In Act Two of Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts, Oswald Alving reveals the source of the illness that has brought him home to die: vermoulu. His doctor has told him, “you’ve been worm-eaten from birth” (63; the source for all quotations from this play is the Michael Meyer translation in Drama and Discussion, ed. Stanley A. Clayes, Prentice Hall: Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1978). Helene Alving thus confronts the awful truth that one’s “ghosts” cannot be laid to rest and that one’s fate cannot be avoided by prudently acquiescing to social convention. The oppressive effects of a stultifying society and of a “socialized” religion where appearances are everything has led Mrs. Alving to preserve her marriage at all costs; the terrible irony is that she learns she has preserved it at the cost of her son’s life. Her union with the philandering Captain Alving, which she endured through a sense of duty, has thus become life-taking rather than life- affirming, degenerative rather than regenerative. And, yet, her son’s revelation is both her tragedy and her liberation.
It is well know that Ibsen wrote Ghosts (1881) in answer to the uproar created by A Doll’s House (1879), when the protagonist of that play, Nora Helmer, walked out on her husband and children. The last we hear of Nora is the door slamming shut as the play closes. Ibsen has suggested that in the wake of the reception of A Doll’s House, the creation of Mrs. Alving, a woman who stayed in an oppressive marriage, was inevitable. “After Nora, Mrs. Alving of necessity had to oome,” Ibsen noted (Keith May, Ibsen and Shaw, St. Martin’s Press: New York, 1985, 60). In a gesture ringing of “you asked for it,” Ibsen created the play in which “the sins of the fathers are visited on the sons”; the specific sin in this case is venereal disease.
As Ghosts opens, Mrs. Alving is preparing for the ceremonies to dedicate the orphanage she has constructed in Captain Alving’s memory, who has been dead for ten years. She has been delighted by a surprise visit from her son, a Paris artist, who has announced that he has come to spend the winter with her. Shortly after the play begins, Pastor Manders, who has overseen the official business of constructing the orphanage and who will dedicate it the following day, arrives. Pastor Manders is no stranger to the Alving household; it becomes quite clear that it was he to whom Mrs. Alving fled shortly after her marriage to Captain Alving. Manders reminds Mrs. Alving that twenty-eight years ago he dutifully sent her home to her husband: “I was able to dissuade you from your frenzied intentions. . . . It was granted to me to lead you back on to the path of duty and home to your lawful husband” (52).
During the course of the play, Mrs. Alving reveals to Pastor Manders the true nature of her marriage after she returned home. For the sake of appearance, she convinced her husband to move .to the country, where his debauched ways might be concealed, and she sent her son Oswald to boarding school so that he would never learn the truth about his father’s dissolute life. “I wanted to make sure that my own son, Oswald; should not inherit anything whatever from his father” (54). Helene Alving sacrificed herself by partaking of the drinking sessions with Alving, in the privacy of their home, and struggling with his violence as she nightly put him to bed. All the while, she took over the family business, made charitable donations in her husband’s name, and wrote to her son of his father’s philanthropic deeds.
Mrs. Alving has even been able to conceal the captain’s indiscretion of impregnating the housemaid, who is sent away with a bundle of money and whose daughter, Regina, the product of his indiscretion, has lived with, been educated by, and now serves as the maid for Mrs. Alving.
With the dedication of the orphanage, built with the exact sum that Captain Alving possessed when she married him, Helene believes that she is finally able to rid herself of the burden under which she has lived all these years; the orphanage will be the final act of atonement; the ghosts of the marriage will be put to rest.
Yet, revelation is the nature of the play, and while Manders is shocked by the revisionist history of the Alving marriage, Mrs. Alving is the one who receives the greatest shock, that of the illness of her only child. As the orphanage burns to the ground (a result of carelessness with a candle), the play proceeds toward more revelations. Oswald learns that his father led a dissolute life and that Regina, whom he had become very attracted to, is his half-sister.
