Ibsen and fatherhood

Our discussions of Ibsen’s use of congenital syphilis in Ghosts raises the specter of the absent father, whose sexual excesses have literally infected his family. Unlike his earlier play A Doll’s House, this play’s father figure is off stage throughout. He’s already dead before the play starts, so we’re living with his legacy, figured as inheritance, in monetary terms, in public reputation, and in physical and moral health. The critic Jørgen Lorentzen, writing in general about representations of fatherhood in Ibsen plays, begins his study with a set of questions that might guide our discussion on this topic. “I can hardly think of a more pervasive motif in Ibsen’s works than fatherhood,” he writes, though he acknowledges that we more often focus on Ibsen’s famous female protagonists, such as Nora (in A Doll’s House) or Mrs. Alving.

However, fatherhood is not what most of us associate with Ibsen’s dramas. Most of us think of women who fight for the right to a life of freedom or heroic men who become embroiled in great moral battles related to truth, freedom, power, suppression, and bourgeois double standards of morality. The reason for this is rather obvious. Ibsen’s dramas do not explicitly deal with fatherhood. It is not the relationship between fathers and their children that comprise the dramatic plot. Fatherhood lies in the background, ahead of the drama and underlying the dramatic interactions and scenes. Fatherhood is pervasive, yet kept discreetly in the background. This makes it even more fascinating to study. What is it that leads Ibsen to dramatize so consistently the relationship between father and child without fully developing it as a theme? In what ways are issues of fatherhood part of the realistic discourse on truth, freedom, and other issues under discussion?

Later in the piece he makes plain his interest in Ibsen’s fathers and not just male/female relations:

Quite simply, Ibsen wanted to explore the dramatic workings of the family … specifically the relationship between mother, father, and child—not just between the woman and man or the relationship between the adults. The children occupy a deliberate and central place in both plays, with an emphasis on how children are wounded to their core in the bourgeois family drama.

If you’re interested, you can find the rest of Lorentzen’s piece here. For now I’m willing just to entertain these issues as we continue our discussions this week.

Image: David Claudon, 1/2-inch scale model of the set of Ghosts (c. 1967).


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  1. I think an interesting point to raise following on from our discussions is the role of each character and certain characters believing they have duties based on how their relationships. As you say, family duty is commented on throughout the book.
    The main character I would like to focus on is Mrs Alving. I believe she is the protagonist in the play since she has a relationship and knowledge of all the other characters and plays a part in their actions. As a wife, she felt duty bound to stay with her husband, particularly after Pastor Manders commands, even though she did not love him and he ‘approached’ the servant girl. This duty as a wife is also linked to her duty to her son, Oswald. She wants to care for her son and sends him away as protection from the dysfunctional family. (Page 118) On his return, they are out of touch with one another, yet Mrs Alving still feels she must care for him as his illness takes hold at the end of the book. Furthermore, Mrs Alving treats Regine as a part of the household/family and desires to care for and protect her, e.g. when it is said that she must return to her ‘father’.
    I feel Mrs Alving is portrayed as a victim, having to suffer through “terrible ordeals”. Although strength is shown as she works through these problems, Pastor Manders talks condescendingly to Mrs Alving, apparently with authority on her life both past and present. He is a figure of the church, yet he acts selfishly throughout the book, only thinking about his own reputation.
    Father figures are not depicted in a good light. Engstrand is an unreliable, often drunk man who only wants his ‘daughter’ to return home to him to care for him in his old age. Oswald’s father is an unloving husband, who suffered from syphilis – possibly a metaphorical plague of his immorality and corruption too.

  2. I suppose the question that arises from these portrayals is of the duty of women. Do women have a moral burden, and if so why? Are they instigators for the corruption in society?

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