Ignorance is Bliss….Or is it?

What a journey! We have traveled to so many places such as Ancient Greece and Pre-Industrial London where we have seen how plague affects human society.

In Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts, we see a recurring theme of truth that has emerged in other books we have read, especially in Oedipus. Similar to the Greek tragedy, the major characters in Ghosts do not know each other’s true identities until the latter half of the play. Originally, Regine is thought to be a simple housemaid who is the daughter of Engstrand, but both the reader and the characters later discover that she is actually the product of Mrs. Alving’s dead husband’s illicit affair. Therefore, Oswald and Regine are half-siblings, making their love(?) for each other almost incestual, in comparison to Oedipus and his mother-wife. This relates to one of the central questions of this play: What exactly is truth and how are we supposed to wield it?

We see the word “truth” pop up in the play many times. One of the first times we see it is when Manders is condemning Mrs. Alving for not taking better care of her son, Oswald, since Oswald now holds very liberal views on topics like marriage. He  states, “Mrs. Alving, you are in truth a very guilty mother … I see it as my duty to tell you this” (Ibsen 115).  Manders appoints himself to be the moral police as the religious leader of the region, yet as we see later on, he has some flaws as well. After this, Mrs. Alving replies with her anecdote on her husband and we see the word “truth” appear again: “But now, Pastor Manders, now I’m going to tell you the truth. I swore to myself that one day you should know” (Ibsen 116). What follows reveals a tragic secret of a vileness hidden by a perfect facade. Truth has the ability to reveal, but is it a force for good?

    We can also discern a struggle that comes from this idea of truth in the play. In Act Two, an argument occurs between Manders and Mrs. Alving over whether Mrs. Alving should tell Oswald about the truth concerning his father. Manders is afraid that it will shatter Oswald’s “ideals”, to which Mrs. Alving responds: “but what about the truth?”(Ibsen 124). This conflict between truth and ideals reveals something not only crucial to this play, but also to our common humanity. Was it the right thing for Oedipus to be told his true actions? Does the priest in Pushkin represent a sort of “truth” or rather just a set of ideals? Can an ideal be truth?

    Well how does this relate to the class? Do not fear fellow classmates, we did not forget the “contagion” aspect of the play. Again, we think it relates to the morality of truth. In the play, Oswald has two major alone moments with his mother in which we see him struggle whether to tell his mother about his fatal illness or not. The first time they are alone for a significant time together, Oswald beats around the bush about his brain problem, making it more abstract, saying “Mother, it’s my mind that’s given way… destroyed … I’ll never be able to work again!”(Ibsen 137). On the flip side, Mrs. Alving is also hiding truth from her son. The stage directions/movements during this scene indicate anxiety, shock, and fear (“jumps up, pale and trembling”). She knows that his father had the same problem.

The disease that Oswald is suffering from is a hereditary one. At first he did not believe that such a disease could have come from his father. He had a very high regard for his father so he took the blame on himself.  He claims the illness he has is mainly because of the way he lived his life, and he only realizes the truth at the very end of the play. However, we know that it is hereditary, and not only had he inherited the disease, but he also inherited his drinking habits and debauchery. For instance, Oswald asks his mother, “You must have some of that cold punch in the house, haven’t you” (Ibsen 139). He also flirts with Regine. Evidently, he is into drinking and is reprobate, other contagions that he inherited from his father.

Mrs Alving was working hard to establish the Orphanage to maintain her husband’s good name, just like she used to preach good things about her husband when he was alive. With the Orphanage, she is trying to hide the truth about her husband. However, the Orphanage gets destroyed by the fire. This is a sign that Mr Alving will no longer hide the truth and eventually, she tells the truth to her son. Later, we also discover that Manders accepts to support Engstrand’s saloon called “Captain Alving’s Home”,  which is essentially a  brothel and will be a place of debauchery just like the real Captain’s character.

Moreover, the sun is the symbol of truth in the play. Oswald comes back home looking for truth and support. Just like the sun, he does not get to know and see the truth since Mrs Alving hides it from him. She believes that hiding it will do her and Oswald good. As the play progresses she wants to release her secrets, as she feels that she has kept it to herself for too long. But was she correct in telling the truth? Was Manders correct in asking her not to reveal it? However, even though she eventually reveals the truth to her son, it does not help him. Truth, which was thought to be a source of enlightenment, turns out to be the source of madness. Regine leaves Oswald, Mrs Alving does not acquire inner peace and Oswald goes crazy. The play ends with the sun coming up and Oswald says, “The sun…The sun”.(Ibsen 164).

