While the first act of Henrik Ibsen’s play Ghosts strikes as though it were leading towards a strong social commentary on feminism and gender issues, Ibsen abruptly shows us that his play is far more complicated. Far beyond a commentary on gendered realities, Ghosts is a chaotic, perhaps even irreverent, tale of incest, excess and debauchery, adultery, lies, and ultimately, disease.
Throughout his play, it’s as though Ibsen were consciously manipulating readers’ sympathies towards his characters. Whereas in the first act, it seems that Ibsen’s gearing our sympathies towards the women of the play and towards Oswald — who escaped the conventionalism of his town in order to study the frowned upon pathway of art — as soon as the second act begins, we’re meant to lose our trust in him, since he appears to be following his father’s steps in sexually harassing Regina, the maid. At one point, Ibsen has us vouching for Mrs. Alving, but towards the end she becomes a character we can very well resent.
How does Ibsen play around with our sympathies and for what purpose? Ultimately, who does he want us to sympathize with the most? Are we meant to sympathize more with one character than another? Or is the message actually that we can’t judge people based on the sympathies we hold in one moment?
There is so much chaos in the play, that it’s easy to get lost. What is ultimately the most essential message in the play? Is it that lying always leads to chaos? Is it that living a life primarily concerned with external opinions is a one-way-ticket to misery? Is it a critique to extremely conventional religiosity/Catholicism?
For Pastor Manders, the only reason not to insure the orphanage was that if people found out, they would certainly turn against him. His obsessive concern with others views leads the orphanage to become an irreparable loss after it’s burnt. Mr. Alving’s debauchery led his marriage to be a disaster, but convinced by Pastor Manders, Mrs. Alving decided to stay with him for as long as he lived, so as to prevent gossip in town. She was willing to let go of her 7-year old Oswald just to prevent gossip! Besides Johanna and Mr. Alving, no other names are mentioned in the play. Why are Mrs. Alving and Pastor Manders so concerned with how others see them if these others are so irrelevant that they don’t even have names?
And lastly, the narrative of venereal disease. It’s only in the final pages that we discover that Oswald suffers of a venereal disease. Contrary to the other pieces we’ve read, where our narrators and main characters are merely witnesses of disease, in Ghosts, we’re exposed to disease first-hand. We’re inside one of the infected homes and we see what it means for Oswald to be sick. One by one, characters start leaving the house: first Pastor Manders and Engstrand, finally Regina. But the only characters that remain are the diseased and his mother. Such is his suffering that Oswald urges his mother to assist him in suicide/kill him.
Never in the play does Ibsen specify Syphilis, making it clear to the audience and readers that the topic is a taboo. Ibsen is bringing up STDs without specifically saying it. Regardless, when the play was first published and performed it received very negative critiques. Why do people consciously choose to shut off discussion upon pressing topics that deal with contagion and sex? Why is contagion a taboo, instead of something people can freely talk about? Isn’t this only leading towards a more diseased society, instead of one that can possibly be cured?
Listen to this song because it’s hilarious (and all the more irreverent) (and it does exactly the opposite from keeping sex and disease taboo):