Archive for the ‘books’ Category

“A Christmas Carol”, Tolstoy, and Dostoyevsky. And a bit of Henry James.

In a recent post, I pointed out what seems to me a striking similarity between a passage in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and a passage in Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Illyich. In both instances, we see a group of men speaking in indifferent terms about the recent death of a colleague. Of course, this similarity could be a coincidence, but I think not: first of all, Tolstoy openly loved and admired Dickens; and secondly, Dickens was here addressing a theme that was obviously very close to Tolstoy’s heart – What meaning, what significance, can we find in a human life in the context of its inevitable end? This is a question that Tolstoy had returned to throughout his life, and nowhere with greater insistence than in The Death of Ivan Illyich. And Tolstoy is not the only artist to have addressed this question, and echoed A Christmas Carol in the process: Ingmar Bergman’s film Wild Strawberries also addresses this question, and here too, we see an elderly misanthrope reliving his past, and becoming reformed in the process.

The echoes of Dickens in Bergman’s film are, most likely, accidental; but there was another great artist who, quite consciously, I think, had echoed A Christmas Carol. Consider Bob Cratchit’s speech to his gathered family in the Christmas-Yet-to-Come episode:

“…But however and whenever we part from one another, I am sure we shall none of us forget poor Tiny Tim—shall we—or this first parting that there was among us?”

“Never, father!” cried they all.

“And I know,” said Bob, “I know, my dears, that when we recollect how patient and how mild he was; although he was a little, little child; we shall not quarrel easily among ourselves, and forget poor Tiny Tim in doing it.”

Now let us consider Alyosha’s speech to the boys (also while mourning the death of a child) at the end of The Brothers Karamazov:

“Boys, my dear boys, let us all be generous and brave like Ilusha, clever, brave and generous like Kolya (though he will be ever so much cleverer when he is grown up), and let us all be as modest, as clever and sweet as Kartashov. But why am I talking about those two? You are all dear to me, boys, from this day forth, I have a place in my heart for you all, and I beg you to keep a place in your hearts for me! Well, and who has united us in this kind, good feeling which we shall remember and intend to remember all our lives? Who, if not Ilusha, the good boy, the dear boy, precious to us for ever! Let us never forget him. May his memory live for ever in our hearts from this time forth!”

(from the translation by Constance Garnett)

In both cases, the speaker is urging other children to remember a departed child, and, whatever happens in life, be inspired to be good by the memory of that dead child’s goodness.

It’s all too easy to dismiss Dickens for being sentimental (especially in something like A Christmas Carol, which is generally regarded as no more than a feelgood piece of whimsy, and not, perhaps, the deepest expression of an artistic and moral vision); but when Dostoyevsky places a passage that is almost identical in sense and feeling at the very end of what is generally taken to be the most comprehensive statement of his own artistic and moral vision, we should, I think, take it a bit more seriously.

For I don’t think the passage in Dickens is “sentimental” at all. Quite the contrary.  It comes in a scene that is, I think, at the very heart of A Christmas Carol. It depicts, to my mind very convincingly, a loving and close-knit family grieving for a dead child. It’s only a few pages long: Dickens, contrary perhaps to expectations, doesn’t milk it. But the context in which he places it is remarkable. For, earlier, Scrooge had been made to see a world utterly devoid of any human feeling: some cleaning women have robbed a dead man of everything, including the very blankets the corpse had been wrapped in, and are now trying to sell these stolen goods for as much as they can get. A world so devoid of feeling – and not too far removed, incidentally, from the indifference of the men Scrooge had seen earlier discussing the dead man in indifferent terms – is indeed Hell. And Scrooge, by this stage, knows it: he refers to it as “a fearful place”. And he knows why it is such a fearful place: there is no room here for human feeling. He asks to be shown some feeling in relation to the dead man, and he is shown a young couple who are merely relieved, because the death of their creditor has given them an unexpected respite. But this is not what Scrooge wants to see: and he finally articulates what it is that he wants to see – tenderness. He wants to see that which makes of our lives something other than the Hell he has just witnessed. And this is when we are shown the grieving Cratchits.

The mother tries not to show her grief:

The mother laid her work upon the table, and put her hand up to her face.

“The colour hurts my eyes,” she said.

The colour? Ah, poor Tiny Tim!

The father is less successful, and at one point, spontaneously bursts into tears. Dickens tells us, in a narrative intrusion of a kind very unfashionable these days:

He broke down all at once. He couldn’t help it. If he could have helped it, he and his child would have been farther apart perhaps than they were.

Far from being sentimental or mawkish, as is often alleged, this seems to me to get to the very heart of the matter. For whatever pain the mother and the father may feel, the very fact that they can feel this pain is what makes them human. This is the tenderness that Scrooge had longed to see, and without which our lives are very literally Hell.

At the end of Bob Cratchit’s speech, he says something very unexpected:

“I am very happy,” said little Bob, “I am very happy!”

I think Dickens is challenging us here: he is challenging us to understand how a man can profess himself “very happy” even when undergoing the greatest mental anguish. And I think the answer lies in what had come earlier: were it not for the pain that the Cratchits feel, they would be even further from their dead child than they already were. It is this ability to feel that makes us human, that makes of this terrible world something other than merely Hell.

A few years ago, I read The Portrait of a Lady, and was struck by a passage at the climactic point of the novel, where, as Ralph is dying, and as his beloved Isabel tells him how unhappy she is in her marriage, he says:

“You don’t hurt me—you make me very happy.” 

And I remember trying to figure out where else I had come across a character in the depths of sorrow claiming to be happy. And it took me a while to figure out it that the other book I was thinking of is A Christmas Carol.  Perhaps it’s not surprising that it took me a while: after all, Dickens and James are about as radically different as writers as it is possible to imagine. Indeed, James deeply disliked Dickens, and attempted to make his own novels as different from those of Dickens as possible. And many readers still, I think, tend to think of James as the serious novelist, and of Dickens as a mere entertainer – good fun, perhaps, but not really possessing much depth. Well, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky certainly didn’t think so: both were happy to pay their tribute to Dickens in their most deeply felt work. And James – entirely unwittingly, I am sure – at the most grave and most solemn moment in one of his very finest works, seems to make contact with a sort Christmas novel still thought of in many quarters as no more than piece of feelgood seasonal whimsy.

I really do think we should take A Christmas Carol as a serious and very deeply felt work of literature.


The “Six Degrees of Separation” meme

How about one of those book memes? Yes, why not. It’s nearly Christmas, after all, so let’s indulge ourselves. I found this lovely post in Marina Sofia’s blog, and thought to myself “that looks fun!” The meme is hosted by Kate in her blog, and the rules are described here. The idea is that we start off with a book of Kate’s choosing (this month, it’s Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol), and find some connection with another book. And then, we take that other book, and find some connection with yet another book. And so build up the chain, ending up with six books.


