In The Oxford Paperback Dictionary, reality is defined briefly as: ”the quality of being real, resemblance to an original.” (Oxford, 1979, p. 532)  Illness as reality refers to the actual physical illness – in the case of Ghosts, that of Oswald’s physical weakness and mental instability caused by inherited venereal disease.  The reality of syphilis is that it does not always reach its final tertiary stage in all who contract it.  Thus, via a mother who shows no trace of it, “the  sins of the fathers are visited upon the children” (McFarlane & Arup, 1990, p. 138), passed from generation to generation.  As reality, illness brings about anguish and madness for Oswald and Mrs Alving respectively.

According to Abrahms:

[i]n a metaphor, a word or expression which in literal usage denotes one kind of thing or action [subject or tenor] is applied to a distinctly different kind of thing or action [object or vehicle]….  In an implicit metaphor, the tenor is not itself specified, but only implied …” (Abrahms,1993, p. 67)

Illness as metaphor refers to anything in the play that can be represented as a particular form of illness:  heredity; and social malaise in the form of power, hypocrisy, respectability, concealment and morality.

As a metaphor, Oswald’s real illness highlighted the illness of narrow-mindedness and hypocrisy that infected the Norwegian society. The plays of Ibsen, reflecting these social attitudes, are “characterised [realistically]… by representing complex characters with mixed motives who are rooted in a social class, operate in a highly developed social structure, interact with many other characters, and undergo plausible and everyday modes of experience.” (Abrahms, 1993, p. 132)  His plays depict not only specific political and moral problems/themes via his characters, but also their place in society, and its controlling effect on their lives.

The Norwegian society, in which the authority of the church dictated morality, comprised: “the hollowness of great reputations, provincialism of outlook, the narrowness of small-town life, the suppression of individual freedom [internally and externally] … and the neglect of the significance of heredity.” (Meyer, 1980, p. 22)  As the church’s representative, a deeply conservative Pastor Manders was an instigator of repression and hypocrisy, seeking to avoid scandal at the cost of truth and morality.  Unable to accept new ideas on sexuality, new social ideas, family matters like unmarried couples with children living as a family: “[t]o think the authorities tolerate such …. blatant immorality” (McFarlane & Arup, 1990, p. 111), Manders demonstrated the narrow constraints of his church.

His concern about other’s opinions of him, and fear of scandal, led to him not insuring the Orphanage: “men in independent and influential positions …. [might believe] that neither you nor I had a proper faith in Divine Providence.” (ibid, p. 104)  In turn, this led to his blackmail by the thoroughly disreputable Engstrand, who though a cheat, was honest about it, and with himself.  Because Manders was gullible, and dishonest with himself and others, he concealed from himself the reality of funding a brothel by believing Engstrand’s description of it as a home for sailors.  Both Manders and Engstrand “talk[ed] and th[ought] in cliches” (Northam, 1973, p. 78). Manders “believe[d] in the validity of appearances and platitudes that Regine and Engstrand exploit[ed] to hide unseemly realities …. he belong[ed] to … the world of moral cliches.” (ibid, p. 79)

Ibsen didn’t provide answers – he posed questions.  After all, he ascribed to:

[t]he idea that the writer has a mission to perform, that he should endeavour through his work to create new currents in the stagnant waters of contemporary society, [that] was widely accepted among liberal minds around 1880.” (Aarseth, 1989, p. 51)

By his metaphorical and real use of illness in Ghosts, and his choice of characters from the various social classes, Ibsen brought to the attention of his society the masculine hypocrisy that ruled it.  Begun in his play, A Doll’s House, he continued to disclose the inequality of the role expected of women in society compared with that practised by men. As women Nora and Regine’s plights were similar – both were financially dependent on others and were thus disempowered. Reliant on Mrs Alving for her livelihood, Regine’s choices were marriage, service, prostitution, or shop-or-factory work.  Needing to exploit every opportunity, Regine first ‘made a play’ for Manders then for Oswald, as possible solutions to her elevation in society.  Faced with the knowledge of her parentage and Oswald’s illness, she opted to join her stepfather, Engstrand, in his enterprise, despite her doubts as to its moral status.

