Haunted: Syphilis and Corruption

The corruption from Oedipus Rex and Arthur Mervyn follows us to Ibsen’s Ghosts

The Alving household is built on corruption and lies. These constituents do not simply subside and die with Captain Alving. Instead, they lead to the appearance of ghosts who inhabit the house and prevent the past from being forgotten. Therefore the ghosts are a symbol of punishment for the overflow of corruption, which is portrayed in Captain Alving’s iniquitous behavior of philandering and drinking and in Helene’s buildup of lies as she tries to protect her son from his dad’s wickedness and to maintain her family’s decent reputation. Helene’s corruption is also shown through her investment in building an Orphanage with all of her husband’s money, which is deceiving since one might think it is an act of altruism when in fact her sole motive was to protect her son from his father’s money.

According to Helene, the whole country of Norway is filled with ghosts since ghosts reside within the sinners and the sinners constitute the whole country.

“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 haunt 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.” (Ibsen, II pp.126)

One of the ghosts’ ways of punishment is by taking the form of an inherited disease. Apparently, Oswald suffered from constant headaches as a child. When combining all the symptoms of Oswald’s disease, such as neck stiffness, disorientation, and temporary paralysis, it was found that his most probable disease is congenital neurosyphilis, especially since in the 19th century, during the time the play was written, syphilis had become widespread. Oswald, according to “one of the leading doctors” in Paris, is “vermoulu” since birth.

“The sins of the fathers are visited upon the children.” (Ibsen, pp.138)

Oswald inherits syphilis from his father as he bears the consequences of the latter’s wicked behavior in the past. This situation is parallel to Oedipus’s inevitable fate of killing his father and coupling with his mother as he also has to suffer from his parents’ corruption.

In addition, the ghosts of the story contribute to the gloomy setting of the play. Oswald despises Norway since it is always dark and there is incessant rain. He also mentions that he does not remember ever seeing the sun there, whereas in Paris, away from his family’s corruption, it is always sunny. After the last memory of Captain Alving, the Orphanage, is burnt to the ground and Helene discloses her husband’s true identity to Oswald, the sun finally begins to rise and the weather clears. By then, however, “Oswald shrinks in his chair [and] all his muscles go flaccid”. His last request is to be given the sun. He repeats, over and over:

“The sun… the sun…” (Ibsen pp.163,164)

By the time the Alving household becomes free of corruption and lies, it is too late…

Christy Connor Caroline


 Add your comment
  1. Check the following site to read more about Oswald’s disease and its relation to the context of the play:

  2. I love the line “It is challenging to medically evaluate the illness of a fictional character such as Oswald Alving, …” We should take that as a class motto. T-Shirts?

    That’s a really useful link, Christy. Thanks.

  3. In the ‘Dermanities’ link above Hoenig claims that a “current understanding of syphilis transmission would explain that Captain Alving first infected his wife, who then transmitted the spirochete to her unborn son, via the placenta, during pregnancy.” Which is a really interesting development in our understanding of the disease, and sheds new light on our reading of the text.

    Formerly, the transmission of the disease was understood as passing from father to son. The wife was then seen as victim to the social circumstances surrounding the contraction of the disease in but not herself infected. With this new understanding of the disease, we now see that she is similarly infected by the disease which stands for moral corruption.

    This dichotomous reading of the lines of infection mirrors the two ways of understanding the protagonist, the mother. The understanding of the time when the play was written would imply that she was not infected (and inherently ‘punished’) by the same disease of corruption, embodied in syphilis. Rather she was victim of the circumstances. Or rather, as the reader now understands, she is a carrier of the disease, which would imply that she has fallen to the traps of moral corruption of her husband and son, in sending her son abroad to preserve the family name and tried to cleanse herself of guilt by building an orphanage.

