The Haunting Life of Helena Alving

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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...

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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 terms of love and hate, then he may have, but the pastor’s mind, focused on duty, had no room for emotions. Ideally, a person in his position just would not have any emotions that could cloud his moral judgment. He was human, though, and so, in pursuit of that ideal, he tried throughout his life to quash the emotions that he did have. When Mrs. Alving implies that there was once an emotional bond between them, he is emphatic about his version of the past, so emphatic that he seems to be struggling to turn the version he hoped for into reality. ‘‘Never,’’ he says, and then repeats, ‘‘never in my most secret thoughts have I regarded you otherwise than as another’s wife.’’ Whether or not he is sincere, Mrs. Alving certainly does not take his claim too seriously, responding bemusedly with, ‘‘Oh!—indeed?’’ The pastor considers his ‘‘victory over myself’’ to be his greatest victory, while Mrs. Alving considers his denial of his own urges to be his greatest defeat.

That moment, twenty-eight years earlier, de- fined Mrs. Alving’s life to come, sending her on a secret search for innocence. If she had offered herself to him and had been rejected because of her looks, her life might have become a crusade against superficial standards of beauty; if she had been rejected as too poor, she might have become a socialist. When Pastor Manders followed what was ‘‘law’’ instead of his own feelings, Mrs. Alving begins to consider the personal losses one may suffer by doing so and wonders whether sometimes it is better to follow one’s own truth rather than what others define as right and acceptable behavior.

The horror of Mrs. Alving’s life is that she had to lock herself up in the house in the country, giving in to the captain’s ‘‘secret orgies’’ and preserving his bogus reputation, in the quest for the truth. The social world that Manders flung her back into when he rejected her was a sort of maze that she had to wind her way through before reaching her moment of truth. Mrs. Alving needed to learn how to stop living the lies that her role in society forced upon her. Mrs. Alving challenges society’s view of her in several ways. She begins reading nonconformist, free-thinking books; raises her son with the sort of sensibilities more comfortable in the artistic community of Paris than provincial Norway; and, raises a memorial to Captain Alving, leaving her free to pursue less reputable inquiries. As she explains to Pastor Manders, her quest for truth began ‘‘when you forced me under the yoke you called Duty and Obligation; when you praised as right and proper what my whole soul rebelled against as something loathsome.’’

With the orphanage that she has erected, Captain Alving’s false image as a humanitarian is supposed to take on a life of its own, so that it can leave her alone to pursue her own interests; instead, her acceptance of this fraud destroys her, proving that a future of truthfulness cannot be built upon a past of lies. Seeing Oswald with Regina, Mrs. Alving declares that she should never have withheld the truth about the captain’s character. Finding out how confused Oswald’s life has been since he found out that the man he considered a saint passed a venereal disease to him, she is even more remorseful about her deception. From beyond the grave, Captain Alving’s sinful life appears to reach out to the one she loves more than her own life, her son, first in the form of a forbidden love and then as death.

What seems to be the ghostly force of the late captain’s character, though, is actually the same fascination with ‘‘Duty and Obligation’’ that drove Helena Alving to the pastor’s door so long ago. Her dream that she could ever, at any set time, be relieved of her responsibility to her husband, turns out to just be wishful thinking. When she tells Pastor Manders that she should give Oswald the truth, he counters that she owes her son ideals, not truth. He may be on the opposite side of the argument from her, but it is by mutual consent that his side balances hers. Before the threat of an incestuous relationship between Regina and Oswald, before the fact of Oswald’s disease is known, Mrs. Alving’s truth and Pastor Manders’s ideals hold equal footing, if not for the audience then for the two of them.

As late as the last act, Pastor Manders’s morality is still affecting her, exerting a gravitational pull. Having despised her husband when he was alive and survived ten years since his death with her hatred undiminished, she suddenly sees that she may have been responsible for the ruin of Captain Alving’s life. She feels that she may have been too concerned about ‘‘duties,’’ draining the ‘‘joy of life’’ from him. She is seeing that part of Pastor Manders that she has in herself. The same call to duty that she believed that she was only putting up with for a short while turns out to be deeply imbedded within her personality.

Pastor Manders and Mrs. Alving have complimentary personalities, but by the time that the play begins, their roles within the dynamic of their relationship have reversed. She came to him once as a girl, offering him the adult position of responsibility, authority, and control. When she watches him falling naively for the lies that Engstrand tells him, she sees that she is much more qualified to deal with the duplicity of the real world. ‘‘I think you are, and will always be, a great baby, Manders.’’ When she recognizes at last that she has always had the power in their relationship by realizing that his command to return to her husband was a command that she did not need to follow, she is almost giddy with her sense of freedom. She puts her hands on his shoulders, threatens to kiss him, which terrifies him, so he grabs his things and leaves. It is possibly the one true moment of their relationship, where she acts out the truth of his fear and weakness and displays her attraction to acting on one’s impulses.

This attraction, which for that one moment seemed to border on sweetness, comes back as an echo—a ghost—in the bitter tragedy of the play’s last scene. First, it is applied to the captain, who is the official ghost of the play. Mrs. Alving’s delight at seeing the pastor as a ‘‘great baby’’ makes more sense to audiences when she shows the same attraction to that aspect in her late husband’s character, ‘‘child of joy as he was—for he was like a child at that time.’’ But when that childishness shows itself in a real person, Oswald, who is the captain’s physical manifestation in the play, then the figure of her imagination turns grim.

Oswald describes the condition that his disease will leave him in even before it happens in the play. He will be ‘‘helpless, like a new-born baby, impotent, lost, hopeless, past all saving.’’ In the play’s last lines, when this state has actually descended upon him, the Alving family has come full circle. Helena, who once laid herself at the mercy of another person, grew such strength because of the pastor’s rejection that she now ends up having to make the ultimate decision. She has overcome her own weakness to appreciate the weakness in others, until her own son slides back into it with the stated wish that she take his life.

Ghosts’ detractors have pointed out that it is an incomplete drama, with the concluding act left to occur after the final curtain has fallen, out of view of the audience. This reading of the play assumes that knowing whether Mrs. Alving gives Oswald the poison would conclude the play. Looking at it from another angle, though, it is complete. In the end, Helena Alving, who wanted so much when she was young to give herself over to a man of morals, now has a grave moral choice in her hand. It does not matter how she acts; what matters is that the identity of the person who once said ‘‘take me’’ has been completely reversed by the circumstances her personality has created in her life.

Source: David Kelly, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale Group, 2001.

Ibsen: A Critical Study

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The ironies compressed into [the final scene of Ghosts] are likely to be almost as unendurable for the audience as for Mrs. Alving. She worked so hard to create for her son a corner of health and sanity in a corrupt world; that son is mentally diseased. She planned to clear the house of all other but herself and her beloved child; she has succeeded, but only in this appalling travesty. She thought that she could bring the long, hateful comedy to a neat end, scaling off all consequences, but she has unwittingly written a final act which is tragic. She worked to preserve a life and must now decide whether to destroy it.

The sum of these reversals to her expectations amounts to a condemnation of Mrs. Alving; not for her trying, but for the mode of her trying. The essential quality in her is ambiguity, that strangely constant mingling within the one woman of radical and conformist; she is strong enough to try to think for herself, but too cowardly to act in any other way than that required by the society she has, in part, seen through. Her radicalism itself is never complete; it may, under Oswald’s influence, expand, but at no point can she fully liberate herself from the influence upon her, acknowledged or unacknowledged, of dead social habits. All that can be said of her at the end of the play is that at least at that moment she is being forced to face facts as they really are; what she will make of the experience we cannot know.

Thus the play could be taken as the trial and condemnation of a misguided, inadequate woman. If Mrs. Alving had been true to her own feelings she would not have married Alving, or remained with him once married; had she been true to her own sense of the genuine, she would not have decided to rectify the disaster of her life by preserving appearances, whose falsity she recognised, in order to appease society. It is a strong indictment and the play undoubtedly levels it at her; and yet an account that stopped there would seem to me not to acknowledge much else that is offered.

For all her misguidedness, Mrs. Alving remains in the imagination as a splendid woman. This im pression comes partly from her personality and character taken by and for themselves. She has been so strong, to have coped with a life like that without weakness and to have coped alone. She must have had nerves and a will of steel to have conceived and carried out a plan of such complexity and long duration without losing heart. She always fights to control and shape events, never allowing herself to be passively overwhelmed. She is indeed a strong woman. And we can only admire the direction in which her strength is constantly directed. Misguided or not, blinkered though she may be in ways unsuspected by herself, she is always trying to see through pretence and hypocrisy to the truth behind it. She often fails to get through, and she initially fails to act on the truth that she has discovered, but that is the direction her bent of mind leads her in. And out of her private understanding she hopes for one single thing: to create the possibility of a decent life.

