Ghosts is a play written by Henrik Ibsen in 1881 and was first staged in 1882. The play is shown to have critical views on 19th century immorality, which then breaks off to further factors that follow underneath this main idea. The overarching theme of immorality forms a throughline across the various topics the play touches on, the larger of which are STDs, sins, incest, and euthanasia. Not counting euthanasia, the way the play talks about these topics draws on the language of inheritance and links it to the wider motif of ‘ghosts,’ forces from the past that have a force on the present. Thus we know that Oswald wishes his illness was inherited instead of acquired, that his interest in Regine is immoral because they both have the same father, and that the shadow of the father’s sins seems to materialize itself in fire with the burning of the orphanage built using the money Oswald would have inherited.
Another underlying theme related to immorality is the role of ethics in this play. With the sins of one’s parents, the act of unfaithful affairs, and the role of ending one’s suffering, we should ask to what extent are all these situations and themes ethical? Both in modern day’s time and in the 19th century? Additionally, try and think about the transmission of not just disease, but of sins and tragedies as well. How can we connect the affairs of Oswald’s dead father to his own tragedies? Of Mrs. Alving keeping all her husband’s affairs secret and away from her own son, to Oswald’s shortcoming in the end? There is a line and history we can connect between immorality and the transmission of disease that can illustrate different perspectives and aspects of the story within Ghosts.
We should also consider the ethics and role of euthanasia within the text, the painless killing of a patient suffering from an incurable and/or painful disease. In the end of Ibsen’s play, Oswald requests his mother the difficult task of ending his life through a morphine overdose, if the time of his utmost suffering shall come. In addition to the ethics of one given the role to end a person’s disease-ridden life, what does it mean to have one’s own mother fulfil that role? Does the immorality of a person ending another’s somewhat vegetative life suddenly lessen if it is the mother ending her own son’s suffering? How can we even consider and determine a person’s suffering if we ourselves are not that person?
Overall, the overlying theme within Ibsen’s Ghosts is the topic of 19th century immorality. We break immorality within this play into different mini-themes, such as the transmission of STDs, the act of sinning, incest, and euthanasia. Moreover, we discussed the interplay of ethics and morality within all these themes and question what is the difference between ethics and morality? Are they different or the same?