I’ve posted about Dickens’ Christmas Books (including A Christmas Carol) quite often in the past, so I won’t repeat – yet again – how much I love that book, and why. But let me draw attention to the following passage, from the fourth part of A Christmas Carol, describing a group of businessmen talking about a recently deceased colleague:

`No,’ said a great fat man with a monstrous chin,’ I don’t know much about it, either way. I only know he’s dead.’

`When did he die.’ inquired another.

`Last night, I believe.’

`Why, what was the matter with him.’ asked a third, taking a vast quantity of snuff out of a very large snuff-box. `I thought he’d never die.’

`God knows,’ said the first, with a yawn.

`What has he done with his money.’ asked a red-faced gentleman with a pendulous excrescence on the end of his nose, that shook like the gills of a turkey-cock.

`I haven’t heard,’ said the man with the large chin, yawning again. `Left it to his company, perhaps. He hasn’t left it to me. That’s all I know.’

This pleasantry was received with a general laugh.

`It’s likely to be a very cheap funeral,’ said the same speaker;’ for upon my life I don’t know of anybody to go to it. Suppose we make up a party and volunteer.’

`I don’t mind going if a lunch is provided,’ observed the gentleman with the excrescence on his nose. `But I must be fed, if I make one.’

Another laugh.

`Well, I am the most disinterested among you, after all,’ said the first speaker,’ for I never wear black gloves, and I never eat lunch. But I’ll offer to go, if anybody else will. When I come to think of it, I’m not at all sure that I wasn’t his most particular friend; for we used to stop and speak whenever we met. Bye, bye.’

Speakers and listeners strolled away, and mixed with other groups.

Now, consider this passage, describing a group of lawyers speaking of the recent passing of a colleague:

“Gentlemen,” [Peter Ivanovich] said, “Ivan Ilych has died!”

“You don’t say so!”

“Here, read it yourself,” replied Peter Ivanovich, handing Fedor Vasilievich the paper still damp from the press.

… on receiving the news of Ivan Ilych’s death the first thought of each of the gentlemen in that private room was of the changes and promotions it might occasion among themselves or their acquaintances.

“I shall be sure to get Shtabel’s place or Vinnikov’s,” thought Fedor Vasilievich. “I was promised that long ago, and the promotion means an extra eight hundred rubles a year for me besides the allowance.”

“Now I must apply for my brother-in-law’s transfer from Kaluga,” thought Peter Ivanovich. “My wife will be very glad, and then she won’t be able to say that I never do anything for her relations.”

“I thought he would never leave his bed again,” said Peter Ivanovich aloud. “It’s very sad.”

“But what really was the matter with him?”

“The doctors couldn’t say — at least they could, but each of them said something different. When last I saw him I thought he was getting better.”

“And I haven’t been to see him since the holidays. I always meant to go.”

“Had he any property?”

“I think his wife had a little — but something quiet trifling.”

“We shall have to go to see her, but they live so terribly far away.”

“Far away from you, you mean. Everything’s far away from your place.”

“You see, he never can forgive my living on the other side of the river,” said Peter Ivanovich, smiling at Shebek. Then, still talking of the distances between different parts of the city, they returned to the Court.

This is from Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Illych, in the translation by Louise and Aylmer Maude. Plagiarism? Perhaps. I prefer to think of it as a homage. Tolstoy, after all, revered Dickens. (As indeed did Dostoyevsky: Alyosha’s speech to the boys at the end of The Brothers Karamazov is almost word-for-word the same as Bob Cratchit’s address to his family when they are mourning Tiny Tim. But that’s another story, as they say…)


So that’s my first connection: The Death of Ivan Illych by Tolstoy – a short novel (novella is, I think, the preferred term) – describing an ordinary man, who had never so much as given a thought to his mortality, suddenly confronting the prospect of his imminent extinction.

The shadow of Tolstoy’s short novel seems to me very apparent in one of Ivan Bunin’s finest short stories, “The Gentleman of San Francisco”. A very wealthy American gentleman is on holiday, on a cruise, when he dies of a heart attack, and is transported back home in a coffin. At the risk of giving away spoilers, that’s about all there is to the plot. But as in Tolstoy’s work, albeit in a very different manner, we are made aware of the very basic and terrifying facts of our mortality lurking beneath what is but a thin veneer of civilisation – a civilisation which prefers, for the sake of decorum, to downplay that which is most important in our lives – that is, its end – and pretend it doesn’t really exist. Or, perhaps, that it doesn’t really matter too much.


Bunin was an émigré Russian writer. Which takes me to my next choice – Pnin, by Vladimir Nabokov, perhaps the most famous Russian émigré writer of them all. However, unlike Bunin, Nabokov, in his exile, started writing in English, the language of his adopted country. Pnin, which I wrote about recently on this blog (and a quick link saves me the trouble of repeating myself) I found among the most eloquent and touching accounts of the state of exile.


Exile, exile … that brings me to my next choice, Poems of Exile, Peter Green’s wonderful translations of Ovid’s Tristia, and the Black Sea Letters (Epistulae ex Ponto). (When I say “wonderful translation”, I mean they read very well in English: not having the benefits of a classical education, I cannot of course comment on how close they are to the originals.)

Ovid was, for reasons still obscure, exiled by Augustus from his beloved Rome to what was then the wild and dangerous frontiers at the far end of the Roman Empire – to what is now Romania, at the edge of the Black Sea. From there, in these poems, Ovid laments all he has lost. In my last post, I spoke of homesickness: perhaps there is no more powerful testament than these poems of the pain of that condition.


Fast forward to the twentieth century: the Russian poet, Osip Mandelstam, also wrote a collection of poems named (no doubt evoking Ovid) Tristia. Sadly, I have not read those poems. Mandelstam himself became an exile later in life, of course, and became one of the many millions (the numbers are so astronomically large that the mind reels) who died of cold and of hunger in Stalin’s gulags.

My next choice, though, is Nadezhda Mandelstam’s memoirs of those unimaginably terrible years, Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned (I am counting these two volumes as a single choice). These heartbreaking books rank with Anne Frank’s diary, or with Primo Levi’s If This is a Man, as among the indispensable testaments of what it means to be human amidst the most unthinkable inhumanity. And yes, books such as these are particularly important now, when certain comfortable activists (known, I believe, as “tankies”) attempt to downplay and even whitewash the horrors of Soviet Communism.

I said at the start of this post that this meme looks like “fun”. Well, most of my choices haven’t frankly been “fun” choices. Let’s face it – I’m an overly serious, miserable, po-faced old grouch, whose idea of an enjoyable evening is to pour myself a large vodka, watch Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers, and follow it up listening to Mahler’s 6th symphony. And then, maybe, retire with some Samuel Beckett for a bit of bedtime reading. So let’s finish off with something lighter. That’s difficult: how can Nadezhda Mandelstam’s books be connected to anything light? Well, let’s try…

Hope Against Hope … hope … hope … yes, I have it! Sir Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda! A splendid swashbuckling adventure story, of the kind I used to love as a boy. And still do, in between my viewings of Bergman, my listenings of Mahler, and my readings of Beckett.