There is an element of selfishness in all this, yet even that is forgiveable in a mother. She wants her boy to herself. But she is no child-devourer; Oswald has always been free to come and go; but for his illness he could return to Paris; Mrs. Alving relishes the thought of his staying but she has never suggested it, still less demanded or engineered it.

The element of maternal selfishness is minor compared with the selflessness that has made her sacrifice her own happiness to her son’s well-being. Everything that she has done has been directed towards that.

Thus even on a narrow view of Mrs. Alving as a character in isolation she seems to merit deep respect and not mere blame. For the full assessment we need to see her in her context.

In simple terms, Mrs. Alving has always been at war with society. Her stature, and her achievements, must be gauged in relation to her antagonist. And here the play creates a force of peculiar horror. Society is presented as an openly coercive force, but that is not its chief characteristic. We see it in action upon Manders and through him upon Mrs. Alving. The coercion is strong, certainly not negligible, but it is not remarkable.

Society’s real power lies in its unobtrusiveness. The trap it lays for Mrs. Alving is one into which she and millions of other women have slipped without recognising that it was a trap. There is nothing openly coercive about the advice of relations when it comes to choosing a husband. Mrs. Alving was not aware of facing a great crisis in her life when she decided that Alving was the best catch in social terms; and yet in that choice she subdued her own feelings to the criteria created by society. The essential falsification occurred then, yet who could have identified such a crisis in so commonplace a decision? Part of the power of society in Ghosts is that it works through small-scale events which do not proclaim their real significance at the moment of occurrence. Brand could identify his crises; Mrs. Alving could not.

Yet once in, the consequences are fatal and inescapable. From the initial falsification all others flow; and these too hide their significance in unobtrusiveness. When Mrs. Alving sent Oswald away from home and made arrangements for Regine and so on, she was being false to her knowledge of the truth, but she was conditioned by society to accept without question that this was the reasonable way to act. Her plans were reasonable submissions to society that followed from her first reasonable submission. And she has gone on living for years without having much reason to recognise that such submission of personal integrity to social demands could be critical and fatal.

And yet in the end the magnitude of crisis must become clear. To submit, to the extent that Mrs. Alving has, to society is to cause terrible corruption to set in. Oswald’s disease is the outward and spectacular sign of the corruption, of its secretiveness and of its fatal inevitability, but it is not the only form of corruption. There is corruption of will, corruption of courage, corruption of integrity, of relationships—indeed a creeping invasion through many different veins and arteries of the play simul taneously. In Brand the sequence of events was linear; Brand moved on from one crisis and its consequences to the next. In Ghosts the various streams of corruption move apparently independently and in unsuspected ways towards the one moment of dissolution.

Perhaps Ibsen’s greatest discovery in Ghosts was the way in which his protagonist must necessarily be involved in modern society. Falk, in Love’s Comedy, by virtue of his favoured status as student, was allowed to stand outside the social structure he condemned. Though affected by his antagonism to his surroundings, he was not contaminated by them. Nor was Brand; even though he was woven into his community far more intimately than Falk, his small parish can serve only as an emblem of real modern social existence; and he too, Ibsen seemed to imagine, could preserve his spiritual integrity.

Mrs. Alving cannot preserve hers entirely from the corruption she later comes to identify. However clearly she may, by the time the play begins, recognise that she married for the wrong reason, may have acted wrongly since, may need to revise and enlarge her sense of truth and honesty, she constantly reveals that society continues to influence her ways of thought and action. Ibsen can see now that no individual, not even one with the basic integrity of a Mrs. Alving, can escape permeation by the very corruption by society that their integrity makes them identify and oppose. Significantly one of the images of that permeation is the gloom which envelops, as an all-pervasive natural force, the action of so much of the play.

This is Mrs. Alving’s antagonist, and it is in its peculiar fashion powerful enough to explain and justify total submissiveness in all the individuals who compose it. Mrs. Alving is conditioned; she is partly submissive, deliberately and unconsciously; but she is never totally subdued. And this refusal to give up trying to discover what is the truth and the right way to respond to it is again significantly defined through the image of a great natural force, the sun. Notwithstanding her wounds and blemishes, indeed because of them, Mrs. Alving emerges as a great fighter against a terrible opponent. In Ghosts, then, Ibsen has entered more deeply into the nature of modern society and its relationship to the heroic individual; he has also created a dramatic form for embodying his vision. Whatever else it may be, Ghosts cannot reasonably be assessed as a mere surrender on Ibsen’s part to theatrical expediency or as a betrayal of the poetic copiousness of Love’s Comedy, Brand, and Peer Gynt to the seductions of naturalism. Its form is essential to the vision.

The language, for instance, is limited in range because this is one of the effects society has on its members. It educates them to think decorously and to express themselves with conventional neatness. Anyone who tries to break these limitations must create his own language and in Oswald’s shapeless rhetoric the impression of overemphasis, of straining after effects not to hand in the common use of language, is indicative not of Ibsen’s verbal impoverishment but of the spiritual impoverishment of the society that cannot accommodate Oswald; and, as we have seen, Mrs. Alving’s reduction of his vision to the careful patterning that she has been educated in illuminates the same point from a different angle. Ibsen can no longer imagine for his modern hero that degree of mental and spiritual autonomy that allowed Falk and Brand to be fully articulate poets. Their significance lies in their being poets of living, men with a vision of a finer life than society offers, but their ability to be poets in words, to speak out with full-blooded rhetoric to expound, explore, define their visions, is one way of asserting that they are spiritually free men. But they were so only because Ibsen had not, at that time, really sensed the power of modern society: Falk can stand outside it, Brand encounters a simplified version, an emblem. Nobody, not even Mrs. Alving, can preserve his autonomy in the face of the complexity of power that society now represents for Ibsen, and the language is one means of expressing this fact.

The same is true of the setting. Mrs. Alving’s handsome room may be less spectacular than Brand’s mountains and ice-church but it is not to be despised for its ordinariness. The set mirrors Ibsen’s conviction that it is by its unobtrusiveness, by its very reasonableness and seemliness, that society is able to exercise its power; the very decency of appearances helps him emphasise the horror of discovering that the attractive setting is a monstrous snare, and the limiting of the action to one room takes away the illusion, still preserved in Love’s Comedy and Brand, that there is somewhere else to go. In modern society, as Ibsen sees it, there is nowhere else; the great battles must be fought out amongst comfortable furniture in a handsome house; the mountains offer no escape to Mrs. Alving: they are remote images of ultimate truth, not to be trodden as they were by Falk and Brand. The setting is an essential part of Ibsen’s harsher vision.

The setting is created partly by verbal, partly by visual imagery. Both kinds indicate further advances beyond the artistry and vision of his earlier works. The extremity of imagery in Brand, those blatant and massive symbols of opposition—storm, mountains, ice-church, narrow dale, sunshine and so forth—help create what amounts to an almost comforting sense of clarity. The opposed values are identified for us; the crises that arise out of the opposition are made manifest not merely to us but to the protagonist. In Ghosts everything is made less precise. Instead of storm, steady drizzle and mist, not a challenge so much as an enervating atmosphere; instead of miserable dale, Mrs. Alving’s country house, outwardly a haven. There are no sharp indices of crisis; we have to discover them as Ibsen now sees them, as latent and lurking. Out of this lack of clarity comes a further virtue. Instead of establishing his imagery ab initio [from the beginning], as he does in Love’s Comedy and in Brand, and then working by repetition, Ibsen allows his imagery to grow organically, establishing itself and its significance progressively. He works not by massive and blatant groupings but by small affinities gradually discovered. Yet he holds all this together, more successfully than in Brand, by creating a feeling of tempo, of inevitable movement towards a climax. All of the imagery is ultimately controlled by the image of Oswald’s disease and by the image of day dispersing night. Thus Ibsen can represent deviousness and cryptic consequence without losing his sense of the essential unity of the action or of the pace in which the action moves. There is little feeling of development or progression in Love’s Comedy; in Brand there is progression of a relatively simple linear kind, with little feeling of tempo; Ghosts moves much more impressively.

