Henrik Ibsen is one of the world's greatest dramatists. He was the leading figure of an artistic renaissance
that took place in Norway around the end of the nineteenth century, in which the work of artist Edward
Munch also played a large part. Ibsen lived from 1828 to 1906. He grew up in poverty, studied medicine for
a while, and then abandoned that to write plays. In 1858, he published his first play, The Vikings at
Helgeland, and married Susannah Thoresen, the daughter of a pastor.
Ibsen obtained a scholarship to travel to Italy, where he wrote the plays that would establish his reputation,
Brand and Peer Gynt. These were long, historical verse plays. He lived most of the rest of his life in Italy and
in Germany. Starting in 1869, he began to write prose plays, giving up the verse form. Some critics
characterize this switch as an abandonment of poetry in favor of realism. In 1877, Ibsen began what would
become a series of five plays in which he examines the moral faults of modern society. The group includes A
Doll's House, the Wild Duck, and Ghosts.
Like all of Ibsen's plays, Ghosts was originally written in Norwegian, and is full of untranslatable wordplay.
James Joyce admired Ibsen so much that as a youth he attempted to teach himself the language in order to
read Ibsen in the original. In the case of Ghosts, perhaps the most important problem of translation is that of
the word "livsglede," which can be translated as "the joy of life," only this sounds too pretentious for the
Jakob Engstrand tries to convince his supposed daughter Regina to come work at the sailor's establishment
he wants to open, but she is too proud of her job as Mrs. Alving's maid to do so. He leaves and Pastor
Manders enters. The Pastor tries to convince Regina to help her father, while she pesters him to find her a
position somewhere in high society. She leaves and Mrs. Alving enters. Oswald, Mrs. Alving's son, comes
down. He has been traveling in Europe since he was young, and he has not been home in years. He and the
Pastor get into an argument over living out of wedlock. He leaves, and the Pastor admonishes Mrs. Alving
for letting her son grow up in such a way. He also blames her for once leaving her husband. Mrs. Alving
replies that her husband made her miserable and that she sent her son away to save him from her husband's
debauchery. She even admits to the Pastor that Regina is the love-child of her husband and their former
maid, Johanna. As dinner is about to start, the two hear a cry from the kitchen. Apparently Oswald is making
advances on Regina.
After dinner, the Pastor and Mrs. Alving discuss this strange development. The Pastor realizes that Oswald is
furious at Engstrand for never telling him the truth about Regina. Engstrand enters and suggests to the Pastor
that he hold a prayer meeting at the orphanage. The Pastor questions him, and Engstrand convinces him that
it was only to save Johanna's reputation that he kept the truth from him. Engstrand and the Pastor leave, and
Mrs. Alving goes to talk to her son. Oswald is drinking. She wants to tell him the truth about his father. He
tells her about the sickness he is suffering from. A doctor in Paris diagnosed it by saying that the sins of the
father visit the son. He goes on to complain about the misery and hypocrisy of gloomy Norway, contrasting it
with the joy of life. Mrs. Alving is about to tell him and Regina the truth, but then they notice that the
orphanage has caught fire.
Engstrand and the Pastor return to the house, announcing that the orphanage is lost to the flames. Engstrand
convinces the Pastor that there will be a public scandal, blaming the Pastor for carelessly letting the prayer
candles start the fire. He blackmails the Pastor into funding his sailor establishment, convincing the Pastor
that it will be dedicated to the reform of sailors. They leave, and Mrs. Alving finally tells Regina and Oswald
the truth about their father. Regina feels cheated and goes to claim part of her inheritance. Oswald is partly
relieved but reveals to his mother that he is sick beyond hope. He shows her some morphine pills and asks
her to administer them in case of a relapse. As the sun comes up, he melts into his chair and begins to
mumble nonsense. Mrs. Alving desperately searches for the pills, having seemingly lost all hope for her son
or anyone else.
Mrs. Helene Alving - Mrs. Alving lives with her maidservant, Regina, in a mansion in Norway's countryside. She
married her late husband, Captain Alving, at her relatives' suggestion, but she had a horrible marriage. She ran
away once, to Pastor Manders, to whom she was attracted, but he made her return to her husband. She endured
her husband's debauchery but sent away their son, Oswald, at the age of seven, with the hope that he would never
discover his dead father's immorality. (His father died ten years before the start of the play.) Mrs. Alving has
established an orphan asylum (an orphanage) to memorialize his death, and it is schedule to be dedicated the
following day. She doesn't want anyone to doubt that he was a good and honorable man. At the same time, she is
a free-thinking woman and feels compelled to tell her son the truth about his father.
Pastor Manders - Pastor Manders is a local priest from the nearby town. He often lectures others about morality
and religion. Sometimes, his financial dealings regarding the orphanage seem suspect, and he is also quick to
bend to public opinion. He believes that Mrs. Alving should not have abandoned her husband and should not have
sent her son into the world at such an early age. He is easily shocked.
Oswald Alving - At the play's start, Oswald has come home to spend the winter with his mother. He has most
recently been in Italy, living a relatively bohemian life. He is also a promising painter. Pastor Manders believes
that he has strayed from what is moral and also finds him reminiscent of his father. Oswald is by nature idealistic.
Recently, however, he has felt a profound listlessness, for which he blames himself. He also shows a romantic
interest in Regina.
