Mar 22, 2011

Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen

Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen

I am half inclined to think we are all ghosts, Mr. Manders. It is not only what we have inherited from our fathers and mothers that exists again in us, but all sorts of old dead ideas and all kinds of old dead beliefs and things of that kind. They are not actually alive in us; but there they are dormant, all the same, and we can never be rid of them. Whenever I take up a newspaper and read it, I fancy I see ghosts creeping between the lines. There must be ghosts all over the world. They must be as countless as the grains of the sands, it seems to me. And we are so miserably afraid of the light, all of us.
Ghosts tells the story of Helen Alving, a widow who is about to open an orphanage dedicated to the memory of her deceased husband. But there’s a dark secret hiding behind this apparent loving homage. As Mrs Alving confesses to Father Manders, the reason why she decided to build the orphanage was so that nothing associated with her late husband would be inherited by their son Oswald – the son she sent away to school when he was seven so he wouldn’t grow up in a house of unhappiness and hypocrisy. Unfortunately, Oswald cannot get away from his father completely, and his inescapable inheritance goes beyond even his mother’s greatest fears.

Ibsen wrote Ghosts in 1882, just two years after A Doll’s House, and the reason why I decided to read it was because Rebecca told me in a comment that Ghosts could very easily be the story of what would happen to a woman like Nora if she had stayed in her unhappy marriage instead of walking away. Rebecca was absolutely right. As we discover shortly after the play’s opening, Helen Alving did in fact walk away from her husband one year into their marriage, only to eventually be convinced that she was the one in the wrong and should go back to him. This conversation between her and Father Manders is quite revealing:
Manders: Have you forgotten that after barely a year of married life you were standing at the very edge of a precipice?—that you forsook your house and home? that you ran away from your husband—yes, Mrs. Alving, ran away, ran away—and refused to return to him in spite of his requests and entreaties?
Mrs. Alving: Have you forgotten how unspeakably unhappy I was during that first year?
Manders: To crave for happiness in this world is simply to be possessed by a spirit of revolt. What right have we to happiness? No! we must do our duty, Mrs. Alving. And your duty was to cleave to the man you had chosen and to whom you were bound by a sacred bond.
Mrs. Alving: You know quite well what sort of a life my husband was living at that time—what excesses he was guilty of.
Manders: I know only too well what rumour used to say of him; and I should be the last person to approve of his conduct as a young man, supposing that rumour spoke the truth. But it is not a wife’s part to be her husband’s judge. You should have considered it your bounden duty humbly to have borne the cross that a higher will had laid upon you. But, instead of that, you rebelliously cast off your cross, you deserted the man whose stumbling footsteps you should have supported, you did what was bound to imperil your good name and reputation, and came very near to imperilling the reputation of others into the bargain.
Mrs Alving does do her “duty” in the end, and pays the price. What Ghosts does so well is illustrate the consequences of this blind adherence to duty in a completely unflinching way. As Mrs Alving despairingly puts it, “Oh, law and order! I often think it is that that is at the bottom of all the misery in the world.” Ghosts is a very dark play; much more so than A Doll’s House, which at least ends on a hopeful note. In Ghosts, the complete social unacceptability of divorce, which Nora braves but Mrs Alving shies away from, leads to a life of unhappiness, secrets and useless sacrifice, whose consequences are felt even by the next generation. Adherence to convention protects Mrs Alvin from ostracism and possible penury, but at a far too high cost.

As I’m sure you can imagine, Ghosts scandalised Victorian society. According to Wikipedia, contemporary reviews were overwhelmingly negative and accused it of “sordid impropriety” and of being “as foul and filthy a concoction as has ever been allowed to disgrace the boards of an English theatre.” This was a result of not only the play’s criticism of divorce laws and stifling social conventions, but also of its frank discussion of venereal diseases, particularly – spoiler ahoy – inherited syphilis. One of the consequences of the Victorian double standards of sexual morality was the fact that men could very easily bring diseases into the family and pass them on to their wives or children. Such a scenario is not unheard of with sexually transmitted diseases like AIDS even today, I know, but to make matters worse, at the time this was completely unspeakable. No respectable woman could even admit to knowledge of sexual matters, let alone seek help because of her husband’s indiscretions. If she did, the blame would likely be placed on her. (Of course, much of this still sounds very familiar; if not in all social contexts and parts of the world, then at least in some.)