In Ghosts the vision is enriched and the form for its expression brought almost to perfection. Not quite to perfection because there are signs, here and there, that the effort to elucidate for himself the pattern that underlies the seemingly petty detail of modern living led him into oversimplification, both of vision and form, in the interests of clarity. Some of the cross-weaving of images into patterns is of this kind—the equation of the drizzle with the spiritual climate, or of Oswald with the Orphanage, does not need the kind of emphasis it is given. Manders need not be as inadequate as he is to give a reasonable representation of society’s inadequacies.

Ghosts has its imperfections but it is a great play for all that. Though different in kind it is arguably a finer dramatic poem than Brand, if by poem we mean an imaginatively organised structure of imagery constituting a profound and unified vision. Less debatably, Mrs. Alving is a more convincing kind of hero than Brand, by virtue of her fuller involvement in a society more fully understood and represented. From Love’s Comedy and Brand we gain insight into the issues that govern the quality of living; in Ghosts the issues are played out upon our nerves and feelings as we experience, with Mrs. Alving, what it feels like to be a woman like that condemned to live in such a world. Ghosts is, above all, an experience, immediate and immensely painful. And yet, for all its greatness, it marks only Ibsen’s entry into artistic maturity; the greatest works are amongst those that follow.

Source: John Northam, Excerpt from Ibsen: A Critical Study, Cambridge at the University Press, 1973, p. 237.

The Sun Always Rises: Ibsen's Ghosts as Tragedy?

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5477

Ghosts created the biggest stir in Europe of all of Ibsen’s plays. It was the hallmark of the Free Theatre movement. Antoine at the Théâtre Libre, Brahm at the Freie Buehne, and Grein at the Independent Theatre in London all produced this play as a symbol and a harbinger of their freedom. But the play was violently received. It shocked respectable middle-class audiences everywhere; it was condemned and banned; for the young turks of liberalism it was a banner to be waved on high. From the beginning the play had a notoriety that Ibsen only partially intended.

Fortunately, Ghosts is now seen in clearer perspective and we tend to be amused by the critical reaction of the Nineties. But Ghosts is still a controversial play. The number of respectable interpretations currently making the rounds is large and when you get on the subject of Ghosts as tragedy—well, it is one of those plays, like [Arthur Miller’s] Death of a Salesman, it just won’t stay settled and is always good for an argument. The four major interpretations of the play usually advanced are: First, Ibsen wrote Ghosts as an answer to the objections raised by Nora’s flight from her husband and children in A Doll’s House. Tied to a worse husband than Helmar, Mrs. Alving, instead of leaving him, had decided to stay, and to cover up the ‘‘corpse’’ of her married life with respectable trappings. Second: Mrs. Alving and Oswald are the victims of a two-fisted fate which takes the form of the laws of heredity in a mechanistic world and the stultifying and debilitating conventions of respectability. Third: Hereditary disease was for Ibsen the symbol of all the determinist forces that crush humanity, and, therefore, he sought to put in opposition to these forces the strongest of all instincts—maternal passion. And, finally, there is a fourth group of critics who dismiss the play as irrelevant except as an historical landmark. They argue that although the play may have been revolutionary in its day, today any dramatic conflict which presents suffering and a shot of penicillin as its alternatives is not very convincing. All of these interpretations—and they have been persuasively argued by responsible critics—seem to me to be either misreadings of the play or beside the point. They are comments about the play, but they are ancillary and fail to recognize the underlying con- flict of the play. For this reason most modern commentaries on Ghosts fail to describe and interpret the central action which Ibsen is imitating, and this has resulted in many limited or erroneous discussions of the play as a tragedy. It is this central action and its tragic implications which I wish to discuss, and this can best be done by first turning to Ibsen the man and the artist.

Ibsen’s biography is a study in conflict and contradiction. The gadfly of bourgeoisie morality was helplessly bourgeois; the enemy of pietism was a guilt-ridden possessor of the worst kind of ‘‘Lutheran’’ conscience; the champion of the ‘‘love-life of the soul’’ was incapable of loving; the militant spokesman against hypocrisy and respectability was pompous and outraged at any breach of decorum. Ibsen’s life is the contradiction of those values affirmed in his plays. This should not confuse us, however, if we will look even briefly at some of the significant events in a life that was really quite dull. . . .

In short, Ibsen became a ‘‘pillar of society’’ in his last days; he was a regular speaker at the Norwegian equivalents of the Rotary Club, the AAUW, Labor Unions, and the Better Business Bureau. In his speeches he praised all of these groups and gratefully accepted their adulation and honors. His study walls were covered with plaques and certificates from civic organizations and only a bust of [August] Strindberg—a bust that captured the penetrating and demonic quality of Strindberg’s gaze—acted as an antidote to this display of middleclass self-righteousness. On March 15th, 1900 Ibsen had a stroke, and another in the following year. These paralytic strokes were followed by amnesia and for six years he lay helplessly senile. He died on May 23rd, 1906, at the age of seventy-eight.

The clue to the meaning of all Ibsen’s plays lies in this strange biography. Ibsen’s plays are a continuous act of expiation. Certainly, it is significant that bankruptcy and the resultant rejection by society appears in four of his plays; the desire to restore the family honor is central to two more; and there are illegitimate children in eight plays. Thematically, the plays are, almost without exception, patterned in a similar way: a hidden moral guilt and the fear of impending retribution. Structurally, the plays are epilogues of retribution. All of the plays after Peer Gynt, begin on a happy note late in the action. In each case the central figure has a secret guilt which is soon discovered. As the play progresses, by series of expository scenes (scenes which delve into the past and are then related to the present condition of the characters), a sense of the foreboding doom of impending retribution envelops the action and each of the plays ends with justice, in the form of moral fate having its way. And finally, beginning with Ghosts, Ibsen introduces the theme of expiation. In every play following Ghosts, at least one of the central characters feels the need to exorcise his guilt, doubt, or fear by some form of renunciation.

Perhaps more important is the fact, that as Ibsen’s art developed these themes and attitudes changed in tone and form. The guilt, which had been specific in the early days—Bernick’s lie [in The Pillars of Society], Nora’s forgery [in A Doll’s House], Mrs. Alving’s return—becomes more and more abstract, nebulous, and ominous as best evidenced in the nameless guilt of Solness [in The Master Builder] and Rosmer [in Rosmersholm]. The fear, which in the early plays had been the fear of discovery, becomes a gnawing anxiety. Selfrealization, which in Brand is presented in terms of the Kierkegaardian imperative of either/or is realized in the later plays in an ambiguous kind of selfdestruction. And finally, significant action on the part of the characters has tendencies towards becoming a frozen stasis of meaningless activity and contemplation.

Ibsen’s life and his work are closely interwoven. Ibsen, rejected from society as a young man, had good reason to see the blindness of bourgeois respectability in his exile. And yet his sharp criticism of society is always balanced by his desire to be a part of that very society he saw and knew to be false. Over and over again in his plays and letters he condemns the hypocrisy, the intellectual shallowness, and the grim bleakness of his Scandinavian homeland. But he returned to it in pomp and circumstance. Herein lies the crux to an understanding of Ibsen’s art in general and Ghosts in particular. More and more we see that both in Ibsen the man and in the characters of his plays the basic struggle is within.

Ibsen lived in a time of revolution; he was a maker of part of that revolution; and he knew full well that all the things he said about bourgeois society were true. But despite his rational understanding, his intellectual comprehension of this fact, he was driven by deeper forces within him not only to justify himself to that false society, but to become a part of it. It is this struggle within himself between his rational powers and the Trolls of the Boyg that best explains his life and work. Ibsen’s plays are his attempts to quell the guilt he felt for desiring values which he knew to be false. In support of this point, I call attention to two important bits of evidence: the first is a letter written by Ibsen to Peter Hanson in 1870:

While writing Brand, I had on my desk a glass with a scorpion in it. From time to time the little animal was ill. Then I used to give it a piece of soft fruit, upon which it fell furiously and emptied its poison into it— after which it was well again. Does not something similar happen to us poets? The laws of nature regulate the spiritual world also. . . .

The second is a short poem entitled ‘‘Fear of Light’’ (presently, I shall relate the significance of that title to Ghosts):

What is life? a fighting In heart and brain with Trolls. Poetry? that means writing Doomsday-accounts of our souls.

I contend that Ibsen’s plays were attempts— attempts that were bound to fail, just as Mrs. Alving’s attempts were bound to fail—to relieve Ibsen of his guilt and at the same time were judgments of his failure to overcome the Trolls (which first appear as Gerd in Brand), those irrational forces and powers within man over which he has no control.