And that, I believe, is my sixth choice. If you have a blog, why not give this meme a go?

“The Adolescent” by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Sometimes it’s worth writing about a book one doesn’t understand simply to register one’s lack of understanding. Since those who may wish to know something about this work could no doubt easily find those who understand it far better than I do, I’ll try not to detain you long: I’ll keep this as short as I can.

The Adolescent (translated by Constance Garnett as A Raw Youth) should have been a great novel. It is, in terms of length at least, clearly a work of substance; and it was published just a few years after the towering masterpiece Demons, and a few years before what many would say is the even more towering masterpiece The Brothers Karamazov. Just one year after the publication of this novel, Dostoyevsky wrote The Meek One, one of the finest of all novellas. Admittedly, The Adolescent has something of a reputation of being “disappointing” – that is, in less euphemistic terms, “poor” – but it is not unreasonable to expect so great a novelist, neither serving his literary apprenticeship nor declined into the twilight years of creativity, to produce something that is, at the very least, of some merit. And maybe this is. Maybe it is working on some plane to which I, with my limited perceptions, did not have the key. But whatever merit the novel possesses, I regret to say it escaped me.

I read the translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, and in the preface, Richard Pevear makes the case that Dostoyevsky wrote not four major novels, as is generally acknowledged, but five, The Adolescent being worthy to be ranked alongside Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, Demons, and The Brothers Karamazov. Pevear’s defence of this novel is certainly a brave attempt, but I can’t frankly say I’m convinced.

I do take Pevear’s point, though, that Dostoyevsky is very successful in maintaining throughout the long narrative the voice of the adolescent narrator. But possibly, this is where the problem arises. Dostoyevsky had used the first person narrator successfully in shorter works such as Notes from Underground and The Meek One, but had avoided it in his other longer novels. There, he had developed a technique whereby different narrative voices weave in and out, some knowing more than others, some knowing virtually nothing at all and relying on stories heard at second hand; and we get, as a consequence, a composite picture, not always entirely coherent, and frequently enigmatic. And, yes, his finding the right tone of voice for his adolescent narrator, and maintaining it across so long a stretch, is indeed, as Pevear says, impressive; but I wonder if this single narrative viewpoint restricted him.

The adolescent narrator is Arkady Makarovich Dolgoruky. Despite his patronymic, his father isn’t Makar Ivanovich: Makar Ivanovich is but the peasant husband of Arkady’s mother. Arkady’s real father is Versilov, who, over the course of Arkady’s narrative, is presented sometimes as a demon, sometimes as a saint. I suppose that at the centre of this novel – insofar as it can be said to have a centre at all – is Arkady’s desire to know his real father, and to be acknowledged by him. But whatever that centre may be, even if it exists, it is obscured by a plot of whirling extravagance. Illegitimacy, disputed fortunes, incriminating letters, a blackmailing ring, suicides, sexual exploitation, eavesdroppings … there’s something happening on every page, and it becomes hard keeping track of it all. One often sees complaints about certain books that “nothing happens”: here, there is so much happening all the time that one wishes at times for things to stop happening for a while. And never did I have to consult so frequently the list of principal characters the translators so thoughtfully provide: none has the vividness of the characters in Dostoyevsky’s other novels, and quite often, they seemed to me interchangeable.

In short, I found it difficult to keep up with the intricacies of the plot. But worse, after a while, I found I’d stopped caring. I found I’d stopped caring about who was eavesdropping on whom, or why, or how, or what information was revealed. I persevered, though: a writer who has given me so much surely could not produce a book utterly devoid of interest. I started wondering whether I was simply looking at it the wrong way. Perhaps it made sense to think of it as a sort of “satyr play”. In Athenian drama, a trilogy of tragedies – such as The Oresteia – was often followed by a “satyr play”, in which the themes that had been addressed in the tragedies were now addressed from a comic angle. Maybe, I told myself, that, after the immense tragic dramas of Crime and Punishment, The Idiot and Demons, Dostoyevsky was following them up with a “satyr novel”. He most likely hadn’t intended any such thing, I told myself, but if that gives me a key to the work, it might be an idea worth holding on to. And at times, such a approach seemed to make sense. Arkady, for instance, tells us at one point that he has a great “idea”, an overriding thought that rules his life. We have seen in Dostoyevsky’s other novels characters ruled by these Great Ideas. But Arkady’s Great Idea was not about God, or about human suffering, or about sin and redemption, or about atonement, or about any of these things: it is merely that he wanted to make a great deal of money, and hence, gain power and respect. That’s it. The only way to take this, I felt, was to see it as a sort of self-conscious parody of Dostoyevsky’s earlier novels.

Sadly, seeing this work as a sort of “satyr novel” didn’t work for long: for if the intention had indeed been to give a comic perspective on tragic themes, then some humour wouldn’t have been out of place. Now, despite his reputation for deadly seriousness, Dostoyevsky was often a very funny writer: sadly, though, he wasn’t here. Even for laughs, Crime and Punishment, The Idiot and Demons give us far more.

Towards the end of the novel, Makar Ivanovich, Arkady’s legal father, suddenly arrives on the scene, and he turns out to be a Tolstoyan peasant-saint, full of great wisdom. And he tells a story, which is reproduced in full. It starts off like one of those Tolstoyan fables. But fables are supposed to be simple stories: this one gets so intricate and involved, that it became almost as hard keeping up with it as it was keeping up with the rest of the novel. Did Dostoyevsky mean this as a joke? It couldn’t be a parody of Tolstoyan fables, as Tolstoy hadn’t written his fables when Dostoyevsky was writing this. And if it was indeed meant as a joke, then, once again, a few laughs wouldn’t have gone amiss.

You get the picture. I am afraid I got nothing at all out of this novel. The fault is entirely mine, I’m sure, but it remains for me a huge enigma: it’s not that Dostoyevsky doesn’t succeed in what he is trying to do, it is more that I can’t figure out what he is trying to do in the first place. Dostoyevsky’s was indeed a very strange mind.

In the meantime, if you’re an admirer of Dostoyevsky but haven’t yet read this, don’t let me put you off: this post is intended purely as a record of my personal impressions, nothing more. I don’t insist on anything.

Dostoyevsky’s great novels are to a great extent improvised: even when at advanced stages in his writing, it’s clear from his notes that he is still experimenting with different possibilities. This may not seem the most promising way of writing novels, but in his case, it worked superbly. But not, I think, here. Where we speak of him “improvising” in his other novels, here, he seems merely to be making it up as he goes along.

“Rosmersholm” 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 from “Rosmersholm” are taken from the translation by Michael Meyer, published by Methuen


Rosmersholm was not the title Ibsen initially had in mind. He had considered calling it White Horses, referring to a recurrent image in the play of the mythical white horses that are said to be seen on the Rosmer estate before disaster strikes, but he eventually decided against it, possibly to avoid giving this admittedly striking piece of imagery too central a prominence in the work. Ghosts would have been a good title  as well – or, rather, the more evocative  Norwegian  title, Gengangere “something that or someone who walks again” – but that title had already been used in a previous play. Central to this play too is the burden of the past, the past that will not let us be, even when we have left it behind, even when we have outgrown it.