Regina Engstrand - Regina is Mrs. Alving's maidservant. She is believed to be the daughter of Jakob Engstrand,
a carpenter, and the late Johanna, Mrs. Alving's former maid. In fact, she is the illegitimate daughter of Johanna
and Captain Alving. She only learns this at the end of the play. Throughout the play, she resists her father's
dubious affection and takes pride from working in Mrs. Alving's home. She seems to return Oswald's affection,
even peppering her speech with French, which she has learned in the hope that Oswald will take her to Paris.
However, she is careful not to overstep the bounds of what is proper.
Jacob Engstrand - A carpenter with a deformed leg, Jacob married Johanna when she was pregnant with Captain
Alving's child. The daughter was Regina. At the start of the play, he is working on the orphan asylum meant to
memorialize Captain Alving. He wants to use the money he is saving to open an "establishment" for sailors. When
speaking to Pastor Manders, whom the hypocritical Jacob always tries to please, he describes the establishment as
a place to reform sailors. But when he describes it to Regina, it sounds like a high-class saloon. He is an alcoholic.
Captain Alving - Captain Alving died ten years prior to the start of the play. He was a very famous man with a
good reputation, and before he died he was made a chamberlain. He never appears in the play but is often referred
to. According to Mrs. Alving's account, he was, in fact, a lazy, dissolute man.
Johanna - Johanna was the Alvings' servant and gave birth to Regina after being forced by Captain Alving to
sleep with him. She is dead and never appears on stage.
The main theme of Ghosts is the extent to which society invades personal lives. Mrs. Alving, obsessed with
keeping up appearances, tries to protect her late husband's reputation. But because of this concern, she not only
ends up living a lie and building a memorial to her husband's false reputation, but she also ruins the lives of her
husband's two children, Oswald and Regina.
Pastor Manders is also ruled by a neurotic concern for public opinion. It leads him to much foolishness, to the
extent that he is eventually tricked into funding Engstrand sailor's saloon. In the Pastor, we see the connection
between public opinion and duty. When the Pastor tells Mrs. Alving that she must save Oswald from sin, it is
unclear whether he is motivated by a pure sense of moral duty or by deference to public opinion, because for him
they are essentially the same. It is because of the Pastor's principles that he does not give in to the mutual
attraction that he and Mrs. Alving share and that would have made them both happy.
Mrs. Alving's speech on "ghosts," in the second act, establishes the play's key metaphor. The "ghosts" of duty and
public opinion come to dominate and ruin generations of lives. Mrs. Alving feels that all people are haunted not
only by their inheritances from specific people, but by general superstitions that exist within a community. The
idea of filial piety, or duty to family members above all else, is such a ghost.
Act 1, Part 1 of 5
The entire play takes place in a space in Mrs. Alving's home overlooking the garden. It consists of a
large room in the foreground and a smaller room in the background, which looks out onto a fjord
covered with mist. Jacob Engstrand stands at the door to the garden, while the maid, his daughter Regina
tries to make him leave. She doesn't want him to wake the young master (Oswald), who is asleep
upstairs. She alludes to Engstrand's drinking and bad behavior. He insists on talking to her and describes
the sailor's establishment he wants to open with the money he has made working on the orphanage. He
wants her to come with him and work in the establishment. He hints that she could find a husband or
even prostitutes herself; he even eludes to the $300 her mother, Johanna, allegedly earned for sleeping
with the yachtsman who impregnated her with Regina. She balks at his suggestion and complains of
how poorly he treats her. She seems very proud of her position as a servant in Mrs. Alvin's home. She
makes Engstrand exit by way of the kitchen door, as Pastor Manders is coming up the front walk.
Although he is angry, Engstrand agrees, as he wants to avoid the Pastor.
The Pastor enters, and Regina greets him cheerfully. The Pastor asks if everything is ready for the
dedication of the orphan asylum in the morning. He notes that Regina has filled out, and they quietly
chat for a few minutes. The Pastor tells her that she should go work for her father, because he needs a
guiding hand. Regina won't hear of it and continually tries to ask the Pastor if he has any ideas about
whom she should marry. He constantly interrupts her, insisting that her father is a good man and
deserves her filial help, and finally he asks if he can see Mrs. Alvin.
Right from the very first scene, Ghosts deals with the conflicts between generations. Filial piety, or the
idea that a child should respect his or her parents, is an issue from the start. Engstrand himself admits
that he is a bad drinker, yet he does not seem to believe that he mistreats Regina. Regina, on the other
hand, will not consider returning to live with him. The Pastor brings up the issue again. As we will learn
later in the play, Engstrand is skilled in manipulating the Pastor, and he has convinced him that he is a
good man and that the Pastor should talk Regina into helping her father. Obviously, the Pastor does not
know the side of Engstrand that would suggest that Regina prostitute herself. Additionally, the Pastor is
a strong believer in filial piety, as will be seen later in the act as he discusses Mrs. Alvin's relations with
her son. Clearly, the Pastor is a character that sticks to ideals, even while he is blind to truths that are
obvious to other characters, such as the fact of Engstrand's immorality.
