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Ghosts | Study Guide

Henrik Ibsen

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Ghosts | Discussion Questions 41 - 50


How does suspense build when Mrs. Helene Alving talks to Osvald Alving and Regina Engstrand at the end of Act 2 of Ghosts?

When Osvald Alving and Regina Engstrand declare their intention to marry in Act 2 (Osvald, Regina, and the Fire), Mrs. Helene Alving declares that she has a secret to tell that will prevent their union. The dramatic irony at this point creates suspense as spectators wait for the revelation. She starts to speak and is interrupted by Pastor Manders's entrance, then is interrupted again by him as she declares her intention to tell all. Osvald finally asks, "Mother, what is it you're hiding from me?" Before Mrs. Alving can tell him, suspense reaches its peak as the conversation is abruptly halted by the alarm that the orphanage is on fire. Act 2 ends with the audience or readers still waiting to see what happens between Osvald and Regina.

In Act 3 of Ghosts, how do Mrs. Helene Alving's words about the orphanage, "there's nothing to save," relate to Osvald Alving?

Osvald Alving remains at the site of the fire in Act 3 (Engstrand Takes the Blame), and Mrs. Helene Alving speaks in reference to him. On the surface Mrs. Alving's comment refers to the ruins of the orphanage. It is "completely burned out—right to the ground," so nothing on the property is salvageable. At a deeper level, her comments refer to Osvald's relationship to the father he never knew. When Osvald learns the truth about how Captain Alving lived, there will be nothing to save of Osvald's good opinion of him. The good deed of the orphanage was a dramatic ironic symbol of Captain Alving's self-indulgent behavior, the lies Mrs. Alving told about it, and the tragic consequences it created for her son and her husband's illegitimate daughter. In the largest sense, the audience realizes (though the characters may not) that the destruction of the orphanage means there is nothing to save of Mrs. Alving's family.

What is the significance of Engstrand's aside to Regina Engstrand, "Now we've got the old bird snared," referring to Pastor Manders in Act 3 of Ghosts?

Engstrand's remark in Act 3 (Engstrand Takes the Blame) lays bare his hypocrisy. He has all along presented a false show of faith to Pastor Manders. Now he will put on a show of innocence about how the orphanage fire started and how he wants to help Pastor Manders. Engstrand presents a sympathetic exterior to Pastor Manders, but Engstrand actually has contempt for him. Engstrand suggests that he intends to manipulate the pastor for his own gain. Engstrand's comment also creates suspense as the audience waits to see what Engstrand will do, how Pastor Manders will respond, and how the scheme will affect Regina Engstrand.

Why is Pastor Manders eager to let himself be blackmailed by Engstrand in Act 3 of Ghosts?

Pastor Manders will go along with anything in Act 3 (Engstrand Takes the Blame) to save his reputation and avoid scandal. Engstrand has created a story about how the fire started, which allows him to take the blame and "save" Pastor Manders. Engstrand will do (and indeed, has done) anything for money, and Pastor Manders will do anything if it allows him to deflect negative attention. Pastor Manders's response to funding Engstrand's seaman's hotel goes from "it's a possibility" before Engstrand takes the blame for him, to "you're going to have every bit of help you need for your seaman's home, you can count on that" after Engstrand offers to be his "guardian angel." They are both willing to live a lie for their own reasons—as they have done in the past.

In Act 3 of Ghosts, how does the idea of the "joy of life" provide Mrs. Helene Alving with a turning point in her