Of course, we only touched on some of the topics that are raised in the play; we’re sure you guys found many more. We hope that what we provided you will raise some significant insights into the play and into the relevance of truth with regards to contagion.

“The truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable”

  • James Garfield

Love, प्रेम, co љубов

Wes, Krishna and Evgenija


 Add your comment
  1. Thank you very much for this thoughtful and interesting post! I do strongly agree that “truth” is one of the major themes of this play and raises many related questions, which can help readers further understand this play. At the same time, I am also questioning the accuracy or rationality to call something “truth”. What is the definition of truth? As I mentioned in the class, “truth” various in different people’s minds because of distinct perspectives, focuses, logics, and moral judgements. That is, though people can be honest, but they can never tell the subjective “truth”. They can not only be deceived by their own sights, but also blinded by their own morals and values. Their ways or styles to recall the “truth” can also affect listeners’ perception. We may approach to the absolute “truth” by collecting data from huge amounts of other people, but we have to be mindless at the same time in order to prevent the “truth” from being changed by our tricky brain.

    Moreover, while we are discussing if lies shall ever exist in the society, we tend to think from Oswald’s position and question whether it is good for him to listen to the truth or not. However, we automatically believe that Mrs. Alving shall do whatever is good for his son. We consciously or unconsciously grants her this duty as a mother to only care about her own son. Why she has the duty to tell the truth? Why she has the duty to sacrifice her own happiness for his son? If she prefers not telling the truth for her own happiness, why can’t she do that? (I am not saying that she will be more happy to hide everything within herself, I am just assuming this scenario to point out my opinion.) Therefore, we seem to stand at this moral high point to judge others’ behaviors based on our own values, or our own beliefs of “social laws”. Then, what is the difference between us and the priest who loves to restrict other with laws and orders?

    Again, thank you for your post and enjoy writing your explication!


  2. Nice insight Yan!

    I am curious about this word “truth” as well and looked up some definitions on Merriam-Webster. Here’s what I found.
    sincerity in action, character, and utterance
    a (1) : the state of being the case : fact (2) : the body of real things, events, and facts : actuality (3) often capitalized : a transcendent fundamental or spiritual reality
    b : a judgment, proposition, or idea that is true or accepted as true
    c : the body of true statements and propositions
    a : the property (as of a statement) of being in accord with fact or reality

    I enjoy reading the definition for #2 b, “a judgement, proposition, or idea that is true or accepted as true.” That does not necessarily mean that truth is truth is it? It is just accepted as true. I think as human beings we suffer from some natural condition of being always subjective and cannot never fully understand what is reality. Oh well…

    Judging from the time period that the book was written, I think it was still too far off to say that it was thought a mother can just give up her “duties” (whatever that means in that society). Therefore, Mrs. Alving is just doing what she believes is right or what is already engrained in her.

    I like your observation that we are basically like the priest. I was a little annoyed in class when everybody was condemning and laughing at this character when I know that all of us suffer from the same judgmental attitude that he portrays, whether we would like to admit it or not. Just because we are “college students in intellectual learning” doesn’t make us better than anybody else in the world. 🙂

    And yeah, explication! Totally did that already.

    Best regards,
    Wes Huang

  3. There’s a lot to say about this play and you guys have brought up a lot of really interesting ideas in your convener’s post.

    I liked the idea of truth versus ideals and the question “is truth a force for good?” because truth in the end, represented by the sunlight that shatters the ghosts and the ideals, but doesn’t enlighten any of the characters. I’m slightly biased in my reading of the play because I keep seeing it as Ibsen’s way of showing his audience what is wrong with society. We don’t speak about the contagion just like we don’t easily speak the truth without encoding it in euphemisms.

    The reference to Oedipus when talking about whether it is right to search for the truth is also extremely relevant and Oedipus was what I thought about when I read this section of the play too. The idea of a sort of hereditary contagion is also interesting. Mrs. Alving says that the “ghosts” are “inherited” and this serves two purposes. It could be to highlight the “defunct” ideals that we maintain in society, and second it could serve to show that society itself is suffering a contagion, and no matter how hard one tries to escape it – shown by Nora escaping her “Doll’s house” in his previous work – all of us really are the ghosts of a plagued society. If one believes this to be Ibsen’s real purpose then it makes for grim reading. Mrs. Alving tried her hardest to ensure that her son would not take on the personality traits of his father however when we see him smoking his father’s pipe, drinking, and flirting with Regine; he is a spitting image of his father and the hereditary contagion, both literal and figurative has passed down a generation.