In the beginning of this first act, we see two sides of Regina. While she is disrespectful of her father, she
is full of respect for the Pastor. Yet both behaviors are a result of Regina's sense of pride and desire to
move up in the world. She treats her father with disrespect not only because he mistreats her but also
because she considers herself above him—she declares that she doesn't want to be seen with him. She
treats the Pastor with great respect, even flirting with him—asking him whether he thinks she has filled
out—because she wants to earn his respect and possibly meet a husband through him. Later in the play,
we will learn that the question of Regina's class is more complicated, but even at the beginning of the
play we must understand that she has a complex understanding of her own current status, as well as her
In these first two interactions, not only do we see two sides of Regina—two sides that speak almost
completely different languages, one colloquial, the other an attempt at educated conversation—but we
also hear Engstrand speak two languages. On the one hand, his language is vulgar, containing curses;
this language reveals that he is a common, rough man. On the other hand, his language is full of cliches.
He says things like, "this world's full of temptations," and speaks of "what a child owes its father." With
these phrases we see the hypocritical side of Engstrand, the side that has fooled the Pastor into thinking
Engstrand is a good man to whom Regina would do well to return.
Act 1, Part 2 of 5
As Regina goes to get Mrs. Alving, Pastor Manders examines the books on the table. Mrs. Alvin enters,
and they discuss Oswald's return—he has been gone for two years. They sit down to discuss the
paperwork surrounding the orphanage. The Pastor interrupts and asks Mrs. Alvin if she enjoys the books
she owns. She says they give her confidence, and the ideas she finds in them confirm her opinions. He
does not approve of the books, even though he has not read them, but he has read much literature that
condemns them. He begs her to keep her opinions to herself, especially in regard to the founding of the
orphan asylum. Mrs. Alvin looks over the deeds and contracts for a long time. She is satisfied. The
Pastor also convinces her that she should not purchase insurance for the orphanage. He thinks that many
influential people might not approve because buying insurance would be a sign of not having enough
faith in God. The lady agrees eventually.
Their conversation turns to Jakob Engstrand. The Pastor insists that he is trying to lead a good life, by
daily visiting his daughter Regina, so that she can keep him on the right path. Mrs. Alvin objects
because she knows that Engstrand does not visit all that often. The Pastor goes on to suggest that she
should release Regina from her servant's position so she can work with her father, but Mrs. Alvin objects
violently, swearing that she has taken Regina into her house and will not let her leave. At that moment,
she hears Oswald coming and says there is no need to discuss the matter further.
Mrs. Alvin's anxiety over letting Regina goes back to her father hints at the existence of deeper secrets.
These will be revealed later in the play. Throughout Ibsen's play, many events at the beginning of the
play are only understood fully at the play's end. For this reason, the play merits at least one rereading.
The discussion over insuring the orphanage is such an event: the audience cannot yet know its
significance. However, the amount of time Ibsen dedicates to the discussion hints to the audience that
the matter will become important later on. Thus, the conversation serves as a kind of foreshadowing: the
audience wonders why insurance will be significant and what will happen to the orphanage.
Through these dialogues, the audience also gains insight into the Pastor's methods of persuasion. We see
him easily convince Mrs. Alvin not to insure her orphanage. His argument, that public opinion would
not approve, is a flimsy one, but because he puts it intelligently, he is able to convince Mrs. Alvin. His
ulterior motive will be revealed later in the play.
At the same time, the Pastor's own gullibility is glaringly obvious. He is convinced that Engstrand is a
good but needy man, whereas we know from Engstrand's conversation with Regina that the opposite is,
in fact, true. It is important to note here how Ibsen uses irony and suspense to keep the audience
interested in his play. By making the audience privy to various conversations, the audience knows more
than any one character. Thus, the audience wonders when a given character will reveal information to
another or find out a secret that the audience knows. The simultaneous presence of gullibility and
craftiness in the character of the Pastor results in a strong sense of irony.
Act 1, Part 3 of 5
Oswald enters, wearing a light overcoat and smoking a pipe. Pastor Manders is pleasantly shocked at
how closely he resembles his famously upstanding father. Mrs. Alving glows with pride at the maturity
her son shows in dealing with the Pastor's muddled apologies for having formerly disapproved of his
way of life. The Pastor describes the way the outlines of Oswald's mouth resemble the late Captain
Alving's, but Mrs. Alving insists that Oswald does not favor his father in the least. She asks him not to
smoke in the garden room, and Oswald complies, saying that he was only smoking because it was his
father's pipe; he had smoked it only once before, as a small child, at his father's urging, and remembers
having been sick. Mrs. Alving insists that this must have been a dream.
The conversation turns to Oswald's life abroad. The Pastor emphasizes the importance of the ancestral
home and of living with a family. Oswald mentions that he has lived with families, albeit not families
officially married by the church. The Pastor is appalled, but Mrs. Alving supports her son. Oswald
becomes emotional in his arguments, complaining about the hypocrisy of many Norwegian men who
declaim the bohemian lifestyles he loves.
When Oswald enters, he is wearing a light overcoat. This contrasts with the Pastor's entrance; the Pastor
was wearing a heavy overcoat and carrying an umbrella, heavily shielding himself from the dark
weather. These details are highly symbolic: while Oswald, as we will see later in the play, is practically
driven crazy by the gloom—both literal and symbolic—of the community and its natural setting, the
Pastor is well adjusted to it. This is also reflected in Oswald's speech. It is impassioned; he speaks in
bursts of adjectives, whereas the Pastor's speech is ponderous, highly rhetorical, and full of stock
phrases. The Pastor lives his life according to a concrete set of ideals, whereas Oswald acts from the
Mrs. Alving reacts oddly to the Pastor's belief that Oswald resembles his father. She doesn't like the idea
at all. As we will learn by the end of the first act, this is because she very much dislikes her former
husband but idealizes her son and imagines that she has saved him from his father. Yet despite her
internal rejection of her former husband's ways, Mrs. Alving is careful to preserve his public reputation.
