Ghosts of Dead Ideas, Lifeless Old Beliefs

Henrik Ibsen was a well-known Norwegian playwright whose plays provide a critical view on 19th-century morality, especially as it pertains to womanhood. His other plays, Hedda Gabler and A Doll’s House, both discuss the social norms at the time, which treated women like household objects, potential topics of scandal if they behaved out of the norm. Many of his plays were scandalous at the time, with some theatres refusing to perform his plays in order to not encourage social misbehavior. A Doll’s House, for example, has an alternative ending made by German theatres that implies an eventual reunion between the “dissenting” protagonist, Nora, and her husband, but Ibsen (like most modern audiences) did not consider this a useful or a valid alternative to the themes of his plays. Indeed it can be considered that the outcry against his work, the attempts to hush up taboo subjects such as venereal disease, incest, and female freedom, is precisely in line with the social norms that Ibsen wanted to dredge up and expose to light so that the audience has no choice but to face them. Ibsen’s plays have therefore gained a reputation for being “realistic,” no matter how disquieting the truths may be, and some see them as among the earliest literary case studies for the “modern woman” and “Electra complex.”

Ibsen’s Ghosts is set in late-19th-century Norway in the Alving household. The beginning of the play is set on the day before the opening of “Captain Alving Memorial,” an orphanage Helen Alving — the widow of the Captain — is determined to open in his memory. Upon her meeting with Pastor Manders, who had been helping with the plans for the memorial, she reveals to him that her marriage was far from perfect. Her husband, regarded with respect by the people of his town, had been unfaithful, yet she had stayed with him to prevent a scandal. She then reveals to him that Regine, Mrs. Alving’s maid, who at the beginning of the play was introduced as the daughter of Engstrand, a carpenter helping with the orphanage, is in fact Captain Alving’s bastard child. Captain Alving had an affair with their maid, who soon became pregnant, and Mrs. Alving paid the nurse to begin a relationship with Engstrand and raise the girl as his. Once Alving died, his widow used all his money to build the orphanage, hoping that once it was built and running her son would not inherit anything from his father and they will finally be free. 

Throughout the course of their conversation, the two witness Regine and Oswald, Mrs. Alving’s son, seemingly in a relationship. Stunned, Mrs Alving and Manders try to end the relationship, since the two are siblings, even though they do not know it. Although his mother tries to convince him to end the relationship, Oswald believes that Regine is his salvation. He confesses to his mother that he has been diagnosed with a hereditary illness, and as his father was a great man, he believes he must have contracted Syphilis due to his questionable way of life in Paris. 

As Mrs. Alving contemplates telling Oswald the truth, they suddenly learn that the orphanage had burned down. This only worsens his agony, and his mother finally decides to end his pain and tells him and Regine the truth about their father. Once the truth is revealed, Regine leaves, adding further to Oswald’s pain. Mrs. Alving, determined to care for her son afterwards is shocked when he asks her to help give him a fatal morphine overdose if his disease reaches its final stages. The play then ends in a dramatic scene in which Mrs. Alving is confronted with this decision as her son’s disease quickly progresses.

Ghosts, very likely by design, raises many questions of morality, namely what purpose it serves for the people. Is morality merely a product of society in order to preserve itself? Or is there a universal virtue of morality that seems to fail in special — but possibly common — circumstances? If morality is an important guideline that people should follow, to what extent is it valid across both circumstance and time?

In terms of our overarching theme of Contagion, these questions are undoubtedly in regards to contagion of social norms, especially through generations. The ghosts of the norm created by those that came before us create a society’s burden, which affect us far more realistically and directly than the ghosts of the dead themselves. Can we ever escape from these ghosts? Have we, as a modern society, learnt to recognize and concede to them? Or are we doomed like Oswald, bound to death by burdens that realistically should have no bearing on us? 

Ibsen presents many different aspects of his characters, particularly those of women. There is an inherent sacrificial and selfless element that is an expectation in each of the female characters. Was Mrs. Alving a devoted wife, a responsible mother? Was Regine wrong to not agree to leave with her father, knowing fully well that he was a deceitful person? This paper divides itself to spell out features of an ideal woman, as a person, a daughter, a mother and a wife. But no matter how one acts in the scenario presented, it is almost impossible to fit the “ideal” image. This is particularly evident when analyzing Mrs. Alving’s character. From a societal point of view, there is an expectation to hide the flaws of one’s husband and present the best possible image. Yet, when reading the play, there is an urge that one has to stop Mrs. Alving from presenting such a false reputation of her husband to the entire world. This paper walks us through the many ways that the women of the play try hard to fit the criteria of “perfection,” but fail to do so not because of their shortcomings, but because of the preposterous expectations of society. 

