“Ghosts” by Henrik Ibsen

*** SPOILER WARNING: The following post inevitably reveals some of the plot details of this play, and so, if such things are important to you, it is possibly best not to read this post till you’ve read or seen the play for yourself.

All quoted passages are taken from the translation by Deborah Dawkin and Erik Skuggevik, published by Penguin Classics

 

The stage directions for the first of the three acts tell us:

Through the conservatory windows a gloomy fjord landscape can be seen, veiled by steady rain.

We’re in the same location for the second act, and the stage directions tell us:

A rainy mist still lies heavily over the landscape.

The location remains unchanged in the third and final act also, and now, we are in the depths of night:

The lamp is still burning on the table. It is dark outside apart from a faint glow to the left in the background.

The sun does begin to rise in the final moments of the play, but what we see on stage as the sun rises is a scene of unmitigated horror: the rising of the sun brings with it no renewal. Quite the opposite.

It is hard to think of another play quite so unremittingly bleak and sombre as Ghosts. Even Long Day’s Journey into Night had begun in the light of day. The English title, Ghosts, is evocative, but Ibsen’s original Norwegian title is perhaps even more powerful: Gengangere means – so the notes to my Penguin Classics edition tell me – “something that or someone who walks again”. It is about the Past that refuses to stay in the past, that poisons the Present, and crushes the joy out of our lives.

This crushing of the Joy of Life is here a major theme. It is, ironically, Pastor Manders who introduces the motif of the Joy of Life early in the play, when he thinks back on the late Captain Alving:

As a young man, he was certainly full of the joys of life.

But to Manders, this is no more than a ready-made expression: he does not think too deeply on what it may signify. But Mrs Alving’s son, Osvald, recently returned from Paris, seizes upon it:

Yes, the joy of life, Mother – no-one knows much about that here at home. I never feel it here.

The word used in the original Norwegian is livsglad, a compound word, meaning (as, once again, the notes tell me) “happy in life” or “enjoying life”. I suspect that the power of this compound word is diminished when unpacked into the somewhat weak and prosaic “joy of life”. There is, I think, no way around this: in Bengali, too, it is permissible (as it isn’t in English) to create compound words in this manner, and the poetic or dramatic force comes from the often unexpected juxtaposition of the words that are welded together; translated into speakable English, something of this power is inevitably lost. And I suspect it is similar when translating from Norwegian. But, once introduced, livsglad becomes a major motif in this play. What Ibsen presents here is not a lachrymose wallow in the misery that is life, but, rather, a yearning for livsglad that seems ever beyond our reach, and a barely suppressed anger that this should be so.

Not that there aren’t thematic continuities from Ibsen’s previous play, A Doll’s House. It has often been pointed out, for instance, that while A Doll’s House presents a woman who walks out on her husband, Ghosts presents the tragedy of a woman who didn’t. This is true enough, but this neat pattern doesn’t really take us very far, as the marriage between Nora and Torvald is very different from that of the Alvings, and the reason Nora walks out is very different from the reason Mrs Alving had, in the past, nearly walked out. If we are to focus too intently on the thematic continuities between these last twelve plays (which Ibsen himself, towards the end  of his life, referred to as a “cycle”), there is a danger, perhaps, that we fail to see each of these plays as individual entities, and that we miss out on the new themes that Ibsen introduces in each. Yes, there is a thematic continuity in that Nora had refused, Brand-like, to continue living with lies, while Mrs Alving had been persuaded to continue doing so. But what takes centre-stage now are those lies themselves, those gengangere, that do not remain suppressed, that return to poison our lives, and destroy us. Indeed, these gengangere had never really gone away in the first place. And the livsglad that is crushed by them is more than merely “joy of life”: it is, rather, an elemental power that we are born with, that should make life beautiful, but which, when crushed, turns into its very opposite, so that even the rising of the sun brings with it pain and horror.

We do not see the marriage of the Alvings: Captain Alving, when the play opens, has long been dead. But the exposition here is more than merely communicating to the audience the events of the past so that the present drama may be understood: the exposition here is an examination of the past, and much of the present drama consists of the characters re-evaluating it, and coming to a new understanding. Thus, even as late as the final act, we see the characters revisiting the past, and understanding it in a different way.