Thus, she rejects as untrue the anecdote her son tells about his father forcing him to smoke: she doesn't
want either of the men to know of her late husband's weaknesses.
In Oswald and the Pastor's argument over marriage, we see further exposition of their differing
worldviews. Oswald declares that Norwegians who condemn Italian artists living together unmarried are
hypocrites because they themselves are not free from their own forms of corruption. Little does he know
that his father was prone to such moral decay. Later in the play, Oswald will complain about the lack of
sun in Norway, compared to sunny Italy where he has been living. Clearly, Oswald takes issue with
more than the lack of natural light in his hometown—he takes issue with the prevailing lack of
intellectual and moral enlightenment.
Act 1, Part 4 of 5
Oswald leaves, and the Pastor begins to sermonize to Mrs. Alving. He reminds her of the time that she
fled from her husband and refused to return, attempting to take refuge with him instead. She asks the
Pastor to remember how miserable she was, but he denounces her rebellious spirit and emphasizes that it
is a not a woman's place to judge the husband she has chosen. He chastises her for endangering his own
reputation by coming to him when she fled. He then compares this earlier failure of hers to her decision
to send her son abroad while he was still so young. He sears her with guilt.
She responds with measured, deliberate speech. She tells him that, contrary to public belief, her husband
did not turn over a new leaf after she returned to him. She reminds the Pastor that he never once visited
her after she returned to her husband and they moved to the country to the house she presently lives in.
She says that her husband did not reform; rather, she simply learned to accept his faults and hide them
from the world. When she bore him a son, he only became worse. She spent nights coaxing him to drink
himself to sleep so that he would not go carousing. She only survived because of the public works that
she coordinated the same works that gained Captain Alvin his reputation.
Just before the Pastor begins to lecture Mrs. Alving, he says that he must speak to her not as her friend
but as her priest. Yet his language is full of the same stock phrases as usual. He refers to the wife's duty
to her husband just as he referred to the sanctity of marriage to Oswald, or as he spoke to Regina about
her duties to Engstrand Also as usual, he is always concerned about public opinion. It angers him that
Mrs. Alving endangered his reputation by fleeing to him when she was in need. (Of course, to his credit,
one must remember that Mrs. Alving was attracted to him sexually, and, thus, her approach toward him
could have been seen as improper). The Pastor also invoked public opinion when discussing insurance
for the orphan asylum, when condemning Mrs. Alving's reading selections, and when wondering how to
avoid scandal with his speech at the opening of the memorial asylum.
Mrs. Alving's speech is a watershed. She has apparently never told anyone else about her husband's
failings. Like the Pastor, she inflates her speech with repetition—the rhetorical pretensions of the
educated. Her attitude toward the Pastor here is complex. First, she is angered that he accused her of
betraying a worthy husband and of treating her son just as badly. But she also thinks of him as a friend,
or at least as someone for whom she previously had romantic feelings. Also, she is probably concerned
to give her speech an air of importance; after all, her mission for more than ten years has been to
maintain her husband's good reputation. Now she is destroying that reputation, at least in the Pastor's
mind. In a sense, she is making a confession, even though the aim of her speech is to absolve herself of
To understand the rest of the play, it is important to consider how Mrs. Alving must have felt after
returning to her husband. The couple moved out of town and she lost contact with the Pastor, who she
was fond of then, despite how she feels about him now. She suppressed her "rebellious spirit" and put up
with a husband who was unfaithful and lazy. Her need to busy herself with projects is indicative of her
psychological state. She began to think of her husband as an object to be hidden. In the final parts of the
first act, we will see how this pressurized situation led her to deal with her son in the ways she did.
Act 1, Part 5 of 5
Mrs. Alving relates to the Pastor that she eventually caught her husband trying to seduce their maid,
Johanna. When he finally got his way with Johanna, Mrs. Alving was horrified and sent the seven-year-
old Oswald abroad, so that he would not have to witness his father's debaucheries. She continued to
maintain the Captain's reputation, however, especially in her letters to Oswald. She sent Johanna away
with a large sum of money to keep her quiet. The memorial orphanage is another attempt to make sure
that the truth will never come out. It is also a way for Mrs. Alving to purge herself of her former
husband all of his money is going into the memorial orphanage; her son's inheritance will consist of her
money only. The Pastor is shocked by Mrs. Alving's divulgences and apologizes for his opinions. He
concedes that Mrs. Alving has had to endure a great deal.
Oswald returns from his walk and goes to help Regina prepare dinner. The Pastor confesses that it will
be difficult to give a speech tomorrow in honor of Captain Alving, but he says that he must do it in order
to avoid scandal. Suddenly, Mrs. Alving and the Pastor hear Regina call out from the kitchen, asking
Oswald to let her go. They are horrified. Mrs. Alving says that it is ghosts. As they enter the dining
room, she insists that the Pastor say nothing.
It is clear that Regina is the daughter of the Captain and Johanna. This extra-marital birth was,
understandably, the last straw for Mrs. Alving. She tells the Pastor that once she caught them, she
immediately took over complete control of all household affairs. Her entire life has been marked by this
sort of control: control over her husband's reputation, keeping her husband home at night, keeping her
son ignorant of his father's failings, keeping Regina ignorant of the identity of her real father.
