19th Century Immorality & Co.

A clip from Ghosts, from the 2014 Richard Eyre production at the Almeida Theatre in London, featuring Lesley Manville as Helene and Adam Kotz as Manders.

Ghosts is a play written by Henrik Ibsen in 1881 and was first staged in 1882. The play is shown to have critical views on 19th century immorality, which then breaks off to further factors that follow underneath this main idea. The overarching theme of immorality forms a throughline across the various topics the play touches on, the larger of which are STDs, sins, incest, and euthanasia. Not counting euthanasia, the way the play talks about these topics draws on the language of inheritance and links it to the wider motif of ‘ghosts,’ forces from the past that have a force on the present. Thus we know that Oswald wishes his illness was inherited instead of acquired, that his interest in Regine is immoral because they both have the same father, and that the shadow of the father’s sins seems to materialize itself in fire with the burning of the orphanage built using the money Oswald would have inherited.

Another underlying theme related to immorality is the role of ethics in this play. With the sins of one’s parents, the act of unfaithful affairs, and the role of ending one’s suffering, we should ask to what extent are all these situations and themes ethical? Both in modern day’s time and in the 19th century? Additionally, try and think about the transmission of not just disease, but of sins and tragedies as well. How can we connect the affairs of Oswald’s dead father to his own tragedies? Of Mrs. Alving keeping all her husband’s affairs secret and away from her own son, to Oswald’s shortcoming in the end? There is a line and history we can connect between immorality and the transmission of disease that can illustrate different perspectives and aspects of the story within Ghosts.

We should also consider the ethics and role of euthanasia within the text, the painless killing of a patient suffering from an incurable and/or painful disease. In the end of Ibsen’s play, Oswald requests his mother the difficult task of ending his life through a morphine overdose, if the time of his utmost suffering shall come. In addition to the ethics of one given the role to end a person’s disease-ridden life, what does it mean to have one’s own mother fulfil that role? Does the immorality of a person ending another’s somewhat vegetative life suddenly lessen if it is the mother ending her own son’s suffering? How can we even consider and determine a person’s suffering if we ourselves are not that person?

Overall, the overlying theme within Ibsen’s Ghosts is the topic of 19th century immorality. We break immorality within this play into different mini-themes, such as the transmission of STDs, the act of sinning, incest, and euthanasia. Moreover, we discussed the interplay of ethics and morality within all these themes and question what is the difference between ethics and morality? Are they different or the same?


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  1. It’s interesting how you point out the idea of the transmission of physical disease with the addition of sin and tragedy. I was intrigued by what we talked about in class today with the idea of original sin, and that we all inherited corruption. This further strengthens the idea that our fate is out of our control. It seems that whatever happens with the characters that we read about, the result of their actions seems to be unrelated to the actions themselves. I would like to talk about the major affect that this has on the integrity of a piece of writing. If we know that the end of a story will be in tragedy because of the way that the storyline develops, doesn’t that take away from the main point in a sense? Even if the fate of our characters are woven into the purpose of our story, shouldn’t we try to refrain from relying on our characters’ demise and try to come up with a more original ending that would further strengthen our argument? Do you think that we should keep writing stories with essentially similar storylines, or should we venture out and explore new ideas to try to make more compelling stories? If the original sin has made us all inherit corruption, shouldn’t we work harder to construct our own ending?

  2. I like the way you ask this question, Mariam, by linking the stuff we’ve read to the idea that we’re currently writing our own stories/endings.

  3. Something that I’ve been thinking about is how central the issue of euthanasia is in the play. As readers who attempt to contextualize the situation in the 19th century, we assume that it is an issue because from a religious point of view, one could ask who gives both Mrs. Alving and Oswald the agency to take this decision.

    However, something interesting in the play is the fact that this issue does not come up until the very end. While Oswald does mention his chronic sickness — which we discussed is probably neurosyphilis — and mentions that his situation will deteriorate with time, he does not mention his desire to be euthanized once he reaches a vegetative state. It feels like this issue was not given enough room for debate in the play, in comparison to social image and gender roles (although the decision to euthanize could relate to what society would think…).

    I was wondering what people think about this issue in specific.

    • To clarify, what I meant to say is that Oswald mentioned his sickness before but doesn’t bring up euthanasia until much later.

    • I think you are absolutely right in that it isn’t touched on until the very end! And your analysis of it from a religious point of view makes sense considering Manders’s constant presence in the play, both physically and morally.

      One thing I can add is that the play’s discussion about euthanasia comes at a symbolic moment where they door is locked and no one can leave or come in, according to Oswald. There is a symbolic shutting-off of society that could potentially be related to the issue of social norms and taboos, and might explain why Oswald doesn’t bring the topic up.

      I do agree with you in that the problem is sidelined and seems like a tangent in relation to other problems.

  4. The issue of euthanasia is an interesting one in the context of Ghosts, as the audience never really finds out whether Mrs. Alving euthanized her own son or not. As Julian mentioned, the issue of euthanasia is linked to taboos, adding to the notion of social norms and values. Yet, I also think that perhaps the idea of euthanasia came up so briefly at the end so as to leave the audience thinking about what they would have done in this situation. After all, as Mariam mentioned, endings are often predictable, and ending in a cliffhanger-like situation is not uncommon.

  5. Just some food for thought:

    As I was looking up things about Ibsen, I stumbled across the interview with Richard Eyre, director of Ghosts at the BAM Harvey Theater. Eyre discussed the purpose of art. He argued that “there is something about art that actually is a way of putting yourself in the mind of the other” and he goes on to say that in successful plays all the characters become “the other.” If we view Ghosts under this lens where each character is “the other” then it seems that none of the characters fit the norm of the social group. I thought this was interesting because I have been thinking of Manders as representative of a lot of the social norms and Mrs. Alving as the unconventional one, but this new lens complicates the idea of social norms for me.

  6. Unrelated to the discussion, but here’s a link to the comedy video that I mentioned in class, No-No-No-Yes-No. Be warned, it’s very Canadian humour…

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