In relation to a previous post on Ghosts, the overarching theme of 19th-century immorality is what encapsulates the entire character of ghosts in the play. With inadvertent critiques on filial piety, or societal standards constantly being made such as those found within Ibsen’s work, the shackles of the past are slowly loosened. As with Regine, social standards are questioned, and within time society will soon disregard them, but as with any contagious disease, if it’s not fought it will once again prevail.


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  1. In slight relation to the discussion in class of past ideas and culture being a form of ghosts, I was reminded of Franz Fanon, and what he said regarding decolonization.
    Fanon said forming a national culture is an integral part of decolonization – but not in the sense that one should reach back to past ideas and culture. A major problem, he notes, is that many people attempt to mystify and glorify their past, placing an image of “what they used to be” on an altar – in the process disregarding what needs to be thought about in the process of decolonization. In this sense, the past is a ghost that haunts the colonized. Held back, the colonized people are unable to form the conflictual mindset, the national culture of violence and revolution that Fanon says is necessary.

    • I think Yoon is onto something quite significant here. Implicit in his comment, as well as in Ibsen’s text, is the environments that our ‘ghosts’ inhabit. The two clearest being the internal and external spaces that we, as well as the characters in the text, exist in. Mrs. Alving, for example, deals with the ghosts of her husband’s infidelity both in and outside the walls of her house. Ghosts devastate her on multiple levels. Identifying the variation in spaces that ghosts inhabit allows for a more nuanced understanding and application of these haunting issues. Already Yoon has articulate the temporal nature of ghosts comparably to my own spatial understanding, thus exposing five distinct variations: internal/external and past/present/future. How many more levels might we be able to identify?

  2. I think the convener’s post raises a very interesting question by asking who the concepts of morality and social norms are preserving. Perhaps, initially, some norms develop as a way to maintain order within society but what happens when those norms are causing harm to the members of the society they should be protecting? Oftentimes, there are forces at work which are trying to maintain the status quo which they do by using moral arguments to justify their stance as the way things should be done. As these ideas of morality are already present in society, it gives those benefiting from societies ingrained hierarchies an effective tool to maintain those hierarchies by drawing from a common and accepted framework of what society should look like. In Ghosts, that character is manifested in Pastor Manders who has a vested interest in maintaining the institution of marriage as it is a source of power for the church which recognises and legitimises these marriages and by extension gives authority to Pastor Manders as the representative of the church.

  3. Bernice delos Reyes

    I think it’s also interesting to think about the way Mrs. Alving as the female head of the household responds to her husband’s debauchery, and her feeling of responsibility to uphold the patriarchal societal reputation of her family. Her interaction with Manders especially in page 117 serve as a cathartic moment for her, but also allows us as readers to look beyond her perceived power within the family and question the intent of her assertion to create a facade of a good family. In the end, she seems to still be a slave to the patriarchal system, and when Regine leaves in the end of the play, she almost foils Mrs. Alving by trying to break free from that system by making her own choice, irrespective of what that ended up being.

    • I think you raise an important aspect of the play and it is Mrs Alving role in this whole drama. But I think here Mrs Alving also sort of breaks free from a system which is when she sends Oswald away and give him the freedom to say whatever he wanted about his life in Paris in front of Pastor Manders. I think that was something Manders did not see coming. So although Mrs Alving seems to be bound to the past, she makes some moves during the play that proves she is trying to break of a system and that is part of her character as a protagonist in the story.

  4. Other than the obvious theme of incest, I feel a connection can be made between Ghosts and Oedipus. We see Oedipus trying to escape his fate, just as we see Mrs. Alving trying to escape her ghosts, and we see the truth breaking over Oedipus in waves as we see Mrs. Alving being confronted with revelation after revelation (first Oswald’s disease, then his apparent disconnect with his parents, finally the attack on his brain). For me the question then is: if for Oedipus there was no escaping his fate, then can Mrs. Alving ever escape her ghosts?

    We see Mrs. Alving’s lucidity when she talks to Pastor Manders, but when Oswald mentions he fears there will be no “joy of life” living at home, she responds with almost a confession, saying she made the house “unbearable” for Captain Alving. When confronted with her son, Mrs. Alving is once again full of guilt. If motherhood is another ghost, it seems to be a more potent one than wifehood. Ibsen’s play may or not may not be feminist, but it seems to me he greatly empathizes with the plurality of difficulties found in motherhood.

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