I’m incredibly glad to have read Henrik Ibsen at last – A Doll’s House and Ghosts both put me in mind of Victorian Sensation writers I love, such as Mary Elizabeth Braddon or Wilkie Collins. Ibsen’s tone is of course quite different and far more solemn, but they have in common a willingness to broach topics that were forbidden at the time, as well as to denounce the effects of unjust marriage laws. If you’re a fan of Ibsen’s, I’d love some suggestions of which of his plays to read next.

Other points of view: Rebecca Reads

(Have you posted about Ghosts too? Let me know and I’ll be glad to link to you.)

29 comments:

  1. I haven't read a play in such a long, long time. It would be a great exercise for my brain, and this sounds wonderful. Your opening quote sold me! Thanks for the recommendation!

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  2. The only Ibsen I've 'read' is Doll's House, which I loved. My partner and I saw a production of Ghosts that knocked our socks off. Devasting and wonderful, performed by a very brave actress who was not afraid to go to the dark places the play takes it's main character.

    I've read that Ibsen did write Ghosts as a direct response to the reaction to Doll's House. At the time, in England at least, a woman with a verneral disease could be 'hospitalized' against her will. This was rationalized as a means to protect public health. I don't think this is mention in the play, since it isn't set in England, but the contemporary audience in England was well aware of it.

    We've also seen a production of The Master Builder and The Enemy of the People. We recommend The Master Builder.

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  3. Elisabeth: I read no plays at all last year, but Ibsen is making me realise how much I missed them. I hope you'll enjoy him as much as I have!

    C.B. James: Excellent point about the Contagious Diseases Act in England! Audiences would indeed be aware of that. I would love to see Ghosts performed - A Doll's House was powerful, but I can imagine this being even more so. Also, many thanks for the recommendation!

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  4. I love to read (or watch) something that was considered scandalous in its day, but I don't read many plays, so I'm not sure this would be for me.

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  5. I don't think I've ever read a play before, but I wouldn't mind taking a shot at it. Sounds like one should, for the sake of both perspectives, read both Doll's House and Ghosts. The cherry on top would be seeing the play. Lucky James!

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  6. Oh no! Have you any idea how big my immediate TBR pile is. Now I am craving this one. Aarghh! You are very bad, Ana, very bad!

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  7. Good for you for persevering. After I would have read "To crave for happiness in this world is simply to be possessed by a spirit of revolt. What right have we to happiness? No! we must do our duty, Mrs. Alving," I think I would have thrown the book across the room and that would have been the end of it! :--)

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  8. I just finished a book where one of the characters (she was much older) had the same idea of eschewing happiness and brought up the fact that her modern counterparts had no right to expect happiness or lightness in their lives. It struck me while I was reading it, but now, after reading your review, it really hit home. How bleak that people would think this way, and that a woman must stay in a relationship that kills her spirit! I need to read this, not only for what it imparts, but for how things have changed. Brilliant review, Ana!

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  9. I really enjoyed A Doll's House - this sounds like something I should read as well.

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  10. Wow, did not know about the Contagious Diseases Act. Sometimes my mind reels when I think of the oppression women suffered in the past, and continue to suffer. I wonder all the time: These women were the mothers, sisters, wives, daughters of the men who oppressed them. Where does the impulse come from, to treat the sex that gave them birth, nursed them, sheltered them, played with them and made love with them, with such cruelty? It is a mystery to me.

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  11. This seems like such a fitting play to read after a Doll's House and so dark. After reading your review and discussion on this I will have to find a copy of this one by Ibsen and read it as well.

    I love the idea that this play was considered scandalous in its time, just as A Doll's House was.

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  12. Wow. I just saw A Doll's House come up as a recommendation on my Instant Queue on Netflix- maybe I should watch it and see. This one seems even more depressing. I think what bothers me so much about the Church is the way it seems to glorify suffering, as though if you are happy, you are somehow sinning, and if you want to leave an unhappy situation, you are somehow not following through on your duty. It's such a sad way to view the world, and even sadder when it results in such misery all around.

    That said, I'm glad this play was written and that it hopefully got *some* people thinking about double standards and duty.