Captain Alving had been one of the “pillars of society” Ibsen had written about in an earlier play, the very image of civic respectability, but, like those pillars, there was moral rottenness inside. For, in this instance, this exemplar of respectability had been in reality a lecherous and dissipated sybarite. Mrs Alving had left him once, and had taken refuge in the house of Pastor Manders.  And there is more than enough in the dialogue of this play to indicate that, at the time,  Mrs Alving and Pastor Manders had loved each other. But, while it is all too easy to play Pastor Manders as an outrageous hypocrite, he had had denied himself for the sake of the principles he sincerely believed in, and had persuaded Mrs Alving to return to her rightful husband. For Pastor Manders does not believe that humans were created to be happy:

It is the mark of a rebellious spirit to demand happiness here in life. What right do we mortals have to happiness? No, we must do our duty, madam! And your duty was to hold firmly to the man you’d once chosen, and to whom you were tied by holy bonds.

Duty. Duty not with happiness, or livsglad, as the end, but duty for its own sake, duty as its own end. And, far from being a hypocrite, Pastor Manders sincerely believes this: he lives by this, and for this. However, Captain Alving had not, as Manders had thought, reformed after his wife’s return: he remained as dissipated as ever, and Mrs Alving had been compelled, for the sake of the family’s good name and standing in society, to live a lie. And she knows the toll it has taken:

But I almost believe we are ghosts, all of us … It’s not just the things we have inherited from our fathers and mothers that return in us. It’s all kinds of old dead opinions and all kind of old dead doctrines … They aren’t alive in us; but they are lodged there all the same, and we can never be rid of them. I have only to pick up a newspaper and read it, and it’s as though I see ghosts living throughout the entire land.

Mrs Alving has suffered because she had submitted to the conventions of society that had demanded she continue with her farce of a marriage. She had realised that the law that had condemned her to this was wrong, and  this realisation leads her on to further realisation:

Yes, when you forced me to submit to what you called my duty and obligation; when you extolled as right and proper what my whole soul rebelled against as an abomination. That was when I began to examine the stitching that held your teachings together.  Only wanted to unpick a single knot, but the instant I had loosened that, the whole thing fell apart. And then I realised it was machine sewn.

And yet, she has to go on living with these ideas, these values, that she knows destroy all the Joy of Life. The past that lives with us, in us, those dead ideas that we cannot shed off … ghosts, gengangere.

Mrs Alving had been determined there must be, for the next generation at least, a complete break from the past – that her son should inherit nothing from his father. She had sent him away from home at an early age, so he would ever find out what his father had been like. And all the wealth that had come from his father’s side, she had used to open an orphanage, to ensure that none of it ever comes to her son – that her son should be free, in all respects, from all his father had been. And as she had lived a life of lies while her husband had been alive, she continues, for form’s sake, to perpetuate lies about him after his death, preserving his public image as a man of irreproachable moral integrity, while herself burning with resentment inside at the very lie she is perpetuating.

However, despite all her efforts, the Past continues to live within her son Osvald in a most terrible way, and here, we come across a problem that Ibsen had not envisaged. In Ibsen’s time, it was believed, wrongly, that syphilis could be passed on from father to son: but that, we now know, is not true. Of course, it is possible that the father could have infected the mother, and the mother could pass it on to the child, but if that were so, Mrs Alving too would be syphilitic, and that is clearly not the case. [EDIT: Please see footnote at the bottom of this post.] (I am, I should hasten to add, no expert on these medical matters, and would be more than happy to be corrected if I am mistaken in any way.) In short, it is simply not possible that Osvald has inherited syphilis from his father.

However, this does not invalidate the credibility of the plot. Syphilis itself is never mentioned directly, and, while Mrs Alving, and, later, Osvald, accept that the disease has been inherited from the father, there is no real evidence for it presented in the play. Indeed, there is not even any evidence that Captain Alving, dissipated though he was, had been syphilitic in the first place. Osvald, when breaking the news of his illness to his mother, is at pains to say that he had “never lived a riotous life”: but that is not to say, of course, that he had necessarily been celibate. And, indeed, till he discovers that his father was not the irreproachable pillar of virtue he had always believed him to have been, Osvald blames himself. He may not have been riotous, but it is certainly possible that he had been unlucky. Of course, Ibsen had intended us to believe that Osvald’s syphilis was inherited, but medical science has overtaken Ibsen’s intentions in this respect. And while this does not invalidate the credibility of the plot, as such, it inevitably weakens somewhat the play’s dramatic power. In Ibsen’s original conception, the ghosts from the past that we cannot lay to rest were both an image, and also a reality, in that it has taken the very real form of a disease inherited by son from father; but if we can no longer believe in that physical inheritance, it remains merely an image, and Osvald’s syphilis itself is but a cruel and capricious twist of fortune rather than a tragic inevitability. The fruits of sin (as syphilis was then regarded), instead of afflicting the father, afflicts the son instead; the inheritance is metaphorical, not physical.