Keeping these facts in mind, let us now turn to Ghosts. One does not have to be a very perceptive student of the theatre to realize that the ‘‘ghosts’’ Ibsen is talking about are those ghosts of the past that haunt us in the present. In fact, Ibsen has often been criticized for using his ghost symbolism with such obviousness, such lack of subtlety, and so repetitiously. Certainly, when reading the play we feel this criticism is justified. Oswald’s looking like Captain Alving; his interest in sex and liquor; his feelings toward Regina; his syphilitic inheritance; Pastor Mander’s influence over Mrs. Alving, the orphanage, and the fire are only a few of the ‘‘ghosts’’ that Ibsen uses as analogues to his theme. Alrik Gustafson puts it this way [in ‘‘Some Notes on Themes, Character, and Symbol in Rosmersholm,’’ Carleton Drama Review I, No. 2]:

Symbols are, of course, a commonplace in Ibsen’s dramas, but in his early plays before The Wild Duck he uses symbolistic devices somewhat too obviously, almost exclusively to clarify his themes. Any college sophomore can tell you after a single reading of Pillars of Society, A Doll’s House, or Ghosts what the symbols expressed in these titles mean. The symbols convey ideas—and little else. They have few emotional overtones, are invested with little of the impressive mystery of life, the tragic poetry of existence. They tend to leave us in consequence cold, uncommitted, like after a debate whose heavy-handed dialectic has ignored the very pulse-beat of a life form which it is supposed to have championed.

But Ghosts is concerned with more than the external manifestations of an evil heritage. In those oft-quoted lines that serve as a rationale for the play, Mrs. Alving says:

I am half inclined to think we are all ghosts, Mr. Manders. It is not only what we have inherited from our fathers and mothers that exists again in us, but all sorts of old dead ideas and all kinds of old dead beliefs and things of that kind. They are not actually alive in us; but there they are dormant, all the same, and we can never be rid of them. . . . There must be ghosts all over the world. . . . And we are so miserably afraid of the light, all of us . . . and I am here, fighting with ghosts both without and within me.

The ghosts of plot and symbol are the manifestations of Mrs. Alving’s struggle with the ghosts within. It is this internal conflict, a conflict similar to Ibsen’s personal struggle, that is the play’s central action.

To define this action more explicitly, I would say that Ibsen is imitating an action in which a woman of ability and stature finds her ideals and her intellectual attitudes and beliefs in conflict with an inherited emotional life determined by the habitual responses of respectability and convention. As the play’s form evolves it becomes apparent that the values Mrs. Alving affirms in intellectual terms are doomed to defeat because she has no control over her emotional inheritance—an inheritance of ghosts which exists, but which cannot be confined to or controlled by any schematization of the intelligence.

Every significant choice that Mrs. Alving has ever made and the resultant action of such a decision is determined by these ghosts of the past rather than by intellectual deliberation. To mention but a few instances: Her marriage to Captain Alving in conformity to the wishes of her mother and aunts; her return to her husband; her reaction to the Oswald- Regina relationship; her acceptance of Manders after she has seen and commented upon the hypocrisy of the scene with Engstrand; her failure to tell Oswald the ‘‘straight’’ truth about his father; the horror of her reaction when Oswald is indifferent to his father’s life; and finally, the question mark with which the play ends. All of these scenes are evidence that Mrs. Alving’s ideals of freedom and her rhetorical flights into intellectual honesty are of no use to her when it comes to action. Perhaps, I can make my point more clear by briefly developing two of the above mentioned episodes.

As the second act opens, Mrs. Alving comes to a quick decision about Oswald’s relationship with Regina: ‘‘Out of the house she shall go—and at once. That part of it is clear as daylight.’’ I will return to the relationship of light to enlightenment, but for the moment we see that Mrs. Alving’s decision is based upon an emotional response determined by her inheritance of respectability. Then, Mrs. Alving and the pastor begin to talk; and Mrs. Alving always talks a good game. After better than four pages of dialogue, Mrs. Alving is finally able to exclaim: ‘‘If I were not such a miserable coward, I would say to him: ‘Marry her, or make any arrangement you like with her—only let there be no deceit in the matter.’’’ The pastor is properly shocked when Mrs. Alving gives him the ‘‘face the facts of life’’ routine; but her liberation, which is only verbal, is short lived! Manders asks how ‘‘you, a mother, can be willing to allow your . . .’’ This is Mrs. Alving’s reply: ‘‘But I am not willing to allow it. I would not allow it for anything in the world; that is just what I was saying.’’

Or to take another situation. In Act I, Mrs. Alving tells Manders what her husband was really like: ‘‘The truth is this, that my husband died just as great a profligate as he had been all his life.’’ In Act II, she is telling Manders of all the things she ought to have done and she says: ‘‘If I had been the woman I ought, I would have taken Oswald into my confi- dence and said to him: ‘Listen, my son, your father was a dissolute man.’’’ In the third act circumstances have forced Mrs. Alving to tell Oswald the truth about his father: ‘‘Your poor father never found any outlet for the overmastering joy of life that was in him. And I brought no holiday spirit into his house, either; I am afraid I made your poor father’s home unbearable to him, Oswald.’’

When we come to see the big scenes in this way, we then recall the numerous small events that create the network of the action and give the play its texture. Such things come to mind as Mrs. Alving’s need of books to make her feel secure in her stand, and the neat little bit in the first act where Mrs. Alving reprimands Oswald for smoking in the parlor, which Ibsen then underscores by making it an issue in the second act.

Ibsen’s plays are filled with such incidents; those little events that tell so much. I am of the persuasion that Ibsen is not very good at making big events happen; as appealing as they may be to a director, they tend to be theatrically inflated; they are melodramatic in the sense that the action of the plot is in itself larger than the characters or the situation in the play which create such events. Ibsen is the master of creating the small shocking event, or as Mary McCarthy puts it: ‘‘the psychopathology of everyday life.’’ Nora’s pushing off the sewing on the widow Christine [in A Doll’s House]; Hjalmer letting Hedwig do the retouching with her half-blind eyes as he goes off hunting in the attic; his cutting of his father at Werle’s party [in The Wild Duck]; and the moment when Hedda intentionally mistakes Aunt Julia’s new hat for the servant’s [in Hedda Gabler ], are all examples of this talent. These are the things we know we are capable of! This is the success (and the limitation) of the naturalistic convention ‘‘which implies a norm of behavior on the part of its guilty citizens within their box-like living rooms.’’

But to return to the main business at hand: the conflict for Mrs. Alving, then, is not how to act. She just acts; there is no decision, nor can there be, for she has no rational control over her actions. Herein lies the conflict. Just because Mrs. Alving has no control over her actions, does not mean she escapes the feelings of guilt for what she does and her inability to do otherwise. Her continual rhetoricizing about emancipation and her many acts of renunciation are attempts to satisfy these feelings of guilt. For example, and I am indebted to Wiegand here [Hermann Weigand, The Modern Ibsen, 1925], the explicit reasons she gives for building the orphanage do not account sufficiently for her use of the expression, ‘‘the power of an uneasy conscience.’’ There is a big difference between fear that an ugly secret will become known and an evil conscience. Mrs. Alving’s sense of guilt is the result of an intellectual emancipation from the habits of a lifetime; it is an emancipation from those values which she emotionally still accepts. It is precisely for this reason that her attempts at expiation are never satisfactory—they are not central to and part of her guilt.

To put it another way, Mrs. Alving’s image of herself as liberated from outworn ideas is at odds with what in fact she is, a middle-aged woman bound by the chains of respectability and convention. It is for this reason, in a way similar to [Jean- Paul] Sartre’s characters in the hell of No Exit, that she suffers. She is aware of the disparity between image and fact: ‘‘I ought’’ is a choric refrain that runs through her conversation; and she constantly looks for ways to affirm her image and assuage her guilt. And yet, the very fact that she accepts the image of herself as free, when experience has proven otherwise time and time again, explains why she is defeated in every attempt at atonement.

The sun finally rises. Ibsen has been preparing for this from the beginning. As the past is gradually revealed in the play and as the issues of the action come into sharper focus, ‘‘light’’ becomes more and more important in Ibsen’s design. The play opens in the gloom of evening and rain; Mrs. Alving, at least according to Ibsen’s stage directions, plays most of her important revelation scenes at the window, the source of light; as Mrs. Alving decides to quell Oswald’s ‘‘gnawing doubts,’’ she calls for a light; Oswald’s big speech about the ‘‘joy and openness of life’’ uses the sun as its central metaphor; the light that reveals—tells the truth— how impossible it is for Mrs. Alving to atone for her guilt has its source in the flames of the burning orphanage; and, finally, it is the sun, the source of all light, that reveals the meaning of the play’s completed action. Mr. Alving is still trapped within the net of her own inheritance. She, as she has already told us and as Ibsen tells us in his poem, ‘‘Fear of Light,’’ is afraid to face the real truth about herself. This fear is something over which she has no control.