Ibsen eventually titled the play Rosmersholm – the House of Rosmer. For the great House of Rosmer, with its immense history, with the traditions and values it continues to represent (irrespective of Rosmer’s  own apostasy), plays in this drama a central  role. It is an austere, and gloomy house: there is not much room  here for human feelings. As Mrs Helseth, the old housekeeper of the House of Rosmer tells Rebecca:

Little children don’t cry in this house, not as long as anyone can remember … But it’s part of the  Rosmers. And  there’s another strange thing. When they grow up, they never laugh. Never laugh until the day they die.

Tears and laughter, those feelings and emotions that seem almost to represent what it means to be alive, to be human, have no part in the bleak House of Rosmer. But it is nonetheless a noble house. Rebecca West, who had initially entered the house as an outsider, can testify to its ability to ennoble:

REBECCA: It’s the Rosmer view of life – or yours, anyway. It has infected my will.

ROSMER: Infected – ?

REBECCA: And poisoned it. Enslaved it to a law which I had not previously recognised. You – being with you – has ennobled my soul –

ROSMER: Oh, if only I could believe that!

REBECCA: You can believe it all right. The Rosmer view of life ennobles. But – (Shakes her head) – but – but –

ROSMER: But – ? Well?

REBECCA: But it kills happiness, John.

Presumably translator Michael Meyer has translated whatever was in the original text as “happiness” rather than joy so as to avoid unwanted echoes of the English word “killjoy”, but this theme of the destruction of joy,  or of happiness, has appeared before: in Ghosts, the destruction of livsglad, a compound word meaning Joy in Life, is a major theme. Osvald speaks of it often, and his father, the deceased Captain Alving, was possessed with this livsglad. But, as his widow, Mrs Alving, who has no reason to feel sympathetic towards her dead husband, acknowledges, this livsglad had been killed in him. She had not shared in this Joy: her insistence had been merely on a cold, loveless sense of duty. Her husband had no outlet for this Joy, and over time, this Joy had become corrupted merely into empty hedonism. In that same play, Pastor Manders had asked:

What right do we mortals have to happiness? No, we must do our duty, madam!

( from the translation by Deborah Dawkin and Erik Skuggevik)

Osvald too, returning home from Paris, comments that he never sensed back home that Joy he had found elsewhere. The cold insistence on moral duty had killed it all. And here too, in the House of Rosmer, Joy has been killed. But we are given a further twist: what has killed Joy is not a cold and  loveless sense of duty: rather,  it is something that even Rebecca West admits is ennobling. But whatever it is, no matter how ennobling it is, it kills happiness.

The concept of nobility is explicitly placed here as something that is the opposite of happiness. Earlier in the play, John Rosmer had spoken of “ennobling” the people, although what precisely he had meant by this, and how precisely he is to achieve this, he does not say. Brand, too, had sought to ennoble humanity: he had enjoined humanity to take the Truth into their hearts, and to sacrifice all, their own selves if necessary, in  pursuit of this Truth, without even thinking of earthly happiness. And Pastor Manders in Ghosts, though a very different person from Brand in every way imaginable, was also a man of God, and he too had insisted that people do their duty, regardless of human happiness; for mortals, he insisted, had no right to expect “happiness”. This insistence of Truth, this desire to “ennoble” humanity, we had seen also in Dr Stockmann in An Enemy of the People, and in Gregers Werle in The Wild Duck, but, unlike Brand or Pastor Manders, neither Stockmann nor Werle are religious: they do not even mention God. Brand and Pastor Manders had insisted that humans ennoble themselves by doing their duty, because this is God’s will; but Stockmann and Werle pursue Truth for its own sake. When the people turn against Stockmann, he could have argued against them in purely empirical terms: he could have denounced them for short-sightedness, for failing to see that seeing to their immediate welfare is to bring upon themselves far greater problems in the longer run. But he does not make that argument: he turns against the people because they do not have any sort of commitment to the Truth. And Gregers Werle too believes in Truth for its own sake; he believes that humans already are essentially noble, and that they must accept the Truth for its own sake because that, and that alone, could make such noble creatures happy. He believes this because he has to believe this: if it were not true, then, as he says at the end, life itself wouldn’t be worth living. Stockmann and Werle may not be religious – at least, neither mentions God – but their morality is not really too far from Brand’s: for them, Truth must be pursued, though not necessarily because God wills it (as Brand had believed) – but rather,  for its own sake.

When Rosmersholm was written (it was published in 1886), the intellectual temperature was changing. In the aftermath of the Enlightenment, religious belief was no longer a default position. That is not to say that religious belief was not possible, but, rather, it could not be taken as a given: whatever grounds there may be still to believe, belief was no longer something that was dictated by reason. Only four years before the publication of Rosmersholm, Nietzsche had famously declared (in The Gay Science) that “God was dead”. And in this state, one could no longer justify anything, not even life, by invoking an overriding divine purpose. Whatever values we choose to live by, whatever we choose to pursue, we cannot ascribe to any divine purpose, since the existence of God himself was no longer a given. So what, then, forms nobility? How then do we ennoble humanity, ennoble ourselves?

John Rosmer is, very explicitly, a man who had once believed, who had once, indeed, been a Man of God, a pastor, but who has now lost his faith. He is the last in the line of the House of Rosmer, and the immense burden of the past weighs heavily on him. The Rosmer view of life ennobles. Rosmer himself may have lost his faith in God, but retains still his faith in that which ennobles: duty, integrity – the  Truth. As with Stockmann and Werle, he believes in Truth for its own sake, and he believes, as Brand had done, that humans can be ennobled if they could but grasp the Truth, and hold it dear. But unlike Brand, he cannot justify Truth with an overriding divine purpose: he no longer believes. It is merely an abstract concept, existing for its own sake. But he is nonetheless a Rosmer, of the House of Rosmer, and though he has rejected religion, he cannot reject the concept of Truth as something that ennobles.

But when it comes to human happiness, Truth is neutral: Truth may “ennoble” – whatever we may mean by that – but it does not care one way or the other for human happiness. We may still hold on to it as a concept, and value it for what it is, but it is possible that what we value is no more than a ghost of the past, one of those Gengangere, “something that or someone who walks again”. For if there is no divine will we may appeal to, if there is no God himself, then it is hard to see what there can be more valuable than human happiness here on earth; and if Truth itself is indifferent to the very concept of human happiness, why then why should we value it?