Mrs. Alving makes two difficult decisions regarding her husband. The first is her decision to maintain
his reputation. The second is her decision to completely protect Oswald from his father. These strategies
are connected: her son could not remain ignorant of his father's faults if he had a bad public reputation.
Yet her desire to keep up his reputation is also motivated by a desire to save her own reputation. If the
marriage were viewed as a failure, she could potentially be seen as the cause; indeed, later in the play
she blames herself for not being able to match Captain Alving's "joy of life," his verve and spirit. At the
very least, she may feel guilty for having temporarily abandoned her husband.
Mrs. Alving goes to great lengths to keep Oswald in the dark about his father. She lies to him in her
letters and she sends him away as soon as he is old enough to ask embarrassing questions. Just as she
tries to be the perfect wife to her husband—sticking by him and enduring most of his faults, all the while
improving his reputation—she tries to give Oswald a perfect pair of parents. The dangers of upholding
such a fiction will be revealed later in the play.
The close of the first act is almost fantastical in nature. Oswald is flirting with Regina, just as Captain
Alving flirted with Johanna. Although Oswald and Regina do not know that they are half-siblings, the
knowledge of their close relationship causes Mrs. Alving and the Pastor to be severely shocked when
they overhear Regina's cry that Oswald has tried to touch her. Mrs. Alving attributes Regina's cries to
ghosts; indeed, Regina and Oswald are the children of a man who similarly tried to seduce a maid a
generation earlier. Captain Alving's ghost seems to reveal itself through them. Once again, Mrs. Alving
feels that she has lost control of the situation. Yet she does not scream or rush into the kitchen. Her first
impulse is to tell the Pastor not to utter a word, to keep up appearances, just as she did the last time such
a seduction was taking place.
Act 2, Part 1 of 4
Pastor Manders and Mrs. Alving emerge from the dining room. They exchange civilities until they are
sure that Regina and Oswald have been sent on very separate tasks and are out of earshot. Mrs. Alving
suggests that Oswald's flirtations with Regina were just a whim, but the Pastor is still shocked. He insists
that she immediately return to her father, but Mrs. Alving refuses such a suggestion. The Pastor is
reminded of the wedding of Engstrand and Johanna, when Engstrand was profusely sorry for his
irresponsibility in impregnating Johanna out of wedlock. Now, the Pastor is shocked by Engstrand's
hypocrisy, especially considering the sum of money that Johanna was awarded to keep quiet and which
no doubt prompted him to marry her.
Mrs. Alving reminds him that she herself married a fallen man for his money and that indeed her heart
wanted to marry someone else. The Pastor tries to deny the similarity between Captain Alving and
Johanna as "fallen" individuals, and he ignores the reference made to her former affections for him. He
reminds her that no matter what, her marriage was made under the law, but Mrs. Alving feels that "law
and order" are the source of all problems, and she yearns to break free. She rises and goes to the
window, drumming on the pane. She wishes that she hadn't concealed the truth from Oswald, and she
calls herself a coward. The Pastor urges her to remember the value of the "joyful illusion" she has
fabricated for her son and to remember her duty to keep her son happy.
It is comical to see the Pastor angered at Engstrand. The Pastor has realized that Engstrand fooled him
once, but he does not realize that Engstrand is always tricking him, and indeed, it will not be long before
Engstrand has the chance to convince him that he was never betrayed at all. Regarding Johanna, it is
important to note that Mrs. Alving does not regret sending her away with money to keep her quiet. She
treats Johanna as simply another pawn in her grand plan to maintain good reputations. Neither does she
show much compassion for Regina—she does not apologize for the awkward position she has created
for the girl.
Yet Mrs. Alving realizes that there are flaws in her worldview. She calls herself a coward. She looks out
the window at the darkening, misty landscape. Although she does not take immediate action, she does
wish that she had the courage to do so. Similarly, even while she reads radical books, she readily agrees
with the Pastor that she should keep her unconventional ideas to herself. She is a radical on a theoretical
but not a practical level; while she would like to tell Oswald the truth about his father, she cannot bring
herself to do so in practice.
Pastor Manders's opinion on telling Oswald the truth is that the truth would make the youth unhappy.
This reveals the Pastor's fundamental reluctance to upset the status quo, a reluctance he shares with Mrs.
Alving. What he does not share with Mrs. Alving is the temptation to break free. He also does not
question what anyone says. Although he argues with Mrs. Alving, he does not come to any new
conclusions. He just recites gospel. He repeatedly turns a blind eye to class issues; he also emphasizes
the difference between Johanna the fallen woman and Captain Alving the fallen gentleman.
Act 2, Part 2 of 4
Mrs. Alving is feeling rebellious, and she goes on to suggest that she would approve of a marriage
between Regina and Oswald, as long as the couple made the decision in full knowledge of their true
genealogy. She goes so far as to remind the Pastor of all the incestuous marriages he must ordain
throughout the countryside. The Pastor avoids the subject and reverts to an earlier topic, asking her what
she meant by calling herself a coward. She explains that she is haunted by ghosts in her mind. She
describes the ghosts as being more than that which we "inherit" from our parents; they are all the ideas
and habits that are passed down between generations as larger units and which we are afraid to give
up—which make us afraid of "the light."
