The Truth Will Set Us Free… Or Will It?

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Ghosts tells the story of the Alving household.  Oswald, a young artist living in Paris, comes back to his mother’s house just in time for the inauguration of an orphanage in memory of his father, Captain Alving.  Shortly before the opening, widow Helene Alving confesses to Pastor Manders that she has been hiding her husband’s vices in order to save her family’s reputation, and that the orphanage is a way of ending the rumors about his debauchery.  A chain of lies is then revealed and we are confronted with the inheritance of guilt, the appeal of immorality, and with the tension that arises when society compromises the truth in order to maintain the social order.

Oswald states that “all [he remembers] about [his father] is that he once made [him] sick” (pg. 158). through imposing him the smoking of a cigarette. The smoking and cheating that went on in the house caused Mrs. Alving to fear that her son “would somehow be poisoned simply by breathing the foul air of [the] polluted house” (pg. 118). Captain Alvin’s debauchery ends up not only polluting the household but also the inside the of his son’s mind, Oswald, in the form of Neurosyphilis. The play’s failure to identify Oswald’s disease, Syphilis, acts as a social commentary criticizing society’s taboo against immorality.

“Ghosts. When I heard Regine and Oswald in there, it was just 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.” (pg. 126)

A universal truth is explained: we are afraid to face the truth and come to terms with our hypocrisies. After the truth is set free, the sun finally appears in the play. The legacy of Captain Alvin contributes to the echo of immoral practices that plagues the Alving household, but the ghosts do not stop there. The ghosts that haunt us are our own selves and our tendency to act immorally. They plague Mrs. Alving when she lies to cover up the ugly truth with ideals. They plague Oswald when he pursues a level of incest with Regine — regardless of the knowledge (cue Oedipus). They plague Engstrand when he blackmails Pastor Manders to fulfill his dreams of creating a Seamen’s Home.

In the climax, Mrs. Alving untangles the web of lies she has set up around her. Regine finds out she is Captain Alving’s illicit child, and Oswald gets to know that his syphilis is inherited. Mrs. Alving can finally be at peace. She broke the shackles of social norms that expected her to be an obedient wife and protective mother and that oppressed her for so long. However, the revelation that Mrs. Alving makes is bittersweet. Once sweet Regine turns out to be a calculating woman, who hoped “to make the most of things” and enjoy “this joy of life” (pg. 156) by getting involved with Oswald. Oswald admits plainly that although he doesn’t love his mother “at least [he] knows [her]” and she could be “extremely useful” to him. And as the sun rises and “the glaciers…and mountains gleam in the morning light” (pg. 163), Oswald suffers a major relapse, which leaves him mumbling “the sun” (pg. 164) repeatedly. The lies were unraveled, but did this bring any good? Mrs. Alving loses her orphanage, the services of Regine, and the support of Pastor, and is faced with the decision to euthanize her own child. She is a ruined woman.

Ibsen criticizes the lies that pervade society, but he leaves us with a question: Was the outcome of revealing the truth favorable over concealing the truth with ideals? There may be something attractive about Ms. Alving’s world of lies relative to her new state: lies are contagious because they are so sweet.


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  1. Hi all.

    Your question in the last paragraph of whether revealing the truth is more favorable than “concealing the truth with ideals” seems to be irrelevant to the play, if you are also considering at the same time that each character’s outcome was fateful despite any action they took to prevent it. In this manner, whether or not Ms. Alving chose to conceal the lies or not is unimportant to this context, except for the fact that this decision happened. The argument that many furthered in class that Oswald’s actions were predetermined by the inheritance of his father’s sickness and character and household are clear arguments against this sort of reasoning. Does it really matter whether the truth sets anyone free on Ibsen’s Ghosts, when we don’t even know what the truth means? Can the truth become something concrete in this context? Does it really matter that Ms. Alving’s revelation has forced her to come to terms with the ugly and dark reality of the past, if you are arguing at the same time that she was going to come to terms with them anyways? The more interesting question you face is what it means to confront the truth, and not simply in the framework of whether it is a good or bad decision.

    The metaphor of the sun as the truth is interesting. Even though the play is centered around Mrs. Alving’s interactions, the greatest search for truth lies in Oswald’s life outside of the play, which we only get to see the end of in the play. Oswald cries for the sun on his deathbed, while his mother cries for him. It is hard to tell what connotation the sun has. The sun could be a harsh, overbearing presence, unrelentlessly beating down on sensitive Norwegian fishermen and aristocrats. The sun could be the seeping warmth, bringing in long-awaited liveliness and nourishment and bringing people out of their homes. The sun could be the fire.