A wealthy widow, Mrs Alving had more control over her financial affairs, although she left the running of the trust for the Orphanage to Pastor Manders.  Upright, admirable, wealthy, hard working, she increased her work through her wealth and vice versa.  She was charitable, accepted social responsibility, and was considered, by all who were ignorant of the real state of her married life, to be a pillar of society.  The fact that she read books that challenged church teachings and bourgeois restrictions came as a shock to Pastor Manders, and led to a lecture on proper behaviour.  Her enlightenment gave her confidence and the courage to reply against the force of Manders rhetoric – “his rebuke [wa]s massive and in its way impressive …. we recognise[d] a demonstration of society’s power to coerce and it [wa]s not negligible.” (Northam, 1973, p. 84)

Naturally, Ibsen’s society reacted vehemently to his exposure of their failings:

Among the things that shocked delicate readers was … the implicit reference to a hereditary venereal disease, the idea that incest may occur in many a decent-looking family, and possibly also the dramatic irony aimed at a naive clergyman. (Aarseth, 1989, p. 52)

Add to that the notion that euthanasia was the proposed solution to Oswald’s and Mrs Alving’s future burden of coping with his physical incapacities, and it becomes apparent why society reacted in the way they did.  These topics are still controversial today – his play was set prior to the turn of the  twentieth century!

In Ghosts, Ibsen exposed “the connection between heritage and decadence.” (Meyer, 1980, p. 22).  He dealt with the ghosts “not [of] superstition, but rather … of destiny” (Aarseth, 1989, p. 59) of the past, in the form of inherited family traits and congenital disease/illness, that returned to haunt his characters and expose hidden truths. Powerful in the nineteenth century, this notion of heredity strongly permeates Ghosts .  Not only did Oswald inherit the venereal disease from his father, but also his physical features and innate characteristics, apparent to Manders on seeing him with his father’s pipe.  He had Captain Alving’s “aversion for walking in bad weather … his taste for liqueur and cigars as well as his expressed attraction to the maid …. Inheritance [wa]s not as easily abolished as Mrs Alving ha[d] been assuming.” (Aarseth, 1989, p. 73)  Oswald’s grasping at Regine symbolised his grasping at life, as his father did before him.

Thus Oswald’s congenital disease acts as a metaphor for the way the past continued to affect the present.  It is a metaphor for the inescapability of the past.  Mrs Alving was forced to return to her husband by Manders’ rejection, and his inhumane and hypocritical notion of duty: “[w]hat right have people to happiness?  No, we have our duty to do”. (McFarlane & Arup, 1990, p. 113)  For the sake of respectability, she tried to hide the true nature of her marriage, and of her husband’s depravity, from Oswald, and the society in which she worked and lived.  “Mrs Alving may, with half her mind, be a radical, but with the other half she … chose to act by the social standards she s[aw] to be false … she … kept appearances society demand[ed].” (Northam, 1973, pp. 86-7)    Initially led to think of Captain Alving as honourable, the audience gradually realise he was dissolute.  Oswald told his mother and Manders that he had been forced to smoke his father’s pipe as a child:

‘Smoke, lad,’ [Father] said, ‘go on, lad, smoke!’  And I smoked as hard as I could, till I felt I was going quite pale and great beads of sweat stood out on my forehead.  Then he roared with laughter …. Then I was sick, and I saw you were crying .… Did Father often play tricks like that? McFarlane & Arup, 1990, p. 109)

Mrs Alving put up with her husband‘s behaviour for the sake of her son who was ironically already poisoned by his father, when sent away to escape his pernicious influence.  Turning to the power of work to inure herself against him, she “took control in the house … complete control … over him and everything else.” (ibid, p. 118)  With the “weapon” of her knowledge of his affair with her maid, and the evidence of Regine’s existence, “he didn’t dare say anything” (ibid, p. 118) for the sake of respectability.  With Oswald’s return from Paris, just as the culmination of her concealment was in sight, the past re-emerged in the present:

The insidious brain illness which Oswald has inherited from his father … buil[t] up to its final attack exactly when Mrs Alving [wa]s making the final arrangements to ensure that her son d[id] not inherit anything from his father. (Aarseth, 1989, p. 72)

As a catalyst, the past impacted on the present and set the action of the play, and the inevitable exposure of the truth, in motion.

