Invisible Contagion

“When I heard Regine and Oswald in there, it was just like seeing ghosts. But then I’m inclined to think that we are all ghosts, Pastor Manders, every one of us. It’s not just what we inherit from our mothers and fathers that haunts us. It’s all kinds of old defunct theories, all sorts of old defunct beliefs, 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. I’ve only to pick up a newspaper and I seem to see ghosts gliding between the lines. Over the whole country there must be ghosts, as numerous as the sands of the sea. And here we are, all of us, abysmally afraid of the light.”

(Ibsens, Ghosts, Act II)

This quote said by Mrs. Alving stuck out to all four of us. She highlights the idea of old societal beliefs and values that eerily live on within us in ways we aren’t aware of, and are passed down in ways that we aren’t aware of. The way these “old defunct beliefs” were presented as a “ghost” was intriguing, especially because the concept of contagion seems to be embedded in this idea.  This is evident when she says, “I’ve only to pick up a newspaper and I seem to see ghosts gliding between the lines.” Yet, the way that she uses ghosts to describe a kind of contagion is not the primary way we have been thinking of contagion in this class. Contagion has been described in visible, physical and tangible terms. It felt powerful to have the invisible contagion of values of beliefs wrapped in the metaphor of a ghost. Ironically, through this line, she gave visibility to the invisible. She voiced, really clearly, intangible structures in a really poignant way.  

A 1987 televised version of the play directed by Elijah Moshinsky has very interesting visuals. The whole action takes place inside the Alving house, in its dark walls, dark furniture and sparse light. Its visuals, especially its colours, are somewhat suggestive of the paintings that have emerged out of earlier pandemics. 

“Titian’s last painting, Pieta, from 1575. In 1576 he succumbed to the plague that was raging in Venice.

Pastor Manders’s character in the film is particularly similar to Edvard Munch’s Self Portrait during the Spanish Flu.

It’s very useful to the action of the play taking place in dim, spacious, yet claustrophobic rooms, never leaving the indoors, a quality that has come to be associated with the current pandemic. Moreover, in this version of the play, a model of the house is securely stored inside a glass box, placed in the living room. Manders is seen constantly resting his hands on this box as though protecting and relying on this structure. This can be seen as a metaphor for Mander’s insistence on closely following the established rules/structures of the world. 

Ibsen uses the symbolism of “ghosts” to illustrate the idea that remnants of practices from a bygone era continue to haunt us, sometimes preventing our society from progressing. The struggle between the craving for a new social order and the rigid shackles of the past are perfectly exemplified in Mrs. Alving. She embodies a progressive, feminist way of approaching marriage and motherhood — ideas that the Pastor refuses to accept, having been possessed by the “ghosts” of archaic traditions. As Mrs. Alving explains, ghosts are “all kinds of old defunct theories, all sorts of old defunct beliefs…”, which in her life have been the gender norms imposed on her of being a “good”, supportive wife despite being stuck in a toxic marriage. Reading this in 2020 was alarming as many of the issues she raises surrounding expectations from women continue to be salient, which begs the question: when do these “ghosts” finally terminate, and when do these ideas stop propagating across generations? What does that mean for us, as people participating in the world today? Is the core of what we have constructed as life infected by patriarchal structures of the past?

In “Severance”, Candace held herself to the immigrant work ethics not because she found meaning in her job, but only because she wanted to uphold the legacy of her deceased father. Duties and responsibilities are passed down from generations, and they are just as contagious and sins and diseases. “The sins of the father are visited upon the children.” is what the doctor told Oswald Alving about his illness. 

So, where does the contagion originate? What is the source of it? Did it come from Oswald’s father when he passed on the illness of his mind and body to his son, who now has to face the ghosts of his late father’s life? Or did it come from even before this family, did it come from structures of “law and order” that Helene talks about? Do these rigid structures birth and sustain this contagion? What makes these structures so contagious, what makes them so compelling to pass on, why do they continue to haunt us? 

In this particular course, we learn about the current pandemic that we are facing by reading about all the great plagues that have happened in the past. Within these materials we are bound to see similarities. Patterns are concluded, feelings shared, and history seems to repeat itself. Humans have been studying history since forever. Why is that? What is the point of us living in the present and looking back into our past, into our collective memories? Do we ever learn from it? 


 Add your comment
  1. Regarding the Munch connection, see this old post. Lots here to consider! Looking forward to it.