If we can empathize with Mrs. Alving, and I think we can, we have been lead to feel, as she believes, that as the light comes out of darkness, as the pressures of reality impinge upon her with unrelenting force, she will be capable of an act of freedom. We want to believe that she will affirm the image that she has of herself as a liberated human being by an action that is expressive of that freedom, even if that action is the murder of her own son. We want to feel that the light and heat of the sun will have the power to cauterize the ghosts of her soul. But if we have been attentive to the developing action, if we but recall what events followed the ‘‘lesser lights;’’ then we realize that there can be no resolution. Mrs. Alving can give only one answer, ‘‘No!’’

Mrs. Alving, like Oswald, who is the most important visible symbol of the ghosts, is a victim of something over which she has no control. We are reminded of Oswald’s famous speech in the second act: ‘‘My whole life incurably ruined—just because of my own imprudence. . . . Oh! if only I could live my life over again—if only I could undo what I have done! If only it had been something I had inherited— something I could not help.’’ We have known all along that Oswald is a victim, so Ibsen is telling us for a purpose. The reason, as a study of his other plays will attest, is that for Ibsen the external is always the mirrored reflection of what’s within. Mrs. Alving is also a victim! Like Oswald, she is doomed just by being born. And since she never comes to understand herself; since she never realizes and accepts the disparity of her image of herself and the truth about herself, she can never—in a way that Oedipus, a similar kind of victim, can—resolve the conflict.

For Mrs. Alving the sun has risen and just as she cannot give Oswald the sun, so the light of the sun has not been able to enlighten her. This, I believe is the conflict in the play and the developed meanings of this conflict form the play’s central action.

But is this action tragic? How, if at all, is Ghosts a tragedy? It seems to me that there are two possible answers to these questions and the answer will depend largely on which interpretation of the play one accepts. The prevelant interpretation is the one which claims that this is a play of social protest and reform. The adherents of such a view can gather together a great deal of evidence in support of their case: all of Ibsen’s plays from League of Youth to The Wild Duck; passages from the play themselves, like Oswald’s speech on the freedom of Europe; numerous of Ibsen’s public speeches, and several of his letters. With this interpretation the play is saying that if man would only see how hypocritical and outmoded his values were then the disasters that occur in the play need never have taken place. This view has as its fundamental premise that social evils can be cured and that when they are man is capable of living with a ‘‘joy of life.’’ But if this is true, if all you have to do is be honest with yourself—and such a view assumes this is possible—and if men would see the falseness of social conventions and change them, then it seems to me the eternal elements of tragedy are dissolved in the possibility of social reform. Tragedy is concerned with showing those destructive conflicts within man that exist because man is a man no matter what age he may happen to be a part of, and no matter what kind of a society he may live in. John Gassner puts it this way [in The Theatre in Our Times, 1954]:

Tragedy requires an awareness of ‘‘life’s impossibilities,’’ of limitations imposed upon man by the nature of things and by the nature of man, which cannot be poetically dissolved by sentiment or ‘‘reformed’’ out of existence.

In some ways, I think Ibsen did intend Ghosts to be a play of social reform, but if this is the case, he created more than he planned. In all of his early plays, the plays we think of as the social reform plays, Ibsen is much like Mrs. Alving; he believed intellectually in freedom and wrote and talked a good deal about it, but is this the whole story? The disassociation of the ideals men live by and the facts of their living is a central theme in Ibsen’s work, but it is interesting to note that even in Ghosts the possibility of the ‘‘happy illusion’’ is presented. It is a hint that Ibsen is coming to feel that the conflict between truth and ideals can never be reconciled. By the time of Rosmersholm, even the free souls are tainted, the reformers are corrupt, and the man trying to redeem himself is shown to be capable only of realizing that he cannot be redeemed. Rosmer’s death is an act of expiation, but suicide is decided upon only after Rosmer discovers the impossibility of redemption within society by means of freer and more honest views and relations.

Thus, while it is true that Ibsen, both in his public pronouncements and in his plays prior to Ghosts, gives us evidence that he believes optimistically in the possibility of social reform; that he believes that finally the sun will rise and continue to shine if man works long and diligently at facing the truth, I wonder if Ibsen is in fact whistling as he walks in the night through a graveyard. I wonder if Ibsen, even as early as Ghosts, isn’t being a Mrs. Alving. Certainly this passage from a letter written during the composition of Ghosts permits us to wonder:

The work of writing this play has been to me like a bath which I have felt to leave cleaner, healthier, and freer. Who is the man among us who has not now and then felt and acknowledged within himself a contradiction between word and action, between will and task, between life and teaching on the whole? Or who is there among us who has not selfishly been sufficient unto himself, and half unconsciously, half in good faith, has extenuated this conduct both to others and to himself?

The alternative interpretation of Ghosts is the one which I have outlined in this essay. Mrs. Alving is a victim in a conflict over which she has no control. What are the implications of such a view to tragedy?

In 1869 Ibsen wrote a significant letter to the critic George Brandes. In this letter he says:

There is without doubt a great chasm opened between yesterday and today. We must continually fight a war to the knife between these epochs.

What Ibsen meant in this letter was that to live in the modern world is to be, in many important ways, different from anyone who ever lived before. Now this doesn’t mean that man has changed; human nature is still the same, but Ibsen felt that the modern way of looking at man had changed in a way that was significantly new.

Joseph Wood Krutch pursues this problem in his recent book, ‘‘Modernism’’ in the Modern Drama. Krutch develops his argument by pointing out that since Greek times the Aristotelian dictum that ‘‘man is a reasoning animal’’ had been pretty universally accepted. This view did not deny man’s irrationality, but it did assert that reason is the most signifi- cant human characteristic. Man is not viewed as pre-eminently a creature of instincts, passions, habits, or conditioned reflexes; rather, man is a creature who differs from the other animals precisely in the fact that rationality is his dominant mode.

The modern view assumes the opposite premise. In this view men are not sane or insane. Psychology has dissolved such sharp distinctions; we know that normal people aren’t as rational as they seem and that abnormal people don’t act in a random and unintelligible way. In short, the dramatist of our age has had to face the assumption that the rational is relatively unimportant; that the irrational is the dominant mode of life; and that the artist must realize, therefore, that the richest and most significant aspects of human experience are to be found in the hidden depths of the irrational. ‘‘Man tends to become less a creature of reason than the victim of obsessions, fixations, delusions, and perversions.’’ [Krutch].

It is this premise that all of the great dramatists at the end of the 19th century, beginning with Ibsen, had to face. How is one to live in an irrational world? How is one to give meaning to life in a world where you don’t know the rules? How are human relationships to be meaningfully maintained when you can’t be sure of your feelings and when your feelings can change without your knowing it? Ibsen’s plays, beginning with Ghosts, dramatize man destroyed by trying to live rationally in such a world. But to accept irreconcilable conflict as the central fact of all life; to make dissonance rather than the harmony of reconciliation the condition of the universe is to accept as a premise a view of life which leads in drama, as in life, to a world in which men and women, heroes and heroines, become victims in a disordered world which they have not created and which they have no moral obligation to correct.

It is this process, which began in the drama when Ibsen came to see man as a victim of irrational powers, of the Trolls, over which he has no control, that leads to the sense of futility that so completely dominates a great deal of modern drama. This is the kind of futility that is expressed in our text from Ecclesiastes (as it is in Hemingway’s novel); but is this sense of futility generative of what we traditionally associate with tragedy?

The traditional forms of tragedy have been affirming in the sense that they celebrated man’s ability to achieve wisdom through suffering. Such tragedy saw man as a victim, to be sure, but it also saw man as having those heroic qualities and potentialities which permitted him to endure his suffering and be significantly enlightened by them in such a way that victory was realized even in defeat.

The central conflict of Ghosts is not peculiar to the modern world. The disassociation of fact and value is a common theme in all tragedy. But there is a significant difference when this theme is used before Ibsen. Traditional tragedy celebrates the fact that, although most of us are incapable of it, the values men wish to live by can, if only for a moment, be realized through the actions of the tragic hero. It celebrates the fact that man’s capacity for greatness is often expressed in the committing of an action which is horrifying and ought not to happen and yet which must happen. In this way the possibility that man’s actions and his values can be in harmony is realized. This is the affirmation of tragedy; this is the meaning of the sun that resolves so many traditional tragedies. In this kind of tragedy the hero goes through the ‘‘dark night of the soul’’ with all its pain, suffering, doubt, and despair; but man is viewed as one responsible for and capable of action, even if that action is a grasping for the sun. Because of this fundamental difference in view, in traditional tragedy the dark night passes away and the sun also rises on the rebirth and affirmation of a new day.

