Inheritance & Morality in Ghosts

Edvard Munch’s set design for the play

The play Ghosts by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, written in 1881 and first staged in 1882, sparked a lot of scrutiny from critics and the public. As it openly talked about venereal diseases, incest, religion and more. Thus, it brought in a new perspective on tragedy as a genre, since instead of discussing consequences of breaking moral code, it talks about the consequences of not breaking it (Wikipedia, 2021). And these consequences become ghosts for characters of the play. As Mrs. Alving says herself:

Ghosts… I’m inclined to think that we are all ghosts….. It’s not just what we inherit from our mothers and father that haunts us. It’s all kinds of old defunct theories … 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.”

Although Mrs. Alving doesn’t want her son to inherit anything from his father and Oswald has no good memories of his father, they are unable to stop the genetic inheritance that Oswald receives.  Despite having no connections to his father, he inherits illness in the form of Neurosyphilis from him which questions the concept of nature vs nurture. Did growing up as an artist in Paris affect him enough to shape a different person or, like Oedipus, is he bound by fate after all? Manders does point out “When Oswald was standing there…. He looked the very spit and image of his father.” But Oswald also inherits much of his personality from his mother. 

Both the mother and the son are drawn to new and contagious ideas about the world. Early in the play, Pastor Manders confronts Mrs. Alving over books she is reading; although we don’t know their contents, we can imagine by his reaction that they challenge established ways of thinking. 

MRS. ALVING: What is it in fact you’ve got against these books?

MANDERS: Got against them? You don’t think I waste my time examining publications of that kind, surely

Note here Manders’ confidence to be entitled to judge things he had not read to begin with. This is a recurring theme within some texts for this semester – Bob, without much merit, quickly determined that nostalgia caused Alice to be fevered in Severance. He is similarly shocked later on when Oswald describes his friends in “illicit relationships.” Despite the pastor’s horror, Oswald challenges his reaction and insists that his friends are moral people, and Mrs. Alving later agrees. Ibsen emphasizes the book’s discussion of taboos by including this parallel thread contrasting the pastor’s 19th century morality with Mrs. Alving and Oswald’s new ways of imagining the world. 

It is interesting how when a group is exposed to a new form of contagion, a new value (moral solidarity in this case) is created to distinguish allies and enemies: if you agree you’re a friend, if you digress you’re the outsider. An interesting question then arises: where did this set of morals originate from? Is Manders, posing as a servant to God’s will, the de facto creator for the group moral? Or is he merely a guardian conforming to a collective will of the group?

Ludien, Taman, Mohammed, Sofia


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  1. I think the quotes from Mrs. Alving about ghosts in this post is really interesting. She argues that we are all ghosts because we are unconsciously the result of our social constructs. We pass on the tradition and moral judgments without critically questioning the originality of these values. To some extend, I agree that we can never separate ourselves from the environment and people that shape us into who we are. However, if we start to question the tradition, think through moral judgment, recognize our actions, and critically reflect upon our value system, are we less of a ghost?

    • I feel like this could be an interesting thought about how to resolve conflicts of these characters or understand what makes up their ghosts. Because, as I was reading a play, I was happy with the critical approach of Mrs. Alving, however, throughout the play we can see how she gets affected by her son and Manders a lot and questions her beliefs once more (despite them, in my opinion being more solid, ex. the flimsy foundation of moral teachings in 19th century –> be critical).

      Is it actually possible to not have ghosts? That could be something that I feel like might come from Vivi”s question.

      On an unrelated note, does having ghosts make us human, or is it more of a burden?

  2. Thank you for this post! I really enjoyed reading it. And thank you for not spoiling the ending 🙂

    I like how you compared Oswald with Oedipus. I agree that there seems to be a similar sense of fatalism at play here. Helene sent Oswald abroad at a young age to ensure his father wouldn’t have any negative influence on him just like Jocasta sent Oedipus away fearing that the prophecy would come true. It turned out that Oswald still was affected by his father both directly (the sickness) and somewhat coincidentally (the pipe-smoking, the affairs with a maid …) just like the prophecy about Oedipus was still realized.

    I also found the part where Oswald found about his sickness very interesting. Oswald thought it was his own fault that he got the illness, while everyone else –including Helene and us in the audience– knew that he inherited it from his father. I loved the irony in this scene when he said “If only it had been something inherited … something one couldn’t have helped. But this!” (139). This idea of fatalism you suggested to some extent corresponds to the idea of ghosts: we may be unavoidably ghosts of people in the past like how Oswald is a ghost of his father, Regine is a ghost of Joanna, Oedipus is a ghost of Laius (who caused Oedipus to be cursed), and so on.

  3. Thank you for an incredibly insightful post! I really like how you talk about nature vs nurture and the role of fate in Oswald’s life. While reading the play I had a similar question about fate and how it bounds us. Surely, there was no way for Oswald to not inherit Neurosyphilis from his father but what about the other flaws in his character? How can Oswald’s affairs be blamed as something he inherited from his father when he was kept in the dark about them and his mother tried her best to keep Oswald away from finding out about them, I personally think those are something that did not have anything to do with his father. But, could his mother sharing more about Oswald’s father with him made him not repeat the same actions as his father?

    I also find it very interesting how you look at Manders and his role as a guardian. I was thinking whether he had a clean slate to judge the actions of the group? I suppose not.

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