Now, Ibsen is not saying that we shouldn’t value Truth: Dr Relling, in The Wild Duck, says this, but Dr Relling is not Ibsen. Ibsen does, however, pose some very uncomfortable questions. If we no longer believe, if we can no longer appeal to an overriding divine purpose or to an overriding divine will, then we can take nothing for granted; then we must create our own values, and they must be human values, justified in human terms. Possibly this is what Ivan Karamazov meant when he spoke those enigmatic words “If God doesn’t exist, everything is permitted”. This does not necessarily mean that the non-existence of God obviates moral values, although that is certainly a possible interpretation: more interestingly, it can mean that if God does not exist, we have nothing to guide us in creating our own values, and that we must, therefore, start from scratch. And if we do, we must question everything, even the value of Truth itself. If there can be no aim greater than that of earthly human welfare, and if Truth is indifferent to such an end, why then should we value Truth? Is it merely an emotional attachment on our part and nothing more? And here, when Rebecca West presents the Rosmer view of life as something that ennobles, but also as something that is opposed to human happiness, a deeply uncomfortable question seems to me implicit: what price nobility, what price Truth, if it makes us unhappy?

On top of this questioning of the value of Truth, in Rosmersholm, the very nature of Truth itself is questioned. Not whether there exists such a thing as objective Truth, but whether we are capable, even with the best of wills, of grasping what it is.

Such are the psychological complexities in which the principal characters of this drama are bound, the mind reels. Rebecca West and John Rosmer try to understand their past, try to understand what it has made of them, but little seems clear, and their behaviour, conditioned as it is by their psychological states, seems at times perverse. Ibsen here delves further into the inner complexities of the human mind than he had done in any of his earlier plays. Only four years earlier, in An Enemy of the People, he had presented a very public drama, with very public conflicts; in The Wild Duck, which followed, he moved towards the private sphere, presenting the depths of the mind, of the imagination, as the depth of the sea itself. Now, he moves further into the close intricacies of the human mind. Of course, there is a public life as well: the drama depicted here is very firmly set in the real world, and there is, we gather, much public conflict outside; but this conflict is, essentially, presented as noises off. We see a representative of the conservative camp – the overbearing and bullying Kroll; and we see a representative of the liberal camp, the sly and manipulative Mortensgaard, neither caring for the  Truth, and neither bearing any mark of nobility. But the action of the play never leaves the House of Rosmer, and the focus is turned inward.

Sigmund Freud, famously, wrote at length on the character of Rebecca West in his 1914 essay “Character Types”. (The essay is quoted at length by Michael Meyer in the introduction to his translation, and Meyer refers to it as “by far the most penetrating analysis of the play”.) Among other things, Freud probes the question of why, precisely, Rebecca West refuses Rosmer’s proposal of marriage towards the end of Act Two. This, after all, is what she had been working towards; why, when it is within her grasp, does she turn away from it so fiercely? Whatever we may think of Freud’s answer to this question, it cannot be denied that it is a fundamental question to ask. Ibsen has placed it at exactly the half-way point of the play; the refusal, though obscure in terms of “why?”, is tremendously powerful and dramatic, and it brings down the curtain on the second act with the utmost force. Freud’s view was that Rebecca West was haunted by her fear of incest. As a younger woman, after her mother had died, she had become the mistress of step-father, Dr West. However, Dr West had most likely been, in reality, her biological father also: Rebecca’s mother had been his lover while her husband had still been alive. And when Rebecca later enters the Rosmer household, she comes into a parallel situation: she ends up displacing John Rosmer’s wife, Beata, to win John, in the same way that she had previously displaced her mother to win Dr West. But the guilt she feels for her previous incestuous relationship Dr West prevents her from taking the final step of this act of displacement.

This may or may not be so: I am no expert of Freudian psychology. It may be argued that when Rebecca refuses Rosmer, she does not know that Dr West was her biological father: she had no idea that Dr West and her mother had previously been lovers. However, against this, it may be argued that she may, at least, have had suspicions; and that, afterwards, Dr West had certainly been her step-father, and, hence, a father figure, if not necessarily a biological father. All this may be so. It is certainly true that the situation Rebecca found herself in on entering Rosmersholm parallels the situation she had been in before. But there does seem to me a much simpler explanation: Rebecca feels guilt not because of incest, but because of Beata, the wife of John Rosmer, and the part she had played in Beata’s death.

As a liberated woman, Rebecca had not, at first, cared much about the niceties of convention, about the sanctity of marriage; but over time, as she says herself, the “Rosmer view of life” had “infected” her will. The words she uses here are significant: infected, poisoned, enslaved. She expresses exclusively in negative terms that which, by her own admission, had ennobled her. The nobility that is so defining a feature of the House of Rosmer had made her ill, had taken away her very freedom: no longer was she the liberated person she once had been. But it had ennobled. It had allowed her to see clearly her own guilt. For, even when we reject religion, reject God, the consciousness of our guilt, and the awareness of our sinfulness, are less easy to throw off: these are Gengangere, “something that or someone who walks again”.

But what really did happen with Beata? The truth is difficult even to uncover, let alone embrace. To what extent is Rebecca responsible for Beata’s suicide, for Beata’s throwing herself into the millrace? Rebecca herself is not entirely sure. But the dead continue to live with us: in performance, we hear throughout the sound of the millrace from outside the house. Beata herself may be dead, but she remains throughout a powerful presence. And it strikes me as likely that it is Beata’s unseen presence, and Rebecca’s growing awareness of her own guilt and her willingness to accept moral responsibility, that is behind Rebecca’s refusal. At the very end of the play, Mrs Helseth sees John Rosmer and Rebecca West follow Beata, and throw themselves into the millrace – a sentence they pass upon themselves in  the absence of a God they can no longer believe in – and she says: “The dead mistress has taken them”. Amongst other things, Rosmersholm may be seen, I think, as a Gothic ghost story: the ghost of Beata is rarely too far away.

But what really had happened between John Rosmer, Beata Rosmer, and Rebecca West? One thing we can definitely rule out is that Rosmer and Rebecca had been having an affair. They both make quite clear, even when alone together, that their relationship had been entirely chaste. Indeed, John Rosmer appears throughout a sort of sexless being, or, at least, as an asexual being. That he can be living under the same roof as the young and attractive Rebecca, and never even be tempted by desire, seems to indicate a man with a very low, virtually non-existent, sexual drive. (Neither is there any indication, incidentally, of homosexuality on Rosmer’s part, latent or otherwise.)  Perhaps this is in keeping with the cold, passionless ethos of the House of Rosmer, where children do not cry and adults do not laugh. If this is so, we may ask ourselves what had attracted Rebecca to Rosmer in  the first place, and here, I must confess that I am not at all sure: the fact that Rosmer was a man from a noble family (on all senses of  the word noble), and belonging to an old and respected family, and owner of the great Rosmersholm, the House of Rosmer, may in itself had been a sort of aphrodisiac. But more important, I think, is that Rosmer is a genuinely good man. He is, as Edmund says of Edgar in King Lear, a man “whose nature is so far from doing harms, that he suspects none”: he cannot see how pompous and malicious Kroll is, or how untrustworthy and conniving Mortensgaard is; and it never even occurs to him that living under the same roof as Rebecca West may give rise to gossip. He has rejected his faith, but his moral integrity, his determination to do right, to value Truth, are important aspects of his character: these, after all, are the values of Rosmersholm iitself. Rebecca herself would possibly be at a loss to explain what it was that had attracted her to Rosmer, but the fact that he was in all respects a good man is, I think, far from a minor consideration.