But though the tragic force of the drama is inevitably diminished somewhat, it is by no means obliterated, as any good production of this play will reveal: it still holds the stage, and the effect remains quite shattering. Osvald’s brain is weakening: he knows that after the next attack, he will remain utterly incapable – alive, but with a brain that is, effectively, dead. He who had in him that yearning for livsglad, that unbounded joy in the simple fact of just being alive, finds himself saying to his mother:

I didn’t ask for life! What kind of life is it you’ve given me? I don’t want it!

But he is not the first for whom the delight in living has turned into its very opposite. When, at the start of the play, Pastor Manders had referred unthinkingly to Captain Alving being “full of the joys of life”, he was simply and unthinkingly using an expression, without considering what it really meant. Since then, we have had a picture of Alving that is very far removed from the joys of life: he enjoyed merely life’s debauched pleasures. But, in an extraordinary passage towards the end of the play, Mrs Alving sees her dead husband, and, consequently, her own past, in a startlingly different light. Pastor Manders may have used the term unthinkingly when speaking of the late Captain Alving, but he had not really been mistaken:

MRS ALVING: You should have known your father when he was a young lieutenant. He was certainly filled with the joy of life!

OSVALD: Yes, I know.

MRS ALVING: It was like a sunny Sunday just looking at him. And such incredible energy and vitality he had!

OSVALD: And – ?

MRS ALVING: And then this joyous child – because he was a child back then, had to while his time away back here, in a middling-sized town that had no real joy to offer, only diversions. He was stuck here without any vocation in life, with nothing but a civil service appointment … Without one single friend capable of feeling what the joy of life might be; only layabouts and drinking companions …

The man she had, for most of her life, hated and despised now appears to her as someone whose natural exuberance and joy had, for lack of any outlet, festered, become corrupted. And she sees as well her own part in this:

MRS ALVING: Your poor father could never find any outlet for this excessive joy of life inside him. And I didn’t bring any Sunday sunshine into his home either.

OSVALD: Not even you?

MRS ALVING: They had taught me about duties and the like, things I have gone around believing in for so long. It always seemed to come down to duty – my duties and his duties and – I’m afraid I made this home unbearable for your poor father, Osvald.

As Pastor Manders may have said, why strive for joy, for happiness, in the first place? Duty, joyless duty, is what we are here for, and to think otherwise is to rebel against the Laws of God Himself. Pastor Manders’ ideas may be old and dead, but they remain with us, and they crush whatever delight, whatever joy, we may take in the very fact of living.

This theme introduced in this play of livsglad, that problematic compound word for which “joy of life” seems to me perhaps too weak a translation, returns again in later plays in the series, most notably, perhaps, in The Master Builder, in which, at a climactic point, Solness exclaims “I – who cannot live without joy!” It is the denial of this livsglad, and the terrible consequences of this denial, that seem to me to be at the centre of this darkest and most unremittingly bleak of all Ibsen’s plays.

Ghosts, after its premier in 1882, predictably, caused a huge scandal, even bigger than the one occasioned by Nora walking out on her husband and family at the end of A Doll’s House. Even years later, when Ibsen was a Grand Old Man of Letters rather than the enfant terrible, the then monarch of Norway, Oscar II, told Ibsen at some formal reception that he really shouldn’t have written Ghosts.  Ibsen had replied: “Your Majesty, I had to write Ghosts!” Unremitting as it is in its intensity, it bears throughout the marks of a play that had to be written.

 

Footnote: My friend Richard Arundel draws my attention to the following footnote by Michael Meyer in the introduction to his translation of Ghosts, published by Methuen:

In view of the oft-repeated complaint that syphilis cannot be inherited from one’s father, it is worth pointing out that it can be inherited from one’s mother, and that a woman can have syphilis without realizing it or suffering any particular discomfort.In other words, and this is a far more frightening explanation of Oswald’s illness than the usual one, Mrs Alving could have caught syphilis from her husband and passed it on  to her son. Dr Jonathan Miller has pointed out to me that Oswald could also have been infected by smoking his father’s pipe. Ibsen knew more about medicine than some of his critics.

10 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Ann on August 22, 2018 at 3:10 pm

    “Submitted to the conventions of society that demanded she continue with her farce of a marriage” ……beautifully phrased Himadri and inexpressibly saddening.

    Reply

  2. You are silent on the exquisite ending of the play?

    Reply

    • I think I do mention the horror there somewhere, but I think I refrained commenting specifically on that final scene because I didn’t think I could come close to communicating the intensity of that horror!

