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 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.
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.
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.)