And then, there is the question of John’s marriage with Beata: what exactly had that been like? We can only piece it together from the very unreliable memories the participants of this drama have about her. He are given to understand that she had been mentally ill, especially towards the end: it seems likely she had been suffering from what we would now call depression. And that the depression had been brought on by, or, perhaps, exacerbated by, the knowledge that she couldn’t have children – although whether this was due to her own medical condition or to her husband’s lack of sexual interest in her remains unclear. At any rate, she had been a deeply unhappy person, imbued with a profound sense of her own inadequacy, and  her unworthiness to be the wife of John  Rosmer. And Rebecca had played upon this. She had given Beata to understand that she and Rosmer were indeed lovers, and that it was she, Rebecca, and not Beata, who should rightfully be Rosmer’s wife. Not that she had done this openly, or even deliberately: it was not something calculated, and, as she looks back, she cannot quite understand to what extent she really had been  responsible:

REBECCA (vehemently): But do you think I did all  this calculatedly, and in cold blood? No – I was different then from what I am now – standing here and talking about it. And besides – I think a person can have two wills. I wanted to be rid of Beata. Somehow or other. But I never thought it would happen. Every step that I ventured forward, I felt as though a voice cried within me: “No further! Not an inch further!” But I couldn’t stop! I had to venture another inch. Just one. And then another – just one more. And then it happened. That’s how such things do happen.

And, as Rosmer realises, if Rebecca is guilty, he is guilty too. At two strategic points in the play, in the first and final acts, the reprehensible old layabout, Ulrik Brendel, enters the scene. He had previously been John Rosmer’s tutor, and  Rosmer possibly realises that this faded old idealist, now taking refuge in bluster and in alcohol, is a sort of grotesque mirror image of himself. He too, like Rosmer, had set out to “ennoble” humanity; but whatever nobility he himself once may have had has long since disappeared. And he knows it. How can he, pathetic and absurd as he is, have anything to offer?

BRENDEL: Faewell,  Johannes! Forward to victory!

ROSMER: Are you going now? It’s a dark night.

BRENDEL: Night and darkness are best. Peace be with you. [He leaves]

                [There is a moment’s silence in the room.]

REBECCA (takes a deep breath): Oh, how close and suffocating it is here!

Rebecca and John can both seen Brendel an image of John Rosmer himself, and idealist who, being honest, must face up to what he really is, to the guilt in which he is embroiled. He can no longer believe in a God to punish him, but he still believes in sin and in atonement: he must punish himself.  Night and darkness are best, after all.

I, who was to carry my cause to victory – ! And now I have fled the field, before the battle has even begun.

And as for Rebecca, she is suffocating. The only way out for both of them is to go the way Beata had done.

But it is not the case – as I have seen in some analyses of this play –  that John Rosmer decides to atone for his guilt by committing suicide, and Rebecca decides to join him. It is, if anything, the other way round. It is John Rosmer, with the monstrous egotism typical of idealists who expects others to share their ideals, who asks whether Rebecca will have the courage:

ROSMER: Have you the courage – and the will – with a glad heart, as Ulrik Brendel said – for my sake,  now, tonight – freely and willingly – to go the  way that Beata went? … Yes, Rebecca. This is the question I shall never be able to escape from – after you are gone. Every hour of the day it will haunt me.

Rosmer means that this question will haunt him after Rebecca has left Rosmersholm: would she, who is guilty of so much for his sake, and in whose guilt he bears a great part, prove to him the depths not only of her love, but also of her awareness of her guilt? It is a monstrously egotistical thing to ask for. But Rebecca agrees. And only then does Rosmer decide to accompany her.

For now, we two are one.

And there follows the double suicide, the ultimate union in death, the liebestod – but a liebestod entirely chaste, and free of sexuality. The liberated woman who had sought to subdue the world itself to her will, but whose will now has dissipated; and the man of integrity who had sought to ennoble humanity, but who find himself embroiled in such guilt that, in absence of a God, he must himself punish, perish together. Night and darkness are best.


I have long delayed writing this post because, despite many years’ acquaintance with this play, I am not sure I understand it, or that I will ever understand it. Reading over what I have written, I fear much of it may appear pretentious: I have touched on elements of philosophy and psychology that I am distinctly unqualified to comment upon. However, this is a work that continues to fascinate me, and I don’t think it is possible to describe how I react to this without touching on these matters. For this is all this is: not an analysis, by any means, but simply a record of how I, personally, react to this play – of what it means to me.  I think it is among the most hypnotically captivating of all works of literature that I have encountered. The dramatist still reckoned essentially to be a social critic, a dramatist of social change, peers here into some of the most obscure and secret compartments of the human mind, into some of the deepest of human concerns, and, inevitably, the play that emerges is difficult, and endlessly intricate. I doubt I will ever come to a definitive view of a work so complex and so profound. Great though Ibsen’s previous plays in this cycle had been, it does seem to me that with Rosmersholm, he moves on to a new level entirely.

Digressing with Sterne

My intentions were good, that’s for sure. All those times I have bought books with impressive titles, impressive blurbs on the back covers, and, I am sure, even more impressive contents, I had every intention of reading them. And this despite already having scores of unread books on my shelves, and my normally slow reading rate having become even slower of late.

Right now, I should be reading Nietzsche. He is, after all, one of the most important and most influential thinkers of the era that, in literary terms, possibly interests me most – the latter half of the nineteenth century. How could I hope to get a handle on the intellectual currents of the time without knowing Nietzsche?

A great many writers and thinkers one could become acquainted with at second hand, through a process of osmosis, as it were. Of course, if you want to study these writers and thinkers properly, you will have to read their works: there is no royal path to understanding. But one can, nonetheless, get a very rough idea with secondary material. But with Nietzsche, it becomes very difficult: he has been interpreted in so many different ways, and with so many of these interpretations deemed dangerous misinterpretations, that one really has no option but to dive in and see for oneself. Which, given my lack of a background in philosophy, is not easy. So I bought myself the Cambridge Companion to Nietzsche, and read the various excellent essays in there, as a way of easing myself in. What’s more, I think I even understood these essays. Well, some of them, at least. And I was just about to dive into Beyond Good and Evil – when I got distracted.

It was Laurence Sterne who distracted me. And that is curiously appropriate, as Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (as well as his lesser known Sentimental Journey) are masterpieces of distraction. Here was a writer who, try as hard as he could, just could not keep to the subject at hand. Tristram Shandy is a sort of paean to the Art of Digression: the entire novel is but a series of digressions – though digression exactly from what is not very easy to figure out. But Sterne is so engaging a narrator, so genial, so personable, so delightfully dotty, and so scrupulously polite despite all the bawdiness that will insist on intruding, that it doesn’t seem to matter. And, one soon realises – the digressions are the point.