The play ends shortly after Oswald has elicited a promise from his mother to administer a lethal dose of morphine to him when the disease overtakes his mind. The closing scene depicts Mrs. Alving in the throes of her anguished decision, while her son, suddenly reduced to a catatonic state, mutters again and again, “The sun, the sun.” We do not know whether Mrs. Alving will relieve her son’s misery or whether she will let him continue to live in this literally mindless state.
When Ibsen submitted Ghosts to the Danish Royal Theatre in 1881, it was rejected and was subsequently rejected and vilified by all the Scandinavian countries, until August Lindberg created a fairly well received touring production in 1883. It was launched into the rest of the world, however, amidst outrage and derision: “The critical controversy and even hostility that frequently attended the many . . . productions of Ghosts during the 1880s erupted into a veritable firestorm of denunciations and moral outrage when the play at last reached the stages of the three world capitals--Paris, London, and New York--in the nineties” (Frederick J. Marker and Lise Lone Marker, Ibsen’s Lively Art: A Performance Study of the Major Plays, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1989, 92-93).
Early critical response, then, is clouded by controversy over the appropriateness of the play’s subject matter. Directorial choices that focused on Oswald as protagonist didn’t help. Critics believed that Ibsen’s purpose was to show the ravages of venereal disease and denounced the play as filthy; performances were met with “shrieks of execration” (Marker, 92).
Added to the controversy over the perceived subject matter was Ibsen’s experimentation with dramatic form and characterization. The playwright’s innovation in acting, setting, and lighting was equally as shocking as the subject matter. Andre Antoine, for example, introduced in his 1890 production of Ghosts a “new style of acting in which, according to Emile Zola’s dictates, the actors should ‘not play, but rather live before the audience”’ (Marker, 93). Thus Ghosts’s early notoriety resulted from both form and content; audiences disconcerted with the subject matter were also disoriented by the “realism” that diminished their sense that they were watching actors playing parts. To see and hear actors who “became” their characters was shocking,
Moreover, Ibsen once again had boldly confronted “the woman question,” and, similar to the character of Nora in A Doll’s House, Helene Alving was and continues to be a source of controversy. It wasn’t long before most directors recognized her as the true protagonist of the play, and with the shift in focus from Oswald to his mother came the debate over whether Helene was cruel and calculating throughout the play or strengthened and enlightened at the end.
In his review of the criticism of the play, John Chamberlain sides with those who perceive Helene Alving as a cold controller and possessive mother: He quotes critics who describe her as “a savage predator in a horrifying world” (Hans George Meyer), and who characterize her as a “child devouring mother” (Meyer and David Thomas) (177-78). Chamberlain himself suggests that “Mrs. Alving’s most seriously negative aspects are too kindly passed over” and concludes that if she suffers with stoicism, she “may also bean almost literally murderous matriarch” (101).
The grammatical awkwardness of this last sentence suggests the extent to which Chamberlain pushes this interpretation. Moreover, the critical assessments discussed above have little basis in the play; all three critics are fairly hard pressed to put their characterizations of Mrs. Alving to the textual test. All three critics fail to consider the structure of the play, for example, which unfolds in a “Sophoclean” manner; that is, the Mrs. Alving at the beginning of the play is not the anguished mother we see at the end, just as Oedipus, having had his veil of ignorance lifted, is drastically changed. Furthermore, characterizing her as cold and calculating tends, interestingly enough, to exonerate Captain Alving, the true agent of the son’s illness. It is he who has infected the son, not the “devouring” mother. Helene Alving has made mistakes, but clearly not ones as fatal, physically or psychologically, as Captain Alving’s.
In Ghosts Mrs. Alving’s light-hearted and determined spirit progresses toward a recognition of her own culpability in the course of events that has led to her son’s illness. Seemingly indomitable as the play opens, Mrs. Alving banters with Pastor Manders, and clearly possesses the upper hand over this stuffy relic of the church, whose third sentence has something to do with “duty.”