Pastor Manders dismisses such thoughts as the result of the books Mrs. Alving has been reading, but she
says that they are rather the result of the sense of "duty" the Pastor infused her with when she fled to
him. The Pastor is moved, asking if this cramping sense of "duty" is all that came from his life's greatest
battle with himself; he says it was a struggle for him to send her back because he, too, had feelings for
her. But she insists that when she came to him and said, "here I am—take me," it was a crime for him to
turn her away. They agree that they do not understand one another at all. The conversation has turned
back to Engstrand when a knock is heard at the door.
Mrs. Alving's notion of "ghosts" gets at the heart of the play. Not only are there ghosts in the sense of
specific persons come back to life in new forms—as one could figuratively say that Regina is a ghost of
Johanna—there are ideas that "haunt" generation after generation. As a priest, Pastor Manders is a
purveyor of these ghosts. His emphasis on ideas of familial loyalty is a plague on all the characters in the
play. Regina does not want to return to Engstrand; Oswald does not believe that marriages must be
sanctioned by the church; Mrs. Alvin does not believe that she should have been loyal to her husband.
The Pastor, however, is not the only source of these ideas. They truly are ghosts; they permeate, and
hover within the entire community; they haunt each character.
Mrs. Alving says that these ghostly ideas make us afraid of the light. Throughout the play, gloom,
clouds, and rain symbolize hypocrisy, fear, duty, and the general cowardice generated by an obsession
with public reputation. Later in the play, we will see how several sources of light upset this gloom.
In the ensuing conversation, we see the Pastor and Mrs. Alvin at their most intimate. Apparently, their
attraction was mutual. The Pastor has over-dramatized it in his memory, considering the episode his
greatest battle with himself. Here, Ibsen demonstrates how people can make themselves unhappy out of
a sense of duty. Mrs. Alvin resents the fact that the Pastor denied both of them happiness. Here we see
the root of her belief that "law and order" cause unhappiness, the root of her fear of cowardice, and the
root of her strong desire to break free. Indeed, if she is a radical who never acts on her radical principles,
then we can think of the time she tried to leave her husband for the Pastor as the one time she did act on
principle. Because the object of her desire refused her, her impulse to act died.
Act 2, Part 3 of 4
Engstrand enters, wearing his Sunday clothes. He suggests that now that the orphanage has been
completed, the Pastor lead a small prayer service for the workers. Engstrand claims to have occasionally
led such prayers himself. The Pastor asks him if his conscience is clear, especially regarding Regina; the
Pastor is furious with him for not telling him the truth. Engstrand replies that he didn't want to spread
bad rumors about his new wife, Johanna. He tells a version of the story in which he married her out of
pity. Engstrand walks with a limp, and in his story he explains that the injury was sustained during an
attempt to halt a drunken brawl; as he lay injured, the pregnant Johanna came to him looking for help.
When the Pastor asks about the money the anonymous yachtsman (Regina's alleged father) had given
Johanna, Engstrand says that he wanted to throw it in the yachtsman's face, but Johanna insisted they use
it to raise the child.
The Pastor asks Engstrand to forgive him for doubting him. He asks for some way to show his good
will. Engstrand mentions his establishment for sailors, describing it as a kind of refuge or asylum, a
place where they could be under warm and fatherly supervision. The Pastor is enthusiastic about this
idea, and for now he sends Engstrand to prepare the candles for prayer at the orphanage. He asks Mrs.
Alving what she thinks, and she replies that she thinks he is childish, a baby. Then, she tries to embrace
him, but he resists and goes to lead prayer at the orphanage. Mrs. Alving sighs, then stares out the
window for a while.
In this episode, we see Engstrand at the height of his hypocrisy. At the start of the play, he was wearing
work clothes, soaked in the rain. Now he is wearing his best clothes; he is careful to cultivate an image
for the Pastor. Although he is a man literally and symbolically soaked in the elements of the countryside,
he tries to appear civilized. His language is full of religious cliches designed to fool the Pastor. His
description of the sailor's establishment is the exact opposite of the bawdy house he described to Regina
earlier. In his invention of an alternate identity for the sake of the Pastor, we see that Engstrand is, like
many of the play's characters, obsessed with public reputation.
Ibsen never lets us know what Engstrand really thought about his marriage, but we know from the
opening scene of the play that he is not afraid to poke bitter fun at the fact that his wife received $300
from a yachtsman. We know that he is often dishonest. When Mrs. Alving calls the Pastor a baby, we
assume it is because he has naively accepted Engstrand's tale. The Pastor is so gullible because he is
always eager to find an easy answer to things—as with public opinion, he would rather there be no
scandals or disagreements. Also, he is highly receptive to the empty rhetoric of religion, which he uses
as a reassurance and which Engstrand uses as a tool to dupe the Pastor.
Mrs. Alving is amused that the Pastor is so gullible, but her attempt to embrace him seems to betray
some latent, long-surviving affection. She sighs when he leaves and looks out the window. Night has
fallen by now, but she still associates the window with escape, with her desire to be courageous and
disregard the law. At this point, that would mean embracing the Pastor despite his opinions and despite
his shunning of her, and it would entail telling Oswald the truth.
