What does it mean to be alive? Aside from the physiological component, to be alive can be understood to have the capacity to feel and experience a wide range of emotions. The way in which we respond to these emotions can be seen as a determinant of how we live our lives and what we classify as significant.
In Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts, it is evident that the character that is the embodiment of being alive is Mrs. Alving. On numerous occasions she experiences such raw emotions, which cannot be said for any of the other characters. We see that she has a strong affinity to her son, a daughter-like sentiment for Regina, and an undoubtable romantic connection to Manders. The way she feels emotion is unlike anyone else in the play and this is due to the fact all of the other characters represent ghost-like figures in Mrs. Alving’s life. They are all examples of temporariness, a lack of dependability and transparency – they all seem to torment Mrs Alving and hinder her life trajectory, yet she is somehow so emotionally bound to her ghosts and cannot seem to evade them.
“Ghosts. When I heard Regine and Oswald in there, it was jut like seeing ghosts. But then I’m inclined to think that we are all ghosts, Pastor Manders, every one of us. It’s not just what we inherit from our mothers and fathers that haunts us. It’s all kinds of old defunct theories, all sorts of old defunct beliefs, and things like that. It’s not that they actually live on in us; they are simply lodged there, and we cannot get rid of them. I’ve only to pick up a newspaper and I seem to see ghosts gliding between the lines. Over the whole country there must be ghosts, as numerous as the sands of the sea. And here we are, all of us, abysmally afraid of the light.” (p. 126)
See minute 48:43 – 49:43
Firstly, let’s look at Engstrand, who seems to be the most malicious ghost of all and an impediment in Mrs Alvin’s world. His shrewdness and cunningness liken him to a ghost, as he brings about troubles in a way that is so sneaky and evasive that his actions almost come across as being supernaturally based. The perfect example of this is the fire incident, when he encourages Manders to hold a prayer meeting, which results in the burning down of the Orphanage – which he uses to his advantage in terms of establishing his seaman’s hotel.
Secondly, Manders – the Ghost of What Could Have Been. The romantic sentiment Mrs Alving has for Manders is undeniable:
Mrs Alving: “I thought you realized where my heart, as you put it, had strayed at that time”
Manders: If I had realized anything of the kind, I would not have been a daily guest in your husband’s house” (p.123)
He is the embodiment of the love Mrs. Alving’s has always yearned for, and what she would have been content with in another reality, and so Mander’s presence torments her, like that of a ghost, though he acts as a confidant to whom she reveals her deepest and darkest secrets, and who’s company she seems to enjoy, despite his undermining her ability as a wife and mother.
Thirdly, Regine. From the onset, Regine’s permanency is challenged, with the presentation of the opportunity to work at her suppose father’s seaman’s hotel. Though she refuses, and for the duration of the play is seen as constant and faithful to her post as Mrs Alving’s worker, we see the fickleness and ghost-like qualities of her character when she is told the truth about her father, and almost immediately seeks to obtain her inheritance. This demonstrates the two-sided nature of her character, and her departure, once she has what she wants, is as seamless as that of a ghost. The lack of emotional attachment or concern also relates to her ghostliness, and alludes to the idea that on the inside, she seems to be devoid of emotion. Regine also acts a daily reminder of the ghost of Mr Alving, as she is the product of his sins and misdeeds.
Finally, the most ironic ghost of all is Oswald – the son of Mrs Alving. Oswald seems to be his father resurrected. His sickness, which can be seen to come from the sin of his father as “the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children” (p.138), and his wrongdoings, which are in direct reflection of those of his father, demonstrate that he has become what his mother has tried so painstakingly to prevent him from becoming. He is indeed the ghost of his father and what makes it ironic is that he – who is most ghostlike relative to all the other ghost figures in the play – is Mrs Alving’s attachment to him and her non-willingness to let this kind of ghost, go, despite that her efforts to keep him pure and proper have gone in vain. It is possible that her strong motherly love towards him has clouded her better judgement, and so when he is becoming an actual ghost, as he goes into “the sun…the sun” (p. 164), she is left isolated in a state of pure hopelessness, as she has already lost Regine and to some extent, Manders.
Can you think of any to other instances of ghostliness? What about the wrongly attributed credit of the foundation and operation of the orphanage being given to Mr Alving instead of Mrs Alving? Can this be seen to have some ghostly connection? Can you think of any others?
Finally, some questions to keep in mind as you continue to read:
- Can you think of any beliefs, characters or instances in the novel that can be perceived as ghostly? (As above)
- Ethically, is it wrong to lie to your children?
- Looking at Regina’s reaction, is Mrs. Alving’s not telling her the truth about her father justified?
- What role do relationships have in the play in building tension?