  2. It’s me again! I’ve been thinking about the convener’s post all day. The way my thinking shifted this morning about that passage you quote at the head of your post boils down to this: I used to think of the “old defunct theories” and “old defunct beliefs” that “live on in us” mostly as stuff we inherited from our parents. But I was thinking about stuff this morning in more structural terms: the ideas and theories they received and that limited them — as in, it’s not really their fault, they inherited the stuff that lived on in them too. They were also victims of old defunct theories and beliefs. How can these ideas be “defunct” and living on in us at the same time? It’s as if we’re doomed to live in someone else’s past — and to “spread” these defunct ways of thinking and behavior to future generations. What are the options here? Does Mrs. Alving see her choices clearly? Are there ways out that nobody seems to be able to notice? And what about the play itself? Can it get people talking about the right things to break the cycles of silence and euphemism that protect the patriarchal double-standards that have allowed that culture to rot from the inside? It may be hard for us to comprehend today, but Ibsen’s plays were quite controversial at the end of the 19th century. There are some great details here not only about the uproar it caused when it was first staged in London, but also about the appeal of syphilis to Ibsen when he was looking for ways to channel his social critique.

  3. “What makes these structures so contagious?” I think a lot of these ideals and duties are passed down because they entail survival in that specific societal context. Whether it be Mrs.Alving upholding her husband’s false reputation to protect herself (*her identity is rebranded by her last name upon marriage) or Candace’s values of work ethics inherited from her father, these ideals aim to influence social status, financial stability and more importantly a certain motivation for life (covering the different tiers of Maslow’s Heirarchy from bottom up). However, when self-actualization which is dependent on the success of your predecessors and parents occurs, you recognize a significant issue. There is a discrepancy when the times and the society changes but these ideals, and now out-dated means of survival, do not. An inter-generational clash occurs and on an individual level a choice needs to be made about what guarantees your future more: the ‘foolproof’ methods you inherited or the choices you make. That is perhaps why these structures are so contagious, subsequent generations are obligated to pass on these pathways to ‘survival’ that have hailed them to their current comfort or state of security, if not self-actualization, which makes deviating from the familial formula of “old defunct” things all the more challenging.

  4. I liked how we compared the play with Severance. I think very often societies are built on these old ideas and the physical structures and institutions born from them constantly reinforce the ideas. We can see it with consumption in Severance and even in the Ghost Map we see how the city itself was designed to control district interactions. It is interesting that plagues (and other large events) often act as triggers to get people to change their views and such times make implementing laws / infrastructure much more easier once they are deemed necessary (or just out of desperation).

    Also with reputation, it was a factor in contagion where Captain Alving’s reputation and Mrs. Alving’s sense of obligation to protect it was what haunted her. Similarly, in Harrison’s text trade and interactions depended later on how well a country was seen to be doing with health measures, which ironically may have created more trade and avenues for contagion.

    • What a great connection. I hadn’t really thought about national reputation and individual reputation in quite these terms. But it’s a great comparison — especially when thinking about economic motivations/contexts.

  5. Thank you for this thought-provoking convener’s post!

    I really enjoyed the idea of thinking about the space of the play and how it relates to the overarching themes of the play. Particularly, thinking about how the confined space acts as a metaphor for representing the rigid social structures had me speculating about the characters in the play and how they also represent different themes/concepts that the scenes gravitate around.

    Particularly, I’m seeing Mrs. Alving and Regine as the bearers of the ghosts- the bearers of the heavy load of those rigid structures. They are stuck in a position where they have to make the difficult decision to conform or to reinvent and break out of the structures that sacrifice “the truth”.
    On the other hand, I perceived Pastor Manders as the upholder of the ideals that often stand in the way of the truth. His position in the play is one that acts as a reminder (to the bearers of ghosts) of the dire societal consequences that may come with deciding to go against the structures.

    These roles remind me of government-citizen dynamics, especially in scenarios where citizens are trying to break free from the oppressive control of a government. It also reminds me (as we plentily discussed in class) of current-day cultural and societal dynamics of upholding the sometimes harmful structures vs. challenging and deconstructing them.

    I’m curious to know what you (anyone reading this!) think Oswald and Engstrand represent in this play!

  6. “ideas that the Pastor refuses to accept, having been possessed by the “ghosts” of archaic traditions.” I like this idea of possession. Possession implies a loss of autonomy and bodily control. Can we be possessed by tradition, beliefs, and old ideas? It would make sense because I often think about how much of our behavior stems from out subconscious. When Mrs. Alving feels the obligation to stay for her son, how much of it is her own conscious decision and how much is it an involuntary possession from a ghost of a different time?

    I also found the discussion on how such ghosts possess people in the first place very interesting. Perhaps these ghosts are never willingly passed on. Instead, as Helene says, they lodge themselves in the walls and therefore into the very structure of our society. Our institutions are built by ghosts. They’ve built our governments, our banks, our schools, and our churches. In building something, they preserve the time in which they lived. By living in these societies built by ghosts, we trap ourselves in the past. If that is the case, then how do we terminate the cycle of passing on these ghosts?

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.