This sunrise of traditional tragedy, which celebrates the ‘‘joy and meaning of life,’’ is not the sunrise of futility. It is not the sunrise which sheds its rays as an ironic and bitter joke on a demented boy asking his equally helpless mother: ‘‘Mother, give me the sun, The sun—the sun!’’

Perhaps Mrs. Alving is more tragic than Oedipus, Hamlet, or Lear; but if she is, her tragedy must be evaluated by new canons of judgment; for she differs from her predecessors in kind and not degree.

Source: Robert W. Corrigan, ‘‘The Sun Always Rises: Ibsen’s Ghosts as Tragedy?’’ in Educational Theatre Journal, Vol. XI, No. 3, October, 1959, pp. 171–80.

Ghosts and the Cherry Orchard: The Theater of Modern Realism

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The Plot of Ghosts: Thesis, Thriller, and Tragedy
Ghosts is not Ibsen’s best play, but it serves my purpose, which is to study the foundations of modern realism, just because of its imperfections. Its power, and the poetry of some of its effects, are evident; yet a contemporary audience may be bored with its old-fashioned iconoclasm and offended by the clatter of its too-obviously well-made plot. On the surface it is a drame à thèse [thesis play], of the kind [Eugène] Brieux was to develop to its logical conclusion twenty years later: it proves the hollowness of the conventional bourgeois marriage. At the same time it is a thriller with all the tricks of the Boulevard entertainment: Ibsen was a student of Scribe in his middle period [Augustin Eugène Scribe was the originator of the ‘‘well-made play’’]. But underneath this superficial form of thesis-thriller— the play which Ibsen started to write, the angry diatribe as he first conceived it—there is another form, the shape of the underlying action, which Ibsen gradually made out in the course of his twoyears’ labor upon the play, in obedience to his scruple of truthfulness, his profound attention to the reality of his fictive characters’ lives. The form of the play is understood according to two conceptions of plot, which Ibsen himself did not at this point clearly distinguish: the rationalized concatenation of events with a univocal moral, and the plot as the ‘‘soul’’ or first actualization of the directly perceived action.

Halvdahn Khot, in his excellent study Henrik Ibsen, has explained the circumstances under which Ghosts was written. It was first planned as an attack upon marriage, in answer to the critics of A Doll’s House. The story of the play is perfectly coherent as the demonstration and illustration of this thesis. When the play opens, Captain Alving has just died, his son Oswald is back from Paris where he had been studying painting, and his wife is straightening out the estate. The Captain had been accepted locally as a pillar of society but was in secret a drunkard and debauchee. He had seduced his wife’s maid, and had a child by her; and this child, Regina, is now in her turn Mrs. Alving’s maid. Mrs. Alving had concealed all this for something like twenty years. She was following the advice of the conventional Pastor Manders and endeavoring to save Oswald from the horrors of the household: it was for this reason she had sent him away to school. But now, with her husband’s death, she proposes to get rid of the Alving heritage in all its forms, in order to free herself and Oswald for the innocent, unconventional ‘‘joy of life.’’ She wants to endow an orphanage with the Captain’s money, both to quiet any rumors there may be of his sinful life and to get rid of the remains of his power over her. She encounters this power, however, in many forms, through the Pastor’s timidity and through the attempt by Engstrand (a local carpenter who was bribed to pretend to be Regina’s father) to blackmail her. Oswald wants to marry Regina and has to be told the whole story. At last he reveals that he has inherited syphilis from his father—the dead hand of the past in its most sensationally ugly form—and when his brain softens at the end, Mrs. Alving’s whole plan collapses in unrelieved horror. It is ‘‘proved’’ that she should have left home twenty years before, like Nora in A Doll’s House; and that conventional marriage is therefore an evil tyranny.

In accordance with the principles of the thesis play, Ghosts is plotted as a series of debates on conventional morality, between Mrs. Alving and the Pastor, the Pastor and Oswald, and Oswald and his mother. It may also be read as a perfect wellmade thriller. The story is presented with immediate clarity, with mounting and controlled suspense; each act ends with an exciting curtain which reaf- firms the issues and promises important new developments. In this play, as in so many others, one may observe that the conception of dramatic form underlying the thesis play and the machine-made Boulevard entertainment is the same: the logically concatenated series of events (intriguing thesis or logical intrigue) which the characters and their relationships merely illustrate. And it was this view of Ghosts which made it an immediate scandal and success.

But Ibsen himself protested that he was not a reformer but a poet. He was often led to write by anger and he compared the process of composition to his pet scorpion’s emptying of poison; Ibsen kept a piece of soft fruit in his cage for the scorpion to sting when the spirit moved him. But Ibsen’s own spirit was not satisfied by the mere discharge of venom; and one may see, in Ghosts, behind the surfaces of the savage story, a partially realized tragic form of really poetic scope, the result of Ibsen’s more serious and disinterested brooding upon the human condition in general, where it underlies the myopic rebellions and empty clichés of the time.

In order to see the tragedy behind the thesis, it is necessary to [turn] to the distinction between plot and action, and to the distinction between the plot as the rationalized series of events, and the plot as ‘‘the soul of the tragedy.’’ The action of the play is ‘‘to control the Alving heritage for my own life.’’ Most of the characters want some material or social advantage from it—Engstrand money, for instance, and the Pastor the security of conventional respectability. But Mrs. Alving is seeking a true and free human life itself—for her son, and through him, for herself. Mrs. Alving sometimes puts this quest in terms of the iconoclasms of the time, but her spiritual life, as Ibsen gradually discovered it, is at a deeper level; she tests everything—Oswald, the Pastor, Regina, her own moves—in the light of her extremely strict if unsophisticated moral sensibility: by direct perception and not by ideas at all. She is tragically seeking; she suffers a series of pathoses and new insights in the course of the play; and this rhythm of will, feeling, and insight underneath the machinery of the plot is the form of the life of the play, the soul of the tragedy.

The similarity between Ghosts and Greek tragedy, with its single fated action moving to an unmistakable catastrophe, has been felt by many critics of Ibsen. Mrs. Alving, like Oedipus, is engaged in a quest for her true human condition; and Ibsen, like Sophocles, shows on-stage only the end of this quest, when the past is being brought up again in the light of the present action and its fated outcome. From this point of view Ibsen is a plotmaker in the first sense: by means of his selection and arrangement of incidents he defines an action underlying many particular events and realized in various modes of intelligible purpose, of suffering, and of new insight. What Mrs. Alving sees changes in the course of the play, just as what Oedipus sees changes as one veil after another is removed from the past and the present. The underlying form of Ghosts is that of the tragic rhythm as one finds it in [Sophocles’s] Oedipus Rex.

But this judgment needs to be qualified in several respects: because of the theater for which Ibsen wrote, the tragic form which Sophocles could develop to the full, and with every theatrical resource, is hidden beneath the clichés of plot and the surfaces ‘‘evident to the most commonplace mind.’’ At the end of the play the tragic rhythm of Mrs. Alving’s quest is not so much completed as brutally truncated, in obedience to the requirements of the thesis and the thriller. Oswald’s collapse, before our eyes, with his mother’s screaming, makes the intrigue end with a bang, and hammers home the thesis. But from the point of view of Mrs. Alving’s tragic quest as we have seen it develop through the rest of the play, this conclusion concludes nothing: it is merely sensational.

The exciting intrigue and the brilliantly, the violently clear surfaces of Ghosts are likely to obscure completely its real life and underlying form. The tragic rhythm, which Ibsen rediscovered by his long and loving attention to the reality of his fictive lives, is evident only to the histrionic sensibility. As Henry James put it, Ibsen’s characters ‘‘have the extraordinary, the brilliant property of becoming when represented at once more abstract and more living’’: i.e., both their lives and the life of the play, the spiritual content and the form of the whole, are revealed in this medium. A Nazimova, a Duse, could show it to us on the stage. Lacking such a performance, the reader must endeavor to respond imaginatively and directly himself if he is to see the hidden poetry of Ghosts.