    • The point you raise regarding the conflict between fate and choice is a valid one. However, I really want to push the issue of what does the truth means in the play and what does it mean to confront it. During our discussions, we have looked at the tension that exists in the play between plain and polite speech by noting the constant use of euphemisms and elipses as well as the interactions and attitudes of various characters. An example of this is the Pastor’s permissiveness towards the Captain and Oswald in contrast to his harshness when it comes to judge Helene. With this in mind, what is understood by truth and how is it confronted in Ibsen’s play? I think that the truth is something being disputed in the play, as we are presented a “truth” elaborated and enforced by society and one which is spoused by particular characters, which is in turn much more revolutionary. Therefore, in this case, confronting the truth would mean undergoing a certain degree of change. This conflict is used by Ibsen to show us that keeping with tradition might be harmful, since he is making an argument for the abolishment of certain conservative institutions, customs and attitudes.

  2. In class, we spent time discussing morality and irony, both of which were brought up in your conveyers’ post. We talked of the Pastor’s morality, questioning his hypocrisy and whether or not he operates only in his own self-interest. We also mentioned Mrs. Alving’s and Engstrand’s intentions to discuss their ethical standards. Other things we found important to discuss were the themes of duty and family. One thing that I thought was extremely important to mention, however, was Ibsen’s purpose for writing this play, which was not mentioned in our conversation. After a little research, I was fascinated by the fact that the play was originally titled “A Family Drama.” This, too me, is pretty darn ironic too. When you think of family dramas, you think of love, affection, togetherness and generosity. But in ‘Ghosts’, we’ve got nothing but talk of duty, illness, sex, prostitution, incest, ghosts, euthanasia and morally rotten priests.

    Was Ibsen trying to be funny, or was he trying to break down the fairytale that ‘family’ had come to be in previous literary works? Was he trying to break down societal notions of what a middle class family consists of? Evidently, the playwright found it in everyone’s best interest to be realistic whereas human relationships and psyche are concerned. I think this is an important element of the play that should be further discussed in our class. You conveyers would be the perfect group to further analyze Isben’s intentions so that we have a better idea about the context of the play.

  3. “You have built up a beautiful illusion in your son’s mind, Mrs. Alving . . . and really, that’s something you shouldn’t underestimate” (125).

    Instead of tackling the problem of the truth vs. ideals and which one is better, I think a better question to ask is what motivates characters in this play. At first glance, two key contradictory belief systems are at play: the old, reactionary, ossified network of religiously enforced gender-normative patriarchy, represented by Pastor Manders; and the new, modern, liberal mentality, an outlook full of “joy of life,” represented by Oswald, and to an extent his mother as well. An exemplary moment of these tensions can be found in Pastor Manders’ statement on page 113: “All this demanding to be happy in life, it’s all part of this same wanton idea. What right have people to happiness? No, we have our duty to do Mrs. Alving! And your duty was to stand by the man …”

    However, once we look at the characters’ motives and courses of action in specific situations, we find something they all have in common: an underlying discourse that pervades both spheres. It is a need to keep up appearances and an almost pathological fear of “misrepresenting” (104) or “giving people the wrong impression” (105). Even though Pastor Manders appears to be a rigid and principled man – and his rhetoric dependent on buzzwords like “duty,” “respect,” and “proper place” – even he is revealed to be very pliant in situations that require delicacy in order to maintain a good social standing. Let me give a few examples of what I mean.

    On page 117, Mrs. Alving says: “And then I had to battle twice as hard, fight tooth to nail to prevent anybody from knowing what sort of person my child’s father was.” Although she did not attempt to challenge the social norms by escaping again or by taking her son away from his father, she claims she fought a battle. But it was a battle against gossip, a battle to maintain a beautiful illusion.

    Or when Engstrand explains on page 131 how a pregnant girl became his wife: “[T]hen I married her properly and set her on her feet again, so as nobody would get to know about her carrying on with foreigners.” He had to “raise the fallen” and uphold the social order by submitting to its norms, but more importantly, it was all to keep the tongues from wagging.

    And for the hat-trick, an exchange between Pastor Manders and Engstrand on page 150, just after the Orphanage had burned down, where the former comments: “I don’t suppose the papers are going to let you off very lightly, Pastor.” The response? “No, that’s just what I’m thinking. That’s just about the worst part of the whole affair. All these spiteful accusations and insinuations. . . !” A charitable institution was destroyed (one that was not insured because of Pastor Manders, mind you), Mrs. Alving lost all her investments, but the worst part of the whole affair seems to be the subsequent gossip. This (too), I think, was the object of Ibsen’s criticism.

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