Henrik Ibsen was a well-known Norwegian playwright whose plays provide a critical view on 19th-century morality, especially as it pertains to womanhood. His other plays, Hedda Gabler and A Doll’s House, both discuss the social norms at the time, which treated women like household objects, potential topics of scandal if they behaved out of the norm. Many of his plays were scandalous at the time, with some theatres refusing to perform his plays in order to not encourage social misbehavior. A Doll’s House, for example, has an alternative ending made by German theatres that implies an eventual reunion between the “dissenting” protagonist, Nora, and her husband, but Ibsen (like most modern audiences) did not consider this a useful or a valid alternative to the themes of his plays. Indeed it can be considered that the outcry against his work, the attempts to hush up taboo subjects such as venereal disease, incest, and female freedom, is precisely in line with the social norms that Ibsen wanted to dredge up and expose to light so that the audience has no choice but to face them. Ibsen’s plays have therefore gained a reputation for being “realistic,” no matter how disquieting the truths may be, and some see them as among the earliest literary case studies for the “modern woman” and “Electra complex.”
Ibsen’s Ghosts is set in late-19th-century Norway in the Alving household. The beginning of the play is set on the day before the opening of “Captain Alving Memorial,” an orphanage Helen Alving — the widow of the Captain — is determined to open in his memory. Upon her meeting with Pastor Manders, who had been helping with the plans for the memorial, she reveals to him that her marriage was far from perfect. Her husband, regarded with respect by the people of his town, had been unfaithful, yet she had stayed with him to prevent a scandal. She then reveals to him that Regine, Mrs. Alving’s maid, who at the beginning of the play was introduced as the daughter of Engstrand, a carpenter helping with the orphanage, is in fact Captain Alving’s bastard child. Captain Alving had an affair with their maid, who soon became pregnant, and Mrs. Alving paid the nurse to begin a relationship with Engstrand and raise the girl as his. Once Alving died, his widow used all his money to build the orphanage, hoping that once it was built and running her son would not inherit anything from his father and they will finally be free.
Throughout the course of their conversation, the two witness Regine and Oswald, Mrs. Alving’s son, seemingly in a relationship. Stunned, Mrs Alving and Manders try to end the relationship, since the two are siblings, even though they do not know it. Although his mother tries to convince him to end the relationship, Oswald believes that Regine is his salvation. He confesses to his mother that he has been diagnosed with a hereditary illness, and as his father was a great man, he believes he must have contracted Syphilis due to his questionable way of life in Paris.
As Mrs. Alving contemplates telling Oswald the truth, they suddenly learn that the orphanage had burned down. This only worsens his agony, and his mother finally decides to end his pain and tells him and Regine the truth about their father. Once the truth is revealed, Regine leaves, adding further to Oswald’s pain. Mrs. Alving, determined to care for her son afterwards is shocked when he asks her to help give him a fatal morphine overdose if his disease reaches its final stages. The play then ends in a dramatic scene in which Mrs. Alving is confronted with this decision as her son’s disease quickly progresses.
Ghosts, very likely by design, raises many questions of morality, namely what purpose it serves for the people. Is morality merely a product of society in order to preserve itself? Or is there a universal virtue of morality that seems to fail in special — but possibly common — circumstances? If morality is an important guideline that people should follow, to what extent is it valid across both circumstance and time?
In terms of our overarching theme of Contagion, these questions are undoubtedly in regards to contagion of social norms, especially through generations. The ghosts of the norm created by those that came before us create a society’s burden, which affect us far more realistically and directly than the ghosts of the dead themselves. Can we ever escape from these ghosts? Have we, as a modern society, learnt to recognize and concede to them? Or are we doomed like Oswald, bound to death by burdens that realistically should have no bearing on us?
Ibsen presents many different aspects of his characters, particularly those of women. There is an inherent sacrificial and selfless element that is an expectation in each of the female characters. Was Mrs. Alving a devoted wife, a responsible mother? Was Regine wrong to not agree to leave with her father, knowing fully well that he was a deceitful person? This paper divides itself to spell out features of an ideal woman, as a person, a daughter, a mother and a wife. But no matter how one acts in the scenario presented, it is almost impossible to fit the “ideal” image. This is particularly evident when analyzing Mrs. Alving’s character. From a societal point of view, there is an expectation to hide the flaws of one’s husband and present the best possible image. Yet, when reading the play, there is an urge that one has to stop Mrs. Alving from presenting such a false reputation of her husband to the entire world. This paper walks us through the many ways that the women of the play try hard to fit the criteria of “perfection,” but fail to do so not because of their shortcomings, but because of the preposterous expectations of society.
In relation to a previous post on Ghosts, the overarching theme of 19th-century immorality is what encapsulates the entire character of ghosts in the play. With inadvertent critiques on filial piety, or societal standards constantly being made such as those found within Ibsen’s work, the shackles of the past are slowly loosened. As with Regine, social standards are questioned, and within time society will soon disregard them, but as with any contagious disease, if it’s not fought it will once again prevail.