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  13. I need to read more Ibsen. I liked A Doll's House a lot but didn't know what other Ibsen plays to read. You carry on reading them! And then I can try whichever ones you like, starting with Ghosts. :)

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  14. I don't think I've read any plays since my university days! Goodness, I should change that. I've not read any Ibsen but this sounds so wonderful. Really enjoyed your review Nymeth!

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  15. Ibsen sounds like he was quite the rebel for his society (something I definitely appreciate).

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  16. I haven't read a play in such a long time. This one sounds really thought-provoking. Your review and the quotes you shared make me think this is definitely a good one for the wish list!

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  17. Ibsen is one of my favorite writers and I have read most of his works.. "The Wild Duck" would be the next play for you to read, I think. As "Ghosts" and "The Doll's House" it is masterly written. I highly recommend it. :)

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  18. Wow. I think I want to read this even more than A Doll's House now. (Though I really do still want to read that, too!) That passage with Mrs. Alving and Father Manders--literally turned my stomach.

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  19. Sounds like a fantastic accompanying read for the month Ana. I really must try to search out a copy!

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  20. Kathy: You could always try the movie version! There are a couple of different ones.

    Sandy: Lucky James indeed! And yes, they go very well together!

    Vivienne: Sorry :P The good news is that you can at least find it on Gutenberg, and it's really quite short.

    Jill: Haha, I understand the urge. But Ibsen did such a good job of making it clear just how he felt about that sentiment, but without being heavy-handed in the least.

    Zibilee: It makes me sad to come across that line of thinking, but it doesn't seem that uncommon :\ I can't wait to hear about that book!

    Brenna: It's a perfect follow-up!

    Nancy: I read a lot about the Act when reading about Josephine Butler, who risked public shame by openly campaigning against it. A "respectable" woman was not supposed to even know prostitutes or venereal diseases existed, let alone speak in public about it. And as for how all these men conciliated the feelings for the real women they must have known and loved with their gender attitudes, I have often wondered the same myself :\

    Dragonfly: Gutenberg has this one too if you don't mind reading it online! It really is a perfect companion to A Doll's House.

    Heidenkind: It kind of was, yes :\

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  21. Aarti: You definitely should! And I know just what you mean about that particular aspect of (some) religious thinking. And of course, it only applies to some people. In this case, no one would expect of the husband the same sort of sacrifice they demand of the wife.

    Jenny: I will do that :P

    Iliana, thank you! It had been a while since I'd read any plays too, but Ibsen made me realise I miss them.

    Trisha: As do I!

    Megan: Hope you enjoy it!

    Irma, many thanks for the recommendation! "The Wild Duck" it is, then :)

    Debi: Or better yet, read both in close succession! There are actually joint editions to make it all nice and easy :P

    Amy: Gutenberg has it! I think you'd really enjoy it.

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  22. This sounds like a must-read at some point for me. I love your book selections and really feel that it takes me out of my comfort zone.

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  23. Sounds interesting. What a difficult time to be a woman. A man could do as he pleased and the woman would pay for it.

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  24. I really love that opening excerpt. Sold me with that alone.
    I don't think I've read anything of Ibsen's other than Doll's House. This one sounds even better to me. Will add it to the pile!

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  25. My goodness but that dialogue excerpt gave me the chills. Sadly, this attitude towards divorce is still rampant in some parts of the world and until probably around the 1970's was still the case here in the U.S.

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  26. I'm so glad you got to it! I think it's a great parralell story.

    I was struck, though, how Mrs Alving didn't really have a means to leave her husband. Her only friend told her to go back. Nora at least knew that Dr Rank loved her. I guess I have lots of pity for Mrs Alving because she was trying so hard to escape in the beginning.

    I know you dont' need yet another book on your TBR so I'll just tell you about it -- The syphilis reminded me of this. "Beyond the Blossoming Fields" is a fictionalize story of the first woman doctor in Japan (Ginko Ogino). in the 1860s, She left her husband after contracting a venereal disease and determined to go to medical school so she could be a doctor and not embarass women like she had been embarrased by the doctors. Very inspiring, and yet it takes place in a far different country years before Ghotss would have taken place.

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  27. For some reason I can't explain I was angry when I read the passages. I wish I could explain or describe why I felt that way, but I can't.

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  28. I just read Ghosts, my first Ibsen and read your post after I read the play-I like what you said about how we are all ghosts a lot-I linked to your post in mine

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Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.