Late Stages of Neurosyphilis

Dear all,

               I wanted to clarify Oswald’s condition in Ghosts (1881) by Henrik Ibsen as it was not explicitly stated in the play. I also included a few questions for thought at the end.

               Oswald Alving is suffering from Neurosyphilis, a sexually transmitted disease, which is an infection of either the brain or the spinal cord. This usually occurs with people who have had untreated syphilis for years. This is plausible because Oswald had been sent away from his family for years and, as a result, his parents wouldn’t have known otherwise. Moreover, Oswald seemed to be in denial of his condition for quite some time and only at the very end of the play did he reveal his condition to his mother.

               The symptoms of Neurosyphilis that match up to Oswald’s behavior are listed below. Although, it is necessary to mention that our knowledge is limited because most of the play consists of dialogue. The symptoms are as follows: dementia (loss of brain function which affects one’s thinking, language, memory, behavior, and judgment), depression, headaches, irritability, poor concentration, and weakness. There can also be no symptoms which could have been why Oswald did not mention it to his parents because he wouldn’t have noticed it in the earlier stages. These symptoms can slowly get worse which was evident with Oswald throughout the play. At the beginning, there were no signs of his condition but, gradually, we saw him in distress. This is especially evident when he was asking his mother to be by his side and the words he was uttering (“The sun….The sun” – Page 164) at the end of the play when he sounded like he had permanent brain damage.

               Do you think that if Oswald’s mother, Mrs. Alving, had told him about his father’s condition (as he also had the same condition), then Oswald could have taken safety precautions and gotten suitable health care? If Mrs. Alving knew about her son’s condition but was in denial of his strange behavior (and maybe justifying it by the fact that Oswald is not attached to her as a mother since he was away for so long), could she have had the impression that this disease was a punishment from God for the sins of his father and that is why it wouldn’t make a difference if she was silent? Does public opinion come into play in this scenario?

Thank you for reading,

Mahra Al Suwaidi



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