Mrs. Alving and Oswald: The Tragic Rhythm in a Small Figure
As Ibsen was fighting to present his poetic vision within the narrow theater admitted by modern realism, so his protagonist Mrs. Alving is fighting to realize her sense of human life in the blank photograph of her own stuffy parlor. She discovers there no means, no terms, and no nourishment; that is the truncated tragedy which underlies the savage thesis of the play. But she does find her son Oswald, and she makes of him the symbol of all she is seeking: freedom, innocence, joy, and truth. At the level of the life of the play, where Ibsen warms his characters into extraordinary human reality, they all have moral and emotional meanings for each other; and the pattern of their related actions, their partially blind struggle for the Alving heritage, is consistent and very complex. In this structure, Mrs. Alving’s changing relation to Oswald is only one strand, though an important one. I wish to consider it as a sample of Ibsen’s rediscovery, through modern realism, of the tragic rhythm.

Oswald is of course not only a symbol for his mother, but a person in his own right, with his own quest for freedom and release, and his own anomalous stake in the Alving heritage. He is also a symbol for Pastor Manders of what he wants from Captain Alving’s estate: the stability and continuity of the bourgeois conventions. In the economy of the play as a whole, Oswald is the hidden reality of the whole situation, like Oedipus’ actual status as sonhusband: the hidden fatality which, revealed in a series of tragic and ironic steps, brings the final peripety [reversal] of the action. To see how this works, the reader is asked to consider Oswald’s role in Act I and the beginning of Act II.

The main part of Act I (after a prologue between Regina and Engstrand) is a debate, or rather agon [conflict], between Mrs. Alving and the Pastor. The Pastor has come to settle the details of Mrs. Alving’s bequest of her husband’s money to the orphanage. They at once disagree about the purpose and handling of the bequest; and this disagreement soon broadens into the whole issue of Mrs. Alving’s emancipation versus the Pastor’s conventionality. The question of Oswald is at the center. The Pastor wants to think of him, and to make of him, a pillar of society such as the Captain was supposed to have been, while Mrs. Alving wants him to be her masterpiece of liberation. At this point Oswald himself wanders in, the actual but still mysterious truth underlying the dispute between his mother and the Pastor. His appearance produces what the Greeks would have called a complex recognition scene, with an implied peripety for both Mrs. Alving and the Pastor, which will not be realized by them until the end of the act. But this tragic development is written to be acted; it is to be found, not so much in the actual words of the characters, as in their moralemotional responses and changing relationships to one another.

The Pastor has not seen Oswald since he grew up; and seeing him now he is startled as though by a real ghost; he recognizes him as the very reincarnation of his father: the same physique, the same mannerisms, even the same kind of pipe. Mrs. Alving with equal confidence recognizes him as her own son, and she notes that his mouth-mannerism is like the Pastor’s. (She had been in love with the Pastor during the early years of her marriage, when she wanted to leave the Captain.) As for Oswald himself, the mention of the pipe gives him a Proustian intermittence of the heart: he suddenly recalls a childhood scene when his father had given him his own pipe to smoke. He feels again the nausea and the cold sweat, and hears the Captain’s hearty laughter. Thus in effect he recognizes himself as his father’s, in the sense of his father’s victim; a premonition of the ugly scene at the end of the play. But at this point no one is prepared to accept the full import of these insights. The whole scene is, on the surface, light and conventional, an accurate report of a passage of provincial politeness. Oswald wanders off for a walk before dinner, and the Pastor and his mother are left to bring their struggle more into the open.

Oswald’s brief scene marks the end of the first round of the fight, and serves as prologue for the second round, much as the intervention of the chorus in the agon between Oedipus and Tiresias punctuates their struggle, and hints at an unexpected outcome on a new level of awareness. As soon as Oswald has gone, the Pastor launches an attack in form upon Mrs. Alving’s entire emancipated way of life, with the question of Oswald, his role in the community, his upbringing and his future, always at the center of the attack. Mrs. Alving replies with her whole rebellious philosophy, illustrated by a detailed account of her tormented life with the Captain, none of which the Pastor had known (or been willing to recognize) before. Mrs. Alving proves on the basis of this evidence that her new freedom is right; that her long secret rebellion was justified; and that she is now about to complete Oswald’s emancipation, and thereby her own, from the swarming ghosts of the past. If the issue were merely on this rationalistic level, and between her and the Pastor, she would triumph at this point. But the real truth of her situation (as Oswald’s appearance led us to suppose) does not fit either her rationalization or the Pastor’s.

Oswald passes through the parlor again on his way to the dining room to get a drink before dinner, and his mother watches him in pride and pleasure. But from behind the door we hear the affected squealing of Regina. It is now Mrs. Alving’s turn for an intermittence of the heart: it is as though she heard again her husband with Regina’s mother. The insight which she had rejected before now reaches her in full strength, bringing the promised pathos and peripety; she sees Oswald, not as her masterpiece of liberation, but as the sinister, tyrannical, and continuing life of the past itself. The basis of her rationalization is gone; she suffers the breakdown of the moral being which she had built upon her now exploded view of Oswald.

At this point Ibsen brings down the curtain in obedience to the principles of the well-made play. The effect is to raise the suspense by stimulating our curiosity about the facts of the rest of the story. What will Mrs. Alving do now? What will the Pastor do—for Oswald and Regina are half-brother and sister; can we prevent the scandal from coming out? So the suspense is raised, but the attention of the audience is diverted from Mrs. Alving’s tragic quest to the most literal, newspaper version of the facts.

The second act (which occurs immediately after dinner) is ostensibly concerned only with these gossipy facts. The Pastor and Mrs. Alving debate ways of handling the threatened scandal. But this is only the literal surface: Ibsen has his eye upon Mrs. Alving’s shaken psyche, and the actual dramatic form of this scene, under the discussion which Mrs. Alving keeps up, is her pathos which the Act I curtain broke off. Mrs. Alving is suffering the blow in courage and faith; and she is rewarded with her deepest insight: ‘‘I am half inclined to think we are all ghosts, Mr. Manders. It is not only what we have inherited from our fathers and mothers that exists again in us, but all sorts of dead ideas and all kinds of old dead beliefs and things of that kind. They are not actually alive in us; but they are dormant all the same, and we can never be rid of them. Whenever I take up a newspaper and read it, I fancy I see ghosts creeping between the lines. There must be ghosts all over the world. They must be as countless as the grains of sand, it seems to me. And we are so miserably afraid of the light, all of us.’’ This passage, in the fumbling phrases of Ibsen’s provincial lady, and in William Archer’s translation, is not by itself the poetry of the great dramatic poets. It does not have the verbal music of [Jean] Racine, nor the freedom and sophistication of Hamlet, nor the scope of the Sophoclean chorus, with its use of the full complement of poetic and musical and theatrical resources. But in the total situation in the Alving parlor which Ibsen has so carefully established, and in terms of Mrs. Alving’s uninstructed but profoundly developing awareness, it has its own hidden poetry: a poetry not of words but of the theater, a poetry of the histrionic sensibility. From the point of view of the underlying form of the play—the form as ‘‘the soul’’ of the tragedy—this scene completes the sequence which began with the debate in Act I: it is the pathos-and-epiphany following that agon.

It is evident, I think, that insofar as Ibsen was able to obey his realistic scruple, his need for the disinterested perception of human life beneath the clichés of custom and rationalization, he rediscovered the perennial basis of tragedy. The poetry of Ghosts is under the words, in the detail of action, where Ibsen accurately sensed the tragic rhythm of human life in a thousand small figures. And these little ‘‘movements of the psyche’’ are composed in a complex rhythm like music, a formal development sustained (beneath the sensational story and the angry thesis) until the very end. But the action is not completed: Mrs. Alving is left screaming with the raw impact of the calamity. The music is broken off, the dissonance unresolved—or, in more properly dramatic terms, the acceptance of the catastrophe, leading to the final vision or epiphany which should correspond to the insight Mrs. Alving gains in Act II, is lacking. The action of the play is neither completed nor placed in the wider context of meanings which the disinterested or contemplative purposes of poetry demand.