      But yes, I should have said something about it.

      Reply

      • “The sun does begin to rise in the final moments of the play, but what we see on stage as the sun rises is a scene of unmitigated horror: the rising of the sun brings with it no renewal. Quite the opposite.”

        What, for you, is the nature and source of this horror that so suddenly affects mother and son?

      • The precise nature and source of the horror is not easy to specify exactly. Obviously, in literal terms, Osvald has had an attack, as he knew he would, and he is left helpless. But in metaphorical terms, we need, I think, to dig deeper, and I don’t know there’s any clear-cut answer we could all agree on.

        The more I think of this play, the more it seems to me that the passage where Mrs Alving recognises her part in her husband’s decline is key to understanding the play. The joy of life that Captain Alving had been born with had been transformed into something foul and rotten, so that which should be beautiful becomes, instead, horrific. So here, the horror comes with sunrise: the moment that should be beautiful, the moment that symbolically offers promise of renewal, brings with it instead horror.

        I think this subversion of joy becomes a major theme in Ibsen. “I, who cannot live without joy!” shouts Master Builder Solness at one point. But instead, he is “chained to a corpse”, a woman who has herself suffered, and who now lives out her joyless existence. But let us not anticipate.

      • Subversion of joy is surely central to “Ghosts”. First, Helene Alving’s placing duty before joy in her marriage. Second, Captain Alving’s overt dissipation when faced with a joyless marriage. Third, young Pastor Manders’ placing duty before joy, when Mrs Alving flees to him for relief. Fourth, Oswald brief childhood in her joyless home. Fifth, Oswald’s abortive attempt at transient joy with the maid, Regina.

        As to the horror in the final scene of the play, Ibsen does give clues. Oswald leaves his rather grim home in Norway as a seven year-old at his dutiful mother’s bidding to save him from the influence of a licentious father, a man once brimming with joie de vivre. Oswald eventually finds joie de vivre, himself, living with creative people in Paris but returns home reluctantly when his father’s syphilitic legacy compels him. His mother will care for him, will do her duty.

        He leaves Paris for Norway, returning to a dreadful winter of unceasing gloom. When his father’s memorial, the orphanage, is ablaze, Oswald is drawn to its warmth and light—his father’s warmth and light—but lingers there rather too long.

        In the final scene, the horror begins at dawn when, for the first time in months, bright sunlight streams through the lounge window of the Alving home. But Oswald stands with his back to the window. What does he see in front of him—see with clarity for the first time since his childhood—that so appals him, that lays waste his failing sanity?

        ____MRS. ALVING: (starting back) The joy of life–? Is there salvation in that?

        His mother is determined to stand by her dying son to the end but his final words cut her to the core. A deranged Oswald, his back to the warmth and light of the rising sun, speaks of an absence of warmth and light as he looks at that all too familiar wall in front of him. And yet, as this “Domestic Tragedy” ends, our focus is squarely on Helene Alving!

        ____MRS. ALVING: “…There must be ghosts all the country over, as thick as the sands of the sea. And then we are, one and all, so pitifully afraid of the light.”

        There is much to be said for this ending.

      • Indeed, the subversion of Joy is indeed a major theme in this play. And the horror is not something that Joy fights again, but rather, what Joy becomes when subverted.

  3. The ending of Ghosts underlines the limits of a life of joyless duty.

    Mrs Alving’s dutiful marriage comes to a syphilitic end and culminates in her memorial to her husband burning to ashes.

    Mrs Alving’s dutiful caring for her son gives rise to his reproaches. First, regarding the attractive maid Regina, and second regarding the childhood trauma Oswald relives as madness encroaches.

    Mrs Alving’s marriage and motherhood culminates with her gift of misery and the opiate of death, morphine.  Instead of giving Oswald the sun with its life-giving warmth, Mrs Alving will give death with a syringe.  Just as she had done with Chamberlain Alving, her husband. 

    The joyless horror!

    Reply

    • The play ends in uncertainty as to what Mrs Alving really will do: we do not know whether or not she will “give death” to Osvald. But, unless I am missing something, there is surely no indication whatever in the play that she had killed her husband, Chamberlain Alving.

      Reply

      • Chamberlain Alving died from syphilis with Mrs Alving at his side. Like father, like son.

        OSWALD: But this is so appallingly horrible. To become like a helpless child again–to have to be fed, to have to be–. Oh, it’s unspeakable!

        One thing is certain: Mrs Alving will do her duty.

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