According to Meyer, “Oswald’s inherited syphilis may be regarded as a symbol of the dead customs and traditions which we inherit, and which stunt and cripple us and lay waste our life.” (Meyer, 1980, p 24)  Inherited from his father, the ‘Joy of Life’ – not only “to live for the satisfaction of appetite, for drink, art, love, beauty … but [also] to throw one’s life away” (Hornby, 1981, pp. 128-9) contributed to Oswald’s mental illness.  The conflict between this energy and vitality of the ‘Joy of Living’ and the gloom of Duty in Ghosts, foregrounded the already mentioned social malaise of the puritanical, pietous Norwegian church and polite society that, as a result of its bastions’ timidity and hypocrisy, imposed restrictions, and repressions on individuals.  Believing in doing her duty by her husband, Mrs Alving thus stifled his vitality, his ‘Joy of Life’ which he then channelled into excesses – drinking, smoking, adultery, and debauchery.  Not only did he throw his life away, but also that of his son – “Oswald is so passionate about joy and bliss because they are lost to him.” (Northam, 1973, p. 92)

Using her “purchase price …. the [exact] amount that made Lieutenant Alving such a good match in his day …. [she] donated, year by year, to this Orphanage” (McFarlane & Arup, 1990, p. 119) in an attempt to expunge her “bad conscience” (ibid, p. 118) and conceal the past.  A monument for man who was publicly concerned for children, but, ironically, in reality fathered indiscriminately, the Orphanage stands as a metaphor for concealed truth.  Although it was for the good of the underprivileged, the lie of naming it after her husband undermined her altruism.   A false monument to a false past, it burned because it was a lie.  And the fire that devoured it was a metaphor for the light of truth – the past, with its guilt, could not be got rid of by burning it down.

As the vehicle of the curse of the past, Oswald brought home the true nature of his father’s character, his mother’s concealment of it, and Regine’s parentage, in the form of his illness.  The cure for this curse was worse than the disease (of Mrs Alving’s dishonesty and lies) had proved to be.   With the dawn-light – a powerful metaphor revealing the darkness that finally surrounded Oswald as his idiocy set in – her inability to wipe out the past was revealed:

The rays of the sun penetrating the glass walls of the conservatory …. are not to be understood as a sign of warmth and protection, but rather the sharp, cold light of truth without mercy … the irony is evident: she ha[d] been hiding the truth for so long that when the light of perception [wa]s finally illuminating the stage, what bec[ame] visible [wa]s … the human wreck, the consequence of misguided protection and lack of openness and social courage.”
(pp. 74-5)

Faced with two choices, Mrs Alving must terminate her precious son, Oswald’s life as requested with morphine – or face life filled with the personification (the ghosts) of her past as he slowly died. Leaving the question hanging, unresolved – an insoluble problem – Ibsen makes the audience confront this and bear the burden.

“[T]he gloom beyond the windows is a fitting image of the social and moral climate of Norway.” (Northam, 1973, p. 81) With its shroud-like appearance presaging death, the gloom metaphorically hung like Oswald’s illness over the action of the play and the characters of Oswald and Mrs Alving.  “When Oswald complain[ed] of [this] gloom, we know how much more he mean[t] than the physical darkness.” (ibid, p. 92)  In reality and metaphorically he felt and was doomed.

(C) Jud House  29/10/2012


Aarseth, Asbjorn  (1989) Peer Gynt and Ghosts: Text and Performance.  London: Macmillan Education Ltd.

Archer, William, (ed.)  Four Plays: A Doll’s House – The Wild Duck – Ghosts – The Master Builder : Henrik Ibsen  London: Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd.

Farquharson Sharp, R. (trans.) (1961)  Henrik Ibsen: Ghosts – The Warriors at Helgeland –An Enemy of the People.  London: J M Dent & Sons Ltd.

Hornby, Richard. (1981)  Patterns in Ibsen’s Middle Plays.  London & Toronto: Associated University Presses.

McFarlane, James, & Arup, Jens (trans) (1990) Henrik Ibsen: Four Major Plays – A Doll’s House – Ghosts – Hedda Gabler – The Master Builder.  Oxford: World’s Classics: Oxford University Press.

Meyer, Michael (trans) (1980) Henrik Ibsen: Plays: One – Ghosts – The Wild Duck – The Master Builder.  London: Eyre Methuen

Northam, John.  (1971)  Ibsen’s Dramatic Method.  Oslo: Universitetsforlaget.

Northam, John. (1973)  Ibsen: A Critical Study.  London: Cambridge University Press.

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  1. Pingback: Reviews of Movies You Should See: Ghosts | Eradica

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