Act 2, Part 4 of 4
Mrs. Alving walks toward the dining room but stops in the doorway, seeing Oswald. He is drinking. He
says he is drinking so as not to feel the dampness. He has to be told twice that the Pastor has gone down
to say prayers at the orphanage. He enters from the dining room, patting his mother and telling her how
nice it is to be home. He then begins to complain about the weather and how he can't do any painting
without sunlight. He paces and asks permission to sit next to his mother. He tells her that he has
something to tell her: he is sick. He sometimes feels a piercing pain and becomes giddy and senseless
whenever he tries to work. He went to a doctor in Paris, who, instead of a diagnosis, simply declared,
"The sins of the fathers are visited on the children." But Oswald convinced the doctor that this was
wrong, showing him his mother's letters, in which she described what a good man Captain Alving was.
The doctor then decides that Oswald must simply be over-exerting himself in his enlightened, bohemian
lifestyle. Oswald is crushed by the knowledge that he has ruined his own health with his living habits.
Mrs. Alving, meanwhile, is highly agitated, wringing her hands. She repeatedly bemoans the fate of her
"boy." He asks for something to drink. His mother asks Regina to bring in the lamp and then some
champagne. She is worried that he will leave home again and tells him he can have whatever he wants.
He speaks of Regina, saying she is the only one who can help him. Mrs. Alving offers her own
assistance, but Oswald says that, although he considers his mother his best friend in the world, he cannot
accept her help as he does not want her to have to witness his torment. Mrs. Alving calls for another
bottle of champagne. Meanwhile, Oswald describes how he once casually told Regina that she should
visit Paris and that now she had her heart set on it. She reminded him of it when he returned and when
he saw her looking expectantly at him, he saw that she was full of the "joy of life."
Regina brings the bottle, and Oswald asks her to join them. After asking "madam's" permission, she
does. Oswald continues to speak about the joy of life and work, lamenting that people in Norway
assume incorrectly that the world is a "vale of misery." He says he always paints with an eye toward
happiness, and he feels that in Norway all that is best in him is deteriorating. Suddenly, Mrs. Alving
rises, exclaiming that she now understands how everything fits together and that she can explain
everything. The Pastor enters and is convinced that Regina must return to Engstrand He asks why she is
drinking with the other two, and Oswald says that they may marry. Then, Mrs. Alving declares that she
has something to say. The Pastor protests, but she assures him that she will not disillusion anyone. Then,
they all notice a bright light and a clamor of voices emanating from outside. Apparently, the orphanage
has caught fire. They all rush out. Even while the Pastor exclaims that the fire is an act of judgment upon
the sinful Alving house, he also complains bitterly that the orphanage is not insured.
The play almost comes to its climax but is suddenly interrupted by a fire. The fire is one of two sources
of light that acts as twisted symbols in this act. The other is the lamp. Mrs. Alving calls for it amid
Oswald's complaints that he cannot work in this land without sun or the joy of life. Yet his complaints
continue—Mrs. Alving cannot provide enough light to help his current mood, just as she can do little to
help him in general. The fire, on the other hand, actually obliterates a falsehood, the fiction of Captain
Alving's good reputation. Yet it is still purely destructive, not a source of enlightenment.
Oswald's sickness makes little sense to the modern reader, but perhaps in the late 19th century it was
more plausible to blame an illness on a lifestyle. One possible explanation is that the sickness is syphilis,
contracted through imprudent sexual relations. At any rate, the sickness's significance lies in its
connections to the play's larger theme of haunting and ghosts; the illness would seem to prove Mrs.
Alving's theory that her son is actually haunted by his father.
Oswald's attitude toward his mother is ambivalent. On the one hand, he tries to convince her that he is a
loving son. He pats her and calls her his best friend in the world, but he is also obliged to ask her
permission to sit next to her. To a certain degree, they are strangers, as the Pastor pointed out earlier.
However, Oswald is desperate, and he looks to his mother for help even though he suspects that Regina
is a better alternative. In part, his preference for Regina's companionship may merely be an expression
of lust for her, a manifestation of his lust for her merely because he is doomed to repeat the sins of his
father, but he may also sense that his mother is in many ways confused.
She certainly has a confused reaction to the revelations he makes. She is shocked, and her first reaction
is to emphasize her maternal roll: by calling him "boy" and by getting him whatever he wants. At the
same time, she listens with rapt interest to his thoughts on "the joy of life." And after he finishes, it
seems that she finally has enough courage to tell everyone the truth regardless of public opinion, to
break free from the ghostly laws that keep her quiet. But then she says that she will not disillusion
anyone or break any ideals. The next act reveals that she has not quite "broken free."
Act 3, Part 1 of 2
It is dark, except for a faint glow of fire from outside. Regina and Pastor Manders are exchanging empty
remarks about the tragedy. Engstrand enters, much to the Pastor's dismay. He relentlessly teases the
Pastor, insinuating that the fire was started by the prayer candles and is, therefore, the Pastor's fault. He
speculates on the public scandal that the fire will cause. Mrs. Alving enters and asks the Pastor to take
all the paperwork with him—she doesn't want to think about the orphanage again.
The Pastor speculates that he can devote the money to some charitable cause. Engstrand reminds him of
his "home" for sailors, but the Pastor replies that he is worried public opinion will unseat him before he
can make any such donation. Engstrand hints that if the Pastor says nothing, he will not have to worry
about public opinion. Engstrand even implicitly compares himself to Jesus, who "once took the blame
for someone else." The Pastor promises to devote the money to Engstrand's establishment. Engstrand
decides to call it "Captain Alving's Home."