I won’t try to describe Tristram Shandy here. I’ll keep that for a later blog post – to be written once I’ve finished reading this. This is not my first reading: it is, if I remember correctly, my third. But it is strange how one’s receptivities alter over time. Not that I didn’t enjoy my earlier readings – I most certainly did – but I don’t think I enjoyed them to quite the same extent I am enjoying it this time round. I think, more than anything else, it is Sterne’s personality I am enjoying. In talking about books, we often undervalue the companionship afforded by the author: and what better company could anyone ask for on the commuter train?

It makes quite a change from the last book I read. (Apart from those essays on Nietzsche, that is.) I recently finished reading The Adolescent by Dostoyevsky, which I had started as I was a great admirer of that writer, and, given this novel’s reputation as one of his lesser works, had not read before. And I remain a great admirer still, despite my experience of having now read this novel. But either his remarkable powers deserted him when writing this, or he was working at some level beyond my comprehension. I do not know. I am currently debating with myself whether or not I should write a blog post on this novel: what’s the point, given that I couldn’t make any sense of it? Just a short post to register my incomprehension, perhaps. But be that as it may, whether the problem was with the book itself or with my shortcomings as a reader, it wasn’t a satisfying reading experience.

I have also been reading – and blogging on – the major plays of Ibsen. Now Ibsen, unlike Nietzsche, is a writer I have been acquainted with for a long time, and he is very close to my heart, for reasons I haven’t yet worked out. So I thought that reading those plays, and writing about them – not pronouncing upon them, as such, but, rather, recording my own thoughts and impressions, such as they are – would help me come to a closer understanding of what it is about these plays that affect me so. I have been reading these plays this time round in chronological order, and am now approaching his last plays; and, frankly, I feel intimidated. The next play I would like to write about is Rosmersholm, and that is so very difficult and complex that I really don’t think I am qualified even to try to untangle its psychological and moral depths. And, for this very reason, I have been delaying writing something on it: I am finding it difficult to grasp and to pin down something that I can sense is in there, and which is, I can tell, immense. I’m sure I’ll get down to it eventually. And, although it is unlikely that Ibsen ever read Nietzsche, the essays on Nietzsche I have recently been reading did seem to me to shed some light on these Ibsen plays. It is not, after all, any great surprise that major creative writers and thinkers, writing at the same time, should have similar concerns.

But, for the moment, let’s leave Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche and Ibsen aside for a while – all mere complexities. I’ll return to them later when I am so minded. Not that there aren’t complexities in Tristram Shandy also, but whatever complexities there are in it are so camouflaged with Sterne’s warmth and ludic dexterity that I find myself reading with a broad grin on my face rather than a with a furrowed brow. And that, for the moment at least, is how I like it.

Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche and Ibsen can all wait. I am now digressing with the greatest digresser of them all, and thoroughly enjoying every minute of it.

“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.

“A Doll’s House” by Henrik Ibsen

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

Ibsen once denied that A Doll’s House is a “feminist” play, claiming he did not even know what feminism meant. He was being disingenuous, of course: he knew fine well what he had written, and he meant every word of it, but I think I can understand his frustration: while his very specific intentions were eagerly seized upon, his more general themes seemed obscured: the play was seen as primarily didactic rather than as exploratory. That is probably the case even now: although we are no longer shocked by the play’s feminist manifesto – indeed, we tend nowadays to nod along in agreement with its didactic flow – we still think of it primarily as a social play, a play in which the hypocrisies of society are denounced, and social change demanded. And since the society it depicts has largely changed in the direction that Ibsen had advocated (at least in the western world), far from being perturbed by it, we may even find it comfortable, vindicating as it does our liberal values.

For A Doll’s House is surely Ibsen’s “greatest hit” (closely followed, I’d guess, by An Enemy of the People and by Hedda Gabler). Nora is still the part that our leading stage actresses queue to play. One can see why: it is a terrific part – although, I’d venture, Ibsen wrote a great many roles for leading ladies that are at least as challenging (Mrs Alving, Rebecca West, Ellida Wangel, Ella Rentheim, Gunhild Borkman, etc.) But it is this role, and Hedda Gabler, that has captured our collective imagination more than the others.

The overall plot is well-known – so much so that I don’t think I need to put up a spoiler warning” before I summarise it (and if a “spoiler warning” is required, it’s possibly best not to read on): a seemingly happily married middle-class woman, with three children, discovers that her marriage is a sham, and walks out on her family. Contemporary audiences certainly found it deeply shocking (as was intended), but perhaps we moderns should not be entirely shockproof on the matter: a parent, of either sex, walking out on parental responsibilities should rightly shock. Our failure to be shocked, or, possibly, our determination not to be shocked, can but rob that extraordinary final scene of its dramatic edge.

A Doll’s House has always been the English title of the play, although the Norwegian dukkehjem, literally translated, means “doll home”; it is Ibsen’s own coinage, and refers not to a toy house that a child may play with, but to a real home where the lady of the house is no more than a mere doll. Towards the end of the play, Nora says:

[Father] called me a doll-child, and he played with me, just as I play with my dolls. And then I came into your house … I went from Daddy’s hands over into yours.

First her father’s doll, and now her husband’s: the one person she has never belonged to, the one person she has never been, is herself, and, as a consequence, she does not even know what her true self really is. When her husband Torvald, in desperation, asks if she has moral sense, she, far from replying in the affirmative, can only say:

Oh, Torvald, that’s not easy to answer. I simply don’t know. I’m in such confusion over these things.

And yet, only a few lines later, when Torvald claims she is ill and feverish, she replies:

I’ve never been so clear and sure as I am tonight.

There’s actually no contradiction between Nora’s two statements. She does not know whether she has a moral sense or not because she does not know herself; but she is perfectly clear and sure about the fact of her own ignorance.

Peer Gynt, for different reasons, does not know himself either: always choosing to be whatever had been most convenient at the time, he finds he is like an onion, layer after accumulated layer, but with no real core. And it may be that Nora, having been what first her father and then her husband had wanted her to be, has no core either: but she is determined to find out for herself. Having been forced to be a Peer Gynt all her life, she now shows the steely, uncompromising determination of a Brand.

This famous final scene always takes me by surprise, even though I know full well what it contains. Its tonality is very different from the rest of the play. We had been led to believe that the play was essentially about blackmail: Nora, for the noblest of motives (to save her husband’s life, and not to worry her dying father) had imprudently forged a signature, and now, an employee in her husband’s bank on the verge of being sacked tries to blackmail her. Her desperation rises almost to fever pitch: at the end of the second act, she dances on stage a wild tarantella, and she dances with such intensity that Torvald can’t help commenting “You’re dancing as if your life depended on it”. And, without realising it, he is not far off the mark: she is indeed desparate, and has already contemplated suicide. But the crisis set up by the end of the second act isn’t really what the play is about: for the theme that was lying underneath all the while, even if we perhaps didn’t notice it at the time, was the state of Nora’s and Torvald’s marriage itself, and the terrible lie upon which that marriage had been based.

