—the disruptive effect caused when words or concepts are, in society, divorced from the realities for which they are supposed to stand.
Frequently called the founder of modern drama, Ibsen, like Pablo Picasso in painting and Igor Stravinsky in music, was a dynamic innovator whose far-ranging experiments had a continuing influence on Western theater and culture. Ghosts, Ibsen’s most celebrated, at one time even notorious, play, was the key document in his “social-realistic” period during the 1870’s and 1880’s. To some extent, the play obscured the fact that he was a protean writer whose social-realistic phase occupied only two decades of a career that spanned half a century, from 1849 to 1899, during which he explored many social, psychological, and metaphysical problems in a wide range of theatrical styles.
In the 1880’s, however, Ghosts was a red flag to the conventional theater audience and a defiant banner for the avant-garde. Ibsen’s earlier social play, Et dukkehjem(1879; A Doll’s House, 1880), in which a woman leaves her husband to achieve maturity, found stout defenders but also excited denunciation (in fact, the playwright was forced to produce a happy ending, in which Nora stays home, for German consumption). The controversy was in large part responsible for the play’s commercial success on stage and, even more emphatically, in book form. Ghosts, which deals with a woman who does stay home, was another matter, for this time the public concluded that the play was entirely too shocking, especially for its open treatment of venereal disease and its defense of unmarried cohabitation. Even the sales of Ibsen’s earlier plays dropped off. One newspaper critic summed up the general opinion when he wrote, “The book has no place on the Christmas table of any Christian home.” Eventually, the play became one of the pillars of literature.
One aspect of Ghosts is its attack on conventional morality. Pastor Manders embodies everything Ibsen hated in those conventions—the “ghosts” of the title. Manders is an unconscious hypocrite. Though he sees himself as a moral and ethical leader, he is motivated almost exclusively by fear of what others think of him. When he discusses the question of insuring the new orphanage, he states that he is not opposed to the principle of insurance—he himself is insured, and his parishioners insure themselves and their businesses—but he fears that by insuring the orphanage, his wealthier patrons may insist he is showing less reliance than he should on divine Providence. The decision not to insure the orphanage is based neither on an interpretation of God’s will nor out of concern for the orphans but for fear of public opinion. To Ibsen, the conventional moral code is itself hypocritical, and those who adhere to it are neither morally nor spiritually motivated.
In the closing act, fear of what others may think proves to be Manders’s undoing. After the orphanage burns to the ground, the unscrupulous, consciously hypocritical Engstrand convinces the pastor that he, Manders, caused the fire. Since Manders’s sole concern is his reputation, when Engstrand “accepts” the blame for the fire (and it is clear that he set it), the greatly relieved Manders agrees to provide financial support for Engstrand’s “Sailors’ Home”—a “home” that will clearly be little more than a brothel. To save his own skin, the spiritual mentor agrees to underwrite immorality.
Hypocrisy and opportunism pervade the moral landscape of the play. Engstrand is an obvious and open hypocrite, a confidence man who persuades Manders that he is a worthy soul. Regina sets her cap for Oswald not because she loves him but because she wants to be taken to Paris; as a second string to her bow, she makes advances to Pastor Manders. Although Mrs. Alving is a thoroughly sympathetic character, she, too, played the hypocrite in the past, hiding the lifelong philanderings of her husband behind a wall of public respectability: The last stone in that wall was to have been the orphanage named in Captain Alving’s honor; ironically, his real and more fitting memorial will be Engstrand’s “Sailors’ Home.”
Ibsen believed that the moral code enforces hypocrisy, and that it ranges far beyond the reach of Mrs. Alving’s house. When Manders suggests that men of means might object to insuring the orphanage, he suggests also (without himself understanding the implications of his statement) that these men, while speaking in spiritual terms, are interested in the orphanage solely for financial reasons; it will reduce the taxes they pay for charitable purposes. In an intense confrontation with Oswald (one of the scenes the audience of Ibsen’s time found objectionable because Oswald defends unmarried cohabitation), Manders accuses Oswald of having moved in openly immoral circles in Paris, only to be told that Oswald has indeed seen a good deal of immorality abroad—when some of Manders’s respectable parishioners have come to Paris to have their fling: “Then we had a chance of learning something, I can tell you.”
The exposure of the conventional code in itself might have created a comedy, for Engstrand and Manders are in many ways comic figures, or it might have led to a serious problem play. There is, however, a second, more subtly stated theme, and in it lies the play’s tragic momentum. According to Ibsen, understanding and exposing the conventions do not destroy them or their power to harm; the truth does not make one free in Ibsen’s worlds.
Mrs. Alving is quite contemptuous of the conventional code. She sees herself as an emancipated woman who has freed herself of her past and, by recalling Oswald from Paris, ensured her future happiness. In act 1, she seems in complete control of the situation; she is tranquil, confident, certain of herself. “And from tomorrow on,” she tells Manders at the conclusion of the act, “I shall be free at last . . . . I shall forget that such a person as Alving ever lived in this house—there’ll be no one here but my son and me.” At that point, however, she and Manders hear Oswald running after the maid (unbeknown to him, his half sister) in an echo of the affair between Captain Alving and the maid who was Regina’s mother. In the sad and bitter discussion that opens act 2, Mrs. Alving, no longer certain that the past can be put aside, states the second theme of the play explicitly: “We’re all haunted in this world . . . by the ghosts of innumerable old prejudices and beliefs—half-forgotten cruelties and betrayals . . . and we can’t get rid of them.”
She does make several efforts to “get rid of them.” When Oswald, guiltily confessing to her that he has acquired a venereal disease, speaks of the “joy of life” and the “joy of work,” Mrs. Alving sees a pattern in the past that she had not discerned before. When she tells Oswald and Regina the truth about Captain Alving—that he was a drunkard and a philanderer all his life—she at long last has come to understand and excuse him, insisting that he had a “joy of life” in him for which his conventional environment could provide no outlet. The Captain’s wasted life, she goes on to declare, was her own responsibility, because, instead of offering him “joy,” she judged him by society’s standards, thus driving him elsewhere—to one of the servants, among others. However, Mrs. Alving’s final effort to face and thereby perhaps undo the past fails. Regina reacts with bitterness and leaves. Oswald, facing mental oblivion, is more alone than ever. As the curtain comes down, Captain Alving’s legacy to Oswald, the last stage of venereal disease, strikes the boy as Mrs. Alving stares at the horror that is her life. Physically and spiritually, the past has destroyed both present and future.
Ghosts is a richly orchestrated play and remains one of the most complex and significant realistic dramas of the century. Its symbols—the rain that beats darkly on the large parlor window and represents the moral ghosts of the play, the sun that rises at the close to shine on Oswald’s darkness—mesh closely with the action and with the themes of the play. Its structure, a gradual revelation of the past that is fully disclosed only at the final catastrophe, is clearly and firmly joined to the idea that the past enters into and destroys the present. This form, developed and perfected by Ibsen, was to be employed over and over again as his influence merged with other developments of the twentieth century.