    A character that intrigued me was Regine. You guys mentioned that her lineage made her love for Oswald incestuous and complicated. This idea could be a little far-fetched but after Regine says “well now I suppose I can say Oswald” I am left thinking about the source of the contagion. We don’t know for sure but one possibility is it is a sexually transmitted disease that starts from Mr. Alving and Johanna. So the far-fetched idea is this: Ibsen could be critiquing immorality and saying that the contagion really stems from a hypocritical society. but he could also be saying (and this is where Regine’s dialogue comes into play) that the transcending of social classes through sex is where the contagion starts. This is clearly shown when Regine equates herself to Oswald in this dialogue. But this idea is something I haven’t fully got my head wrapped around so I’d love to hear your opinions on it.

    Overall – I think this play is already one of my favourites. You guys have done justice to the play and all its simple and complicated ideas in your explication.

    Also if you’re interested, there’s a play by the Swedish playwright August Strindberg called ‘Miss Julie’ that I read last year that is just 40ish pages long and covers many of the same ideas that Ibsen talks about. Although there’s no physical contagion in that play, the social problems and the analysis that the playwright tries to make is similar to this one in many ways.

    Happy reading,

  4. I agree with Ahbi that the play is Ibsen’s way of showing his audience what is wrong with society. He leaves us with Oswald being crazy and Mrs Alving not knowing what to do. I think he left the play in such a choas situation because he wanted people to think what would have been the right solution to the problem. In the 1800, he might not know the solution himself. So, it is open ended and he is asking audience to think about it.
    I think Regine was in love with Oswald’d money, living in big cities and learning new languages rather than Oswald himself. When she finds out she is not going to get that she leaves him. As a sister, she could have stayed with him and help him during his sickness. She kind of resembles Enstrand in this situation.

  5. Great post guys! You brought up many insightful things that hadn’t occurred to me in my reading and explication of the play. I particularly liked in the final paragraphs the meanings you attributed to the orphanage and the sun. The orphanage was a symbol for the deception of Mrs. Alving concerning the truth about her husband’s character, and in its destruction by fire can be seen the emergence of truth, as you discussed. Something that struck me as ironic was how Engstrand eventually decides to name his sailor’s home/brother after Captain Alving. Engstand, interestingly, was the one character who had no idea that Regine was actually Captain Alving’s daughter. When he promises that if he ran it his way he would make it worthy of the Captain’s memory, he was still playing the part of the pious, charitable believer. However, we are privy to his true nature and know what he intends to do with his “innocent” enterprise. The fact that his way of running it would unknowingly match the Captain’s character is very telling about the ways that truth has a tendency to come out.
    I regret not having the chance to discuss in class the character of “his daughter” Regine, particularly following the revelation that she was actually the child of Captain Alving’s immoral affair with a servant girl. Her mannerisms, such as tossing her head, and occasionally sarcastic speech are signs of her unwillingness to be restrained the way her imposed “duty” demands. She has an Arthur Mervynian eagerness to get ahead, demonstrated in her initial desire to go away with Pastor Manders,then her willingness to marry Oswald and her careless abandonment of him when the truth about his disease came out. She explains this abandonment as “I’ve also got some of this joy of life as well” which is how Mrs. Alving previously referred to her husband’s “tremendous exuberance.” You mentioned how Oswald may have inherited his drinking (and worse) habits from his father, but what about Regine? Did she have that contagion as well? Is that why she left to the Captain Alving home, believing it to be better suited for her inherited depravity?
    Either way, thank you for the wonderfully thought provoking explication guys!
    On to Pale Horse, Pale Rider!

    • Thank you Rosy for bringing up Regine. Yes, we did not talk much about Regine but it is very interesting to analyse Regine’s behavior. As Rosy suggested, I also think that Regine has inherited some contagion from her father, Captain Alving. Earlier in the play, Captain Alving is descibed as someone who has joy of life and enjoyed his life. Regine is also described in the same way later in the play by Oswald.


  6. Hi Abhi and Rosy,

    Thanks for your comments, they pointed out some aspects of the play that I did not really noticed. I think you guys both mentioned Regine and her importance of the play. I do regret not expanding more on her role. I like how Abhi mentioned how Ibsen could be critiquing immortality while Rosy seemed to mention that as well, her lack of caution, or as you said, her “careless abandonment.”

    This is what is annoying with literature classes, there is always so much to talk about but just not enough time! Yes you are right Rosy, time to move onto Pale Horse, Pale Rider!

    Wes from the West

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