Here, we see the continuation of themes from The Pillars of Society: that play had focussed on the lies underpinning social respectability and prosperity; here, Ibsen considers the same theme, but in a domestic sphere, within the sanctified institution of marriage itself. Even that which we hold most sacred is based on lies, and we would see that for ourselves if only, with a Brand-like insistence upon truth, we determine to look upon it without equivocation, without compromise.

By the end of the play, Nora has become a sort of Brand: the absolute truth must not merely be faced, it must also be acted upon, without compromise. But this is certainly not as she had appeared at the start. When we see her first she is a scatterbrain, extravagantly spending her husband’s money (and being told off for it), eating macaroons secretly despite her husband’s wishes. And when husband and wife talk, it is not the talk of two mature adults:

TORVALD:  When did my squirrel  get home?

NORA: Just now. … Come  out Torvald, and you will see what I have bought.

TORVALD: … Has my little spending bird been out frittering money again? … we can’t be extravagant.

NORA: Oh but Torvald, we can be a little extravagant now, surely. Can’t we? Just a teeny-weeny bit. After all, you’ll have a big salary now and be earning lots and lots of money.

And so on. Nora is the scatter-brained child, to be gently admonished if need be; and he, Torvald, is the responsible adult, indulgent up to a point, but making sure, for her own good, that his wife is not too naughty. We soon see that Nora, though not conversant with the ways of the world outside (having never had the opportunity to be part of it), is far from unintelligent. So why does she speak to her husband in that manner? She speaks to no-one else like that. Why does she behave like a child? Why does she allow herself to be reprimanded?

The answer is surely that she is playing a role. She is wearing a mask that gives her an appearance that is acceptable in society. She plays the child to allow her husband to play the adult. To enable him to play the protector, she must play the part of the creature who needs protecting. She wears this mask not because, like Peer Gynt, it is necessarily a convenient mask to wear, but because, in her position in society, this is the mask she is expected to wear. And, at this point of the play at any rate, she sees no reason not to wear it. And if she wears the mask expected of her, so does Torvald: he is the man, the protector. And Nora takes this at face value. And we have to wait till the very final scene for this issue to be dramatically resolved.

But until then, Ibsen adroitly directs our attention elsewhere. He introduces the blackmail theme. Nora is terrified – not so much because her husband will discover her secret, but because she is so utterly convinced that when he does, he, her protector, will protect her, and take the blame upon himself; that he will accept shame and disgrace and ruin, all for her sake. The thought that he will do so almost drives her mad: Nora believes in the mask her husband wears: she thinks it his real face.

But the resolution of the play is not the resolution of the blackmail plot; that is resolved quite unexpectedly, and with surprising ease. And then the real theme, which had been introduced in the very first scene between husband and wife, and which has been simmering beneath the surface while Nora’s attention (and ours) had been distracted by other things, establishes itself again centre stage. And when it does take centre stage, we realise that it had been there all along. For when the crisis does break, Torvald’s mask falls: he is no protector. He cannot even think of such a thing. The idea of protecting his wife by sacrificing himself does not even occur to him. Instead, he turns on her, and speaks the cruellest, most hurtful things a wife could ever expect to hear from a husband.

But then, suddenly, everything is all right: the crisis has passed, and the threat of blackmail no longer hangs over them. And, as far as Torvald is concerned, they can go back to being as they were. But Nora had seen the mask fall, and she cannot believe in it any more. And, far from the baby talk she had put on for his benefit, she speaks clearly, adult to adult: there is, as she says, a “reckoning” to be made.

We have been married now for eight years. Doesn’t it occur to you that this is the first time the two of us, you and I, man and wife, are talking seriously together?

No, it hadn’t occurred to him. It occurs to her, for she is the more intelligent of the two, despite her having acted otherwise. Once his mask is off,  there’s no putting it back on again, and she must unmask herself also.

Torvald, in this final scene, is, of course, shocked, but he does accept what she says. For, like Nora, he too has been wearing a mask that had not suited him, and he too does not know who or what he really is. After eight years of marriage, after eight years of living on lies, lies about their marriage, lies about their own selves, they, for the very first time, speak to each other. And it is deeply moving. So used have they become to the masks they wore, now that these masks are off, neither knows who they really are.

Some productions make Torvald the villain of the piece. This is wrong. He is simply an ordinary man, not too bright perhaps, but a man who, like, perhaps, most of us, does not question the values of the society he lives in. He is no villain. In one production I have seen, Torvald, when he loses his head, actually strikes his wife. This is a grotesque misjudgement. Nora is leaving not because of domestic violence: she is leaving for reasons far more complex, and the introduction of physical violence is not only uncalled for in Ibsen’s text, it detracts from the true motivations. Nora leaves not because she has been physically abused (she hasn’t): she leaves because she has to know the truth. As with Brand, living a life based upon lies is not an option, and, no matter whom she hurts in the process – her husband, her children, even her own self – it is the Truth that has to take precedence. In that final, solemn scene, there is no room for further subterfuge.

It has perhaps become too easy nowadays to nod away in agreement with Nora in the final scene. That was the way society used to be, but we are so much more enlightened now. We may even congratulate ourselves on it. But Ibsen had intended that scene to be uncomfortable, and the production would fail badly if this scene serves but to reassure us in our modern certainties.

For that final scene, even in our more enlightened times, genuinely is shocking. The masks we nowadays find ourselves wearing may not be the ones worn by Nora and Torvald, but it is not possible to live in any sort of society without wearing some mask or other, and allowing our faces to grow into them. Inevitably, all our lives are based on lies or deceptions of some sort or other: we wouldn’t be able to live in peace with our fellow human beings if we were to be uncompromisingly our own selves: like Brand, we would have no choice but to exile ourselves from society, and, perhaps, find our own pristine Ice Church, untouched by human corruption.  To live amongst our fellow humans is to compromise, that is, to lie, to deceive – at least up to a point. And what becomes of our true selves then? Is it then even reasonable to talk of such things?

This is not to say that Ibsen had not written a social drama, a feminist drama advocating – indeed, insisting upon – independence and autonomy for women. Despite anything he may have said to the contrary, this is an accurate description of A Doll’s House.  But if we see no more than this, we tame the play, as it were, we domesticate and make palatable that which, I think, retains still its power to disturb.

Perhaps thankfully, most of us are not Brand. We aren’t Nora either. We do not insist on the Truth at all costs, however much we may like to think we do: we compromise ourselves as individuals to be able to live in peace with our fellow humans; and, since we have to compromise, since we have to deceive ourselves a bit in  the process, we find ways of justifying it to ourselves. (That is, if we notice  it at all.) Perhaps that is the sensible thing to do. But Ibsen couldn’t allow matters to rest there: in his very next play, Ghosts, published just two years after A Doll’s House, he presents an unflinching look at the consequences of living our lives upon convenient deceptions. The vehement slamming of the door as Nora walks out on her husband and children at the end of A Doll’s House marks the end of one story, but there are many others still to be told.