Although he is there strictly on the business of the orphanage, Pastor Manders, upset by the “free-thinking” books Mrs. Alving has been reading, feels moved to remind her that her “fatal spirit of willfulness,” led her to disown “her duties as a wife” (52). Manders is moved to elevated religious rhetoric as he piously condemns the woman who fled to him twenty-eight years prior: “For verily Mrs. Alving, as a mother you carry a heavy burden of guilt. This I have regarded as my duty to say to you” (53).
After which Helene Alving lowers the boom, so to speak, and reveals all to the self-righteous, spiritually blinded pastor.
It is significant that these two characters are pitted against one another as the play opens, because it is through them that change, or lack thereof, is measured. That Pastor Manders has grossly misinterpreted the Alving’s relationship for twenty-eight years comes as a great shock to him, but has little impact on the way he will continue to conduct his life. Enlightenment does not bring self-knowledge. Therefore, the last we see of the good pastor is his being led blindly by Regina’s adoptive father, Engstrand, to take the funds for the now-burned orphanage and put them into a “sailor’s home,” a euphemism for nothing less than a brothel (admittedly a more fitting memorial to Captain Alving). If there is change at all in Manders, it is that he has reduced himself to the level of Engstrand. Their complicity in covering up the fact that Manders’s carelessness was the source of the accidental fire ends in their colluding to create the “sailor’s home.”
The fire that destroys the orphanage has quite a different effect on Helene Alving. Occurring at the end of Act 2, it culminates the scene in which Helene has the first recognition of the complicity by keeping up appearances at all costs. Oswald has introduced to her the notion of the “joy of life,” a concept that has escaped her completely. Contrasting “here” (the oppressive Norway, the oppressive house) with “out there,” Oswald states that in Paris: “They feel it’s wonderful and glorious just to be alive. Mother have you noticed how everything I’ve painted is concerned with the joy of life . . . , light and sunshine and holiday.
That’s what makes me afraid to be here at home with you.”
Mrs. Alving. “Afraid? what are you afraid of here with me?
Oswald. “I’m afraid that everything in me will degenerate into ugliness here” (67).
It is as though Helene Alving has heard the term ‘joy’ for the first time in her life. The word strikes her on a psychic level and triggers the recognition that will allow her to strip away the facades she has been living behind. The destruction of the orphanage is then merely a tangible symbol of Mrs. Alving’s recognition that ghosts are not exorcised by erecting institutions to placate society. She tells Oswald: “You spoke of the joy of life; and that seemed to throw a new light over everything that has happened in my life. . . . [Your father] hadn’t a single friend capable of knowing what the joy of life means; only idlers and drinking companions-- . . . And I didn’t bring any sunshine into his home” (70-71).
The terrible irony is that at the point Helene Alving does bring the sunshine in, symbolically and literally, her son succumbs to the illness that plagues him. Her decision of whether or not to administer the morphine is her greatest test.
Sandra Saari locates “three tests” designed to free Mrs. Alving “from the social and religious dicta of the past”: telling Oswald about the debauchery of his father, preventing an incestuous union between Regina and Oswald, and administering the lethal dose of morphine. “Her free will becomes a major consideration in the play. From this perspective, the plot concludes precisely at the moment of Mrs. Alving’s greatest existential choice” (in John S. Chamberlain, Ibsen The Open Vision, Athlone: London, 1982; 73-74).
When confronted about the characters of Nora Helmer and Mrs. Alving, Ibsen often protested that he was not consciously promoting women’s rights in his play and, in fact, wasn’t quite sure what was meant by that term; his interests, he said, were with human rights. Clearly, however, women are a subset of the category “human,” and Ibsen saw plainly the consequences to society of their oppression. In his notes to Ghosts, he writes: “These modem women, misused as daughters, as sisters, as wives, not educated according to their talents, barred from their vocation, robbed of their inheritance, their minds embittered—