At the beginning of the act, the baseness of Engstrand's character is emphasized: not only does he
practically blackmail the Pastor; he is pretentious enough to compare himself to Jesus Christ. Most
surprisingly, the Pastor blithely accepts this entire campaign. He may have no choice but to accept it,
and yet he sees it as a favor on Engstrand's part for his sake.
When the Pastor decided not to buy insurance for the orphan asylum, he was acting under an obsessive
concern for public reputation. Now, because of this same concern for public opinion, he has lost what
little money he could have salvaged from the uninsured disaster: he gives in to Engstrand's deceitful
persuasions and agrees to finance a saloon with the leftover money. In this last appearance of the Pastor,
we see his gullibility and his concern for public opinion united, looming over all thoughts of the Pastor's
own. He is so dependent on others that he must believe everything they say and think.
The irony in the name "Captain Alving's Home" is fairly obvious. It will be a house of debauchery, as
the real captain was a man of debauchery, but the Pastor will fund it because he thinks it will be a house
of public service, just as the memorial was set up to honor the captain's reputation. Engstrand's
establishment will be a truly fitting memorial to Captain Alving.
Act 3, Part 2 of 2
The pastor leaves and meanwhile Oswald has entered. He predicts Engstrand establishment will burn, just like all
that remains of his father. He gathers his mother and Regina close to him, telling them that he needs a "helping
hand." His mother says that she will now remove the basis of Oswald's self-reproach. She begins to tell how
Oswald's father was full of "the joy of life"; she says he was full of untamed energy for which neither the small
town nor she could provide an outlet for, so he had to take up with drunkards and become a broken man. She also
admits that Regina "belongs in the house." Regina guesses her meaning immediately and asks to leave. She is
bitter that Mrs. Alving hired her as a maid when she should have raised her as a gentleman's daughter. She goes to
catch the Pastor and demand her inheritance from the money that would have gone to the orphanage and will now
fund the saloon. She exits. Oswald is mildly shocked but reminds his mother that he didn't know his father and,
indeed, is just as troubled as before. When his mother tells him that every child should love his father, he asks
how she can believe in such a "superstition." Mrs. Alving realizes that she is just propagating another ghost. She
asks whether he loves her; he says at least he knows her, and that he is very thankful for all her help.
Oswald admits that she has relieved him of his self-reproach, but he says nothing can alleviate his dread. She
reassures him that soon the sun will come up. He sits her down, telling her that his dread results from the lapses
he suffers, the fits of gloom that lurk in his mind and come upon him suddenly, rendering him helpless as a child.
His mother tries to reassure him, saying that, as his mother, she is there to care for her child. But this is just what
Oswald doesn't want. He savors the doctor's description of his illness as a "softening of the brain," finding the
image charming—like red velvet curtains, supple when stroked.
Mrs. Alving is horrified. Oswald blames her again for scaring away Regina, who could have helped him. He says
that the doctor predicted his next attack will be his last, and he shows his mother twelve morphine capsules—a
lethal dose. He wants his mother to administer them when his attack comes—he knows that Regina would have
done so had he asked her. Mrs. Alving finally promises to do so if necessary. He says that soon the sun will come
and she will see the torment he suffers. She tells him that he has only been suffering from delusions and that now
that he is home with his mother, they will go away. The sun rises over the glistening mountains, and she goes to
turn out the light. Oswald says, "Mother, give me the sun." His muscles loosen and he slips in the chair. His
mother panics and searches for the pills, screaming all the while.
Commentary: Mrs. Alving finally tells the truth, if only partially. When she paid such close attention to
Oswald's talk of "the joy of life," it was because she was finding an excuse for her husband's behavior. By
explaining his sins by saying that he had too vibrant a spirit and no outlets for it, she is not only providing an
excuse for the husband who made her miserable, she is shifting the blame to herself. She says that it was her
boring sense of duty that stifled him, when, in fact, it was her sense of duty that made her stay with him and has
driven her to preserve his reputation, even as she does with this speech.
Regina's reactions are not unpredictable. We are not surprised that she so unhesitatingly chooses to leave Oswald:
throughout the play, she seems less interested in Oswald himself than in climbing the social ladder. Thus, she
speaks in bits of French; thus, she is just as interested in charming the Pastor as Engstrand. Her actions also
provide a new insight, however, as they also serve to expose and protest against Mrs. Alving's failure to think of
Regina as a human. Instead, she wants to think of her as a child to be cared for and controlled.
Mrs. Alving's treatment of Oswald in this scene is similarly unrealistic. She continually tries to talk him out of his
troubles; she will not accept that he is actually terribly ill. She mothers him, even and especially when he
expresses disgust at being reduced by his illness to a childish level of helplessness. She also insists on the ideas of
filial piety, of a son loving his father and of the nuclear family in general, that the Pastor has used on her
throughout the play. When Oswald is able to call them superstitions—ghosts—she begins to recognize the
horrible irony of her behavior. If Mrs. Alving is inconsistent, so is Oswald. He reassures her but also threatens to
leave and blames her for driving Regina away. In the end, he is right to doubt her. When he finally relapses, she is
terrified, and the play ends before we learn whether she will give him the morphine or simply go mad herself.
The sunrise is a final symbol of light. It clears away the gloom; all the facts are on the table. Yet the result is not
enlightenment but madness. Neither dark nor light is perfect. The dismal aspects of Norwegian society will
persist. Oswald, who has always known the joy of living, now also knows the truth about the pain of living; under
the weight of these combined truths he goes crazy.