The unsatisfactory end of Ghosts may be understood in several ways. Thinking of the relation between Mrs. Alving and Oswald, one might say that she had romantically loaded more symbolic values upon her son than a human being can carry; hence his collapse proves too much—more than Mrs. Alving or the audience can digest. One may say that, at the end, Ibsen himself could not quite dissociate himself from his rebellious protagonist and see her action in the round, and so broke off in anger, losing his tragic vision in the satisfaction of reducing the bourgeois parlor to a nightmare, and proving the hollowness of a society which sees human life in such myopic and dishonest terms. As a thesis play, Ghosts is an ancestor of many related genres: Brieux’s arguments for social reform, propaganda plays like those of the Marxists, or parables ála [Leonid Nikolaivich] Andreev, or even [Bernard] Shaw’s more generalized plays of the play-ofthought about social questions. But this use of the theater of modern realism for promoting or discussing political and social ideas never appealed to Ibsen. It did not solve his real problem, which was to use the publicly accepted theater of his time for poetic purposes. The most general way to understand the unsatisfactory end of Ghosts is to say that Ibsen could not find a way to represent the action of his protagonist, with all its moral and intellectual depth, within the terms of modern realism. In the attempt he truncated this action, and revealed as in a brilliant light the limitations of the bourgeois parlor as the scene of human life.

The End of Ghosts: The Tasteless Parlor and the Stage of Europe
Oswald is the chief symbol of what Mrs. Alving is seeking, and his collapse ends her quest in a horrifying catastrophe. But in the complex life of the play, all of the persons and things acquire emotional and moral significance for Mrs. Alving; and at the end, to throw as much light as possible upon the catastrophe, Ibsen brings all of the elements of his composition together in their highest symbolic valency. The orphanage has burned to the ground; the Pastor has promised Engstrand money for his ‘‘Sailor’s Home’’ which he plans as a brothel; Regina departs, to follow her mother in the search for pleasure and money. In these eventualities the conventional morality of the Alving heritage is revealed as lewdness and dishonesty, quickly consumed in the fires of lust and greed, as Oswald himself (the central symbol) was consumed even before his birth. But what does this wreckage mean? Where are we to place it in human experience? Ibsen can only place it in the literal parlor, with lamplight giving place to daylight, and sunrise on the empty, stimulating, virginal snow-peaks out the window. The emotional force of this complicated effect is very great; it has the searching intimacy of nightmare. But it is also as disquieting as a nightmare from which we are suddenly awakened; it is incomplete, and the contradiction between the inner power of dream and the literal appearances of the daylight world is unresolved. The spirit that moved Ibsen to write the play, and which moved his protagonist through her tragic progress, is lost to sight, disembodied, imperceptible in any form unless the dreary exaltation of the inhuman mountain scene conveys it in feeling.

Henry James felt very acutely the contradiction between the deep and strict spirit of Ibsen and his superb craftsmanship on one side, and the little scene he tried to use—the parlor in its surrounding void—on the other. ‘‘If the spirit is a lamp within us, glowing through what the world and the flesh make of us as through a ground-glass shade, then such pictures as Little Eyolf and John Gabriel are each a chassez-croisez of lamps burning, as in tasteless parlors, with the flame practically exposed,’’ he wrote in London Notes. ‘‘There is a positive odor of spiritual paraffin. The author nevertheless arrives at the dramatist’s great goal—he arrives for all his meagerness at intensity. The meagerness, which is after all but an unconscious, an admirable economy, never interferes with that: it plays straight into the hands of his rare mastery of form. The contrast between this form—so difficult to have reached, so ‘‘evolved’’, so civilized—and the bareness and bleakness of his little northern democracy is the source of half the hard frugal charm he puts forth.’’

James had rejected very early in his career his own little northern democracy, that of General Grant’s America, with its ugly parlor, its dead conventions, its enthusiastic materialism, and its ‘‘non-conducting atmosphere.’’ At the same time he shared Ibsen’s ethical preoccupation, and his strict sense of form. His comments on Ibsen are at once the most sympathetic and the most objective that have been written. But James’s own solution was to try to find a better parlor for the theater of human life; to present the quest of his American pilgrim of culture on the wider ‘‘stage of Europe’’ as this might still be felt and suggested in the manners of the leisured classes in England and France. James would have nothing to do with the prophetic and revolutionary spirit which was driving the great continental authors, Ibsen among them. In his artistry and his moral exactitude Ibsen is akin to James; but this is not his whole story, and if one is to understand the spirit he tried to realize in Mrs. Alving, one must think of [Søren] Kierkegaard, who had a great influence on Ibsen in the beginning of his career.

Kierkegaard (in For Self-Examination) has this to say of the disembodied and insatiable spirit of the times: ‘‘. . . thou wilt scarcely find anyone who does not believe in—let us say, for example, the spirit of the age, the Zeitgeist. Even he who has taken leave of higher things and is rendered blissful by mediocrity, yea, even he who toils slavishly for paltry ends or in the contemptible servitude of ill-gotten gains, even he believes, firmly and fully too, in the spirit of the age. Well, that is natural enough, it is by no means anything very lofty he believes in, for the spirit of the age is after all no higher than the age, it keeps close to the ground, so that it is the sort of spirit which is most like will-o’-the-wisp; but yet he believes in spirit. Or he believes in the world-spirit (Weltgeist) that strong spirit (for allurements, yes), that ingenious spirit (for deceits, yes); that spirit which Christianity calls an evil spirit—so that, in consideration of this, it is by no means anything very lofty he believes in when he believes in the world-spirit; but yet he believes in spirit. Or he believes in ‘the spirit of humanity,’ not spirit in the individual, but in the race, that spirit which, when it is god-forsaken for having forsaken God, is again, according to Christianity’s teaching, an evil spirit— so that in view of this it is by no means anything very lofty he believes in when he believes in this spirit; but yet he believes in spirit.

‘‘On the other hand, as soon as the talk is about a holy spirit—how many, dost thou think, believe in it? Or when the talk is about an evil spirit which is to be renounced–how many, dost thou think, believe in such a thing?’’

This description seems to me to throw some light upon Mrs. Alving’s quest, upon Ibsen’s modern- realistic scene, and upon the theater which his audience would accept. The other face of nineteenth century positivism is romantic aspiration. And Ibsen’s realistic scene presents both of these aspects of the human condition: the photographically accurate parlor, in the foreground, satisfies the requirements of positivism, while the empty but stimulating scene out the window—Europe as a moral void, an uninhabited wilderness—offers as it were a blank check to the insatiate spirit. Ibsen always felt this exhilarating wilderness behind his cramped interiors. In A Doll’s House we glimpse it as winter weather and black water. In The Lady from the Sea it is the cold ocean, with its whales and its gulls. In The Wild Duck it is the northern marshes, with wildfowl but no people. In the last scene of Ghosts it is, of course, the bright snow-peaks, which may mean Mrs. Alving’s quest in its most disembodied and ambivalent form; very much the same sensuous moral void in which Wagner, having totally rejected the little human foreground where Ibsen fights his battles, unrolls the solitary action of passion. It is the ‘‘stage of Europe’’ before human exploration, as it might have appeared to the first hunters.

There is a kinship between the fearless and demanding spirit of Kierkegaard, and the spirit which Ibsen tried to realize in Mrs. Alving. But Mrs. Alving, like her contemporaries whom Kierkegaard describes, will not or cannot accept any interpretation of the spirit that drives her. It may look like the Weltgeist when she demands the joy of living, it may look like the Holy Ghost itself when one considers her appetite for truth. And it may look like the spirit of evil, a ‘‘goblin damned,’’ when we see the desolation it produces. If one thinks of the symbols which Ibsen brings together in the last scene: the blank parlor, the wide unexplored world outside, the flames that consumed the Alving heritage and the sunrise flaming on the peaks, one may be reminded of the condition of Dante’s great rebel Ulysses. He too is wrapped in the flame of his own consciousness, yet still dwells in the pride of the mind and the exhilaration of the world free of people, il mondo senza gente. But this analogy also may not be pressed too far. Ulysses is in hell; and when we explore the Mountain on which he was wrecked, we can place his condition with finality, and in relation to many other human modes of action and awareness. But Mrs. Alving’s mountains do not place her anywhere: the realism of modern realism ends with the literal. Beyond that is not the ordered world of the tradition, but Unendlichkeit, and the anomalous ‘‘freedom’’ of undefined and uninformed aspiration.

Perhaps Mrs. Alving and Ibsen himself are closer to the role of Dante than to the role of Ulysses, seeing a hellish mode of being, but free to move on. Certainly Ibsen’s development continued beyond Ghosts, and toward the end of his career he came much closer to achieving a consistent theatrical poetry within the confines of the theater of modern realism. He himself remarked that his poetry was to be found only in the series of his plays, no one of which was complete by itself.

Source: Francis Fergusson, ‘‘Ghosts and the Cherry Orchard: The Theater of Modern Realism,’’ The Idea of a Theater: A Study of Ten Plays, Princeton University Press, 1949, pp. 146–77.

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