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The Haunting Life of Helena Alving

(Drama for Students)

In any of Henrik Ibsen’s plays there will be layers of characterization, complicated by the lingering presence of events that occurred to the characters years before what is seen presented on the stage. This is especially true of Ghosts with its focus on the ways in which people and events that are long gone continue to resonate, how they stay alive from one generation to the next. The most obvious ghosts are those of Johanna the maid and Chamberlain Alving. But they have been dead for years when, seeing her son, Oswald, touching Johanna’s daughter Regina in the same dining room where her husband had made a pass at Johanna a generation earlier, Mrs. Alving blurts out the play’s title. ‘‘I almost think we’re all of us Ghosts, Pastor Manders,’’ Mrs. Alving says later, recalling that moment. ‘‘It’s not only what we have inherited from our father and mother that ‘walks’ in us. It’s all sorts of ideas, and lifeless old beliefs, and so forth. . . . There must be Ghosts all the country over, as thick as the sands of the sea. And then we are, one and all, so pitifully afraid of the light.’’

As Mrs. Alving understands it, ghosts are not just the specters of people. Actions cast shadows. Emotions cast shadows. The difficult job for the playwright is to show how long and how deeply an isolated moment from the past can continue to affect one’s life.

In Ghosts, many of the events of the past twist around another, braided like a rope, but one event in particular seems to be at the center of the Alving family’s tragedy: it is the brief moment, nearly thirty years earlier, when Mrs. Alving presented herself to Pastor Manders with the words, ‘‘Here I am. Take me.’’ The pastor, of course, did not take her, even though there is every reason to believe that he wanted to. At that brief moment in the past, all of the play’s major concerns—love, lust, repression, honor, freedom and possibility—intersected, and the results of that lost moment are every bit as important as anything in these unfulfilled lives.

This moment in Mrs. Alving’s life came when she had been married to Captain Alving for a year and had already learned to regret it. She had been young and fatherless, practically a child, talked into marriage by her mother and aunts who believed that marriage to the dashing young sailor would be glamorous to young Helena because she had no better prospects in her life. Their encouragement was, however, based on the assumption that mar riage would change the captain from a sailor to a husband, which in fact it did not. He continued to live like a bachelor—Mrs. Alving describes his behavior in the play as ‘‘dissolute,’’ a word that defines a lack of moral restraint by emphasizing the fact that his spirit is dissolved, uncontrolled, unfocused. As she says later, the town ‘‘had no joys to offer him—only dissipations.’’

To Pastor Manders, the bride he had married to the sailor a year earlier must have looked, as she stood on his doorstep, less like the possibility for romantic love than like trouble incarnate. He tells her that going to him was ‘‘incredibly reckless,’’ wording that in itself shows more his terror of being found with a woman than fear of the danger to her mortal soul. There is every reason to believe that he did not take her seriously, that he just thought of her as a discontent bride who was not willing to accept the unglamorous parts of marriage. Pastor Manders is, after all, presented as a man of duty, a ‘‘poor instrument in a Higher Hand,’’ to use his own words. To such a person, anyone not driven by duty would seem to lack proper seriousness. He may have seen young Helena Alving as socially greedy, like Regina Engstrand, who rejects her father’s scheme to put her to work as a virtual prostitute in his sailors’ home because ‘‘Sailors have no savoir vivre.

Did he love her, when she showed up at his door saying, ‘‘Take me’’? If he ever thought in...

(The entire section is 15,291 words.)