How are women represented in Ghosts by Ibsen?

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In Ibsen's Ghosts, women are represented as strong characters who are nevertheless constricted by the gender norms of nineteenth-century Norway. Helen Alving initially leaves her unfaithful husband, then returns to him to take his place as head of the household. Regina Engstrand is a servant who marries a man of a higher class only to suffer an identity crisis.

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The female characters in Ibsen's Ghosts depart from existing gender norms to a considerable extent. The most important character in this regard would be the protagonist, Helen Alving. At an early stage in her marriage, Helen makes the decision to leave her unfaithful husband, Captain Alving. This doesn't sound particularly radical in this day and age, but in nineteenth-century Norway, it was considered nothing short of scandalous.

At that time and in that place, women were expected to be submissive to their menfolk and do as they were told. The prevailing double standard held that male infidelity was to be tolerated so long as it was kept firmly under wraps and that wives had no choice but to put up with it.

But Helen's not prepared to accept this, at least not up to a certain point. For although Helen does indeed leave her cheating husband, she goes back to him on the advice of Pastor Manders, who's every bit as committed to the norms and values of patriarchal society as Captain Alving.

Yet when she returns home, Helen is considerably more powerful than she was when she left. As she tells Pastor Manders later on, she now has control over the house, as she has a weapon that can be used against her husband—that is, his illegitimate daughter. Once firmly established as the head of the house, Helen is able to effect a complete reversal of traditional gender roles. Before long, she becomes a hands-on businesswoman and farmer, ordering equipment, improving the estate, and developing the land to a considerable extent.

In taking on such an extensive range of traditional male roles, Helen is meeting society's existing gender norms halfway. Although she's effected, as we've seen, quite a remarkable role reversal in her marriage, she's doing this to protect her reputation and that of her son. She knows that if she leaves her husband permanently, then it will be she and her son, not Captain Alving, who will end up being destroyed by the ensuing scandal.

So, she has no choice but to return home. But once she does, Helen is determined to make sure that the whole dynamic of her marriage is changed for good; from now on, she will be the one wearing the pants. From the outside, the Alvings' marriage will seem perfectly conventional, but on the inside, things will be very different indeed.

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Helen Alving and Regina Engstrand are the two female characters in Ghosts. The male characters, however, play equally important roles in communicating Ibsen’s representation of women. The playwright is well known for his strong female characters—the leading characters in A Doll’s House and Hedda Gabler. In this play, he presents women who have deep reserves of strength yet are held back, if not outright destroyed, by the strict social conventions of the day. The plot structure depends on how they respectively find ways to operate within these conventions and either achieve the goals they have for themselves and their families or fail.

Mrs. Helena Alving embodies the complex contradictions of bourgeois women in modern Norwegian society. She is widow who raised a son. Now that he is grown, she aims to fulfill her own aspirations. Ironically, these revolve around creating a lasting legacy for her late husband, Captain Alving, while also doing good—and expecting the townspeople to see her as good—by operating an orphanage named for him. The depth of her internal conflicts appears when she divulges that her husband’s infidelities both tormented her and prompted her separation from their son, Oswald. Helen’s identity as a mother—which society would promote as paramount—is ultimately the source of her disappointment, as she has to admit her son has not turned out well.

As the play advances, it seems for a while that Helen is a hypocrite because she promotes social norms in which she does not believe: she opposes Oswald’s marriage to a servant, Regina. Ibsen reveals Helena as more complex, however, and social bonds as harder to shake, when it comes out that Regina is in fact his half-sister; thus, Helena had suffered a greater burden than anyone realized in keeping the confidence of the result of Captain Alving’s dissipated lifestyle. The ultimate futility of Mrs. Alving’s prospects for happiness, another marker of Ibsen’s pessimistic attitude toward social change for women, is born through her attraction toward, and rejection by, Pastor Manders.

Regina, initially attracting the reader or viewer’s sympathy as a servant in a difficult, unhappy household, undergoes a transformation. While her ambition is to move up the social ladder by marrying a man on a higher ladder, she instead suffers a terrible identity crisis. Because she does not learn of her true identity until late in the play, Ibsen can use much of the action to draw out the less admirable aspects of her personality. Although social climbing can be understandable, Ibsen does not shine an appealing light on Regina. Her harshness toward Engstrand and criticisms of his ambitions ring hollow in light of her own. Ibsen does not rebuke her for not knowing her place, which would imply his endorsement of social barriers.

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Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen gives its audience a realistic portrayal of gender inequality and its consequences. Mrs. Helen Alving at first seems a traditional wife and mother of nineteenth-century drama. Her son finds her conventionality a bit constricting, and both Oswald and Pastor Manders admire her dead husband,  Captain Alving. We find out, though, several disconcerting details. Pastor Manders persuaded Mrs. Alving not to leave her husband early in their marriage. The reason in part was that Captain Alving had an affair with a servant and fathered an illegitimate daughter, Regina. Even worse, Captain Alving passed on hereditary syphilis to his son. The more we discover, the more we sense that Mrs. Alving, far from being a weak and conventional woman, is a strong woman left on her own to fix problems created by the irresponsibility of her husband and tacit collusion of Pastor Manders.

In Regina, we also see how the role of women, in which their only way of improving their lives is by upward marriage, causes them to be complicit in their own oppression. She, like Mrs. Alving, plays the role of woman as victim and as an object of sexual desire.

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