Ghosts work from home. Apart from the Flying Dutchman’s crew and the Wild Hunt, ghosts, ghouls, and other phantoms are homebodies, content to stick to one place to carry out their spooky business. Captain Alving is such a ghost, tormenting his long-suffering wife throughout the action of Ibsen’s Ghosts.
Ibsen keeps Alving’s ghost in one place by structuring the play with reference to Aristotle’s “classical unities” of action, time, and place in dramatic tragedy. The time of the play is uncertain- the place however remains the same. This form of drama resembles quarantine- by enforcing strict boundaries in the form of the play, Ibsen tries to contain Alving’s sins to his lonely country estate by the fjords, a quarantine-like focus that reduces the chances of the audience catching the impression that this tragedy happened because of any reasons other than Alving’s original actions.
The setting also prevents the fallout of his sins on the larger community beyond the Alving family, burning down his memorial to society. The orphanage was destroyed quite quickly after it was constructed; something to be grateful about, for if it had survived for too long, the memories of the place would spread, and Alving’s ghostly contagion would proliferate. Albert Speer, the Nazi architect, designed around “Ruin Value“, an architectural idea that called for buildings of the Third Reich to last for a long time and to remain aesthetically pleasing while ruined-the most oppressive ghosts of World War Two. Promoting Captain Alving through an orphanage built around the Ruin Value principle is a deeply distasteful thought. Thus, with Engstrand’s smoking match, Ibsen burned the orphanage.
The audience can see how structural failures in Danish patriarchal society force the necessity of a literary quarantine in Ghosts, a failure that permitted Alving to make his wife’s life a misery and brand his sins on his son’s brain. Syphilis is often called the “great imitator” (NSFW images in article, view at own risk) as its presence resembles the symptoms of other disease. Syphilis, like a ghost, is also perfectly happy to wait, as in its latent form, it can haunt the afflicted for years before manifesting in tertiary stage of the disease, a stage at which the victim is no longer infectious. Oswald cannot pass this disease on, and the contagion has been contained in his central nervous system, at the expense of Oswald’s life, Regine’s marriage, and Mrs Alving’s happiness.