With all the talk on ghosts and the supernatural, I thought it would be interesting to look into some of the more mundane aspects of the play. More specifically, what role does syphilis itself play in Ibsen’s Ghosts?
In the various works we have read for the class so far, it is clear that disease often represents or signifies a certain level of moral corruption. In Oedipus, it represented the corruption in Oedipus’ life and kingdom. In Defoe’s Journal of a Plague Year, it brought out the worst in people, making the community fall prey to an immoral way of life.
I believe that Ghosts may take the relationship between disease and corruption a little further.
Oswald’s doctor did say that he had inherited the disease from his father in the quote, “He said: The sins of the fathers are visited upon the children” (Ibsen 138).
However, we do know that this couldn’t have been more than an indirect relationship, as Oswald couldn’t have gotten syphilis if his mother hadn’t been infected as well (whether Oswald was infected from fooling around in Paris is debatable, since his symptoms are consistent with those of congenital syphilis). That means that Mrs. Alving must have been an asymptomatic carrier. Following the path of the disease, we can conclude that Johanna and Regine have a decent chance of being carriers as well; even Jacob Engstand could be infected from Johanna if she had been infected with the disease from Captain Alving. Finally, if Pastor Manders had consented to being in a relationship with Mrs. Alving, he too would have come in contact with syphilis. It would seem that the disease is just as prevalent in the live of the characters as the corruption and misfortune.
We have definitely established that the ghost metaphor has several dimensions, but perhaps there is yet another layer to Ibsen’s “ghost”. Perhaps the syphilis itself is the ghost. Think about it: They have all come in contact with, if not afflicted with, the disease. For some, it was the result of corruption. For others, it was an unlucky inheritance. Either way, it plays a role in the lives of each of the characters, in the same way Mrs. Alving describes its presence in each of them. Talking about the supernatural could have in some ways been as publicly unacceptable as the mention of syphilis was. The parallel is also there when we consider that ghosts are the remnants of a troubled past; in many ways, syphilis is too. The syphilis, or the “sin of the father”, haunts the family from beyond the grave.
Actually, syphilis is sort of the ghost of the play as well. Though the word “syphilis” isn’t mentioned in Ghosts at all, it still plagues the play with the affliction it hauls along – a sort of “ghost sickness”, if you will (on a slightly unrelated note, “ghost sickness” was actually a thing among Native American tribes). It is neither seen nor mentioned, but always lingers behind the shadows of their actions.
Much like a real ghost, no?