    Also, on the point regarding weather, Ibsen neatly bookends the play with depictions of weather, in the opening exchange between Regine and Engstrand he comments, “It’s God’s own rain, my child.” A claim that she quickly rejects, “More like the devil’s, you mean.” The first line, where he addresses her as “my child” is particularly loaded in the light of the coming revelation that Engstrand is not actually her father. I wouldn’t argue however that their contrasting views on the rain are a blatant metaphor for their difference because Oswald and his birth mother similarly differ on their views about the weather. Her comments (and her use of French in the rest of the scene) instead resemble Oswald’s complaints and his experience in France later in conversations with his mother.

  4. Just a quick note discussing the ideas from class on “Why syphilis?” (not something you say everyday!)
    Syphilis firstly is a great taboo. Since it is not openly talked about, it is good for dramatists as a hidden, but acknowledged theme. As it is there in the background, one may say it is like a ghost!
    The congenital nature of syphilis means an innocent, moral character can still be affected; linking to Oswald who may or may not have had congenital syphilis and though apparently moral is still affected by ‘plagues of society’.
    As an STD, the theme of sexual relations and sexual double standards is addressed. The general social views, given through the various characters, can be expressed.
    Furthermore, as Tom said, the idea of Mrs Alving being a carrier gives her a greater inclusion in the final situation of Oswald – is she a victim or is she as morally corrupt as everyone else?
    To end on a question, do you think syphilis is used because of it’s physical attributes or is it just a metaphor for moral corruption?

  5. In this review of a staging of the play, I found an interesting critique of how the actress portraying Mrs. Alving delivers the line “my beloved son.” Who is to say whether or not Ibsen intended the line to be delivered in a cold manner? The critic believes the acting in this staging lacks the bond that should take place between both the audience and Mrs. Alving and Mrs. Alving and her son. What do you think?


  6. Following Tom’s comment that Captain Alving first transmits his disease and corruption to his wife Helene and then to his son suggests that he is the source of the spread of the infection. The fact that it is only the sins of the fathers and not the mothers that are visited upon the children further implies that the male sex is causing this spread. This can also be associated with Oswald’s “joy of life” in Paris, which most probably represents his philandering as he follows his father’s footsteps. Hence, since he holds his father’s disease, and this disease is transmitted sexually, then Oswald is also a source of the spread. Moreover, there is a pattern throughout the books that we have read regarding the male sex being the source of disease. For example, in one of the passages from Arthur Mervyn that we have discussed in class, the narrator mentions that the plague “killed the men” in the streets. From that, I have posted, earlier on the blog, a map that depicts the percent of female-leading households in the city of Philadelphia, representing the abundance of men killed throughout the plague.

    Moreover, I really find it interesting how Sam links the taboo of syphilis in Norway during the 19th century with the disease being one of the main themes of the play. As Mrs. Alving claims in her monologue on page 126, “we are all abysmally afraid of the light”, people fear to talk about syphilis and similar intercourses with the public, and therefore, as a response to such conditions during that period of time, Ibsen decides to make this taboo the center of discussion in the play, to overcome this fear, in a way..

  7. Diana, that review of the play is pretty cool. It’s strange to think about how this play is still being staged and interpreted 100 years later, and it really deals with the question of genre. The reviewer seemed to like Manders and Mrs. Alving’s performances, but not Oswald’s, which is interesting because it would seem to put emphasis on those two characters based on the skill of the actors, rather than just the strength of their dialogue, as we experienced by only reading the play. Viewers would probably pay more attention to Manders and Mrs. Alving and see them as more of the main characters. As far as genre, it seems from the reviewer’s description that Oswald’s actor was playing more of a melodramatic role, overemphasizing all of the emotions of “mad-ness” that his character was supposed to display. The other actors, however, seemed to be more subtle in their portrayals, Mrs. Alving being especially close to (what I, at least, got from) the text; though Manders was subject to several creative interpretations such as his accent and his mannerisms which we never could have known by reading the book. The important role of this being written as a play, then, seems to be that it can be interpreted again and again by new actors and directors and set-makers, even a century later. It’s as though the document is a skeleton (or a ghost?) that can be brought to life in many different ways, to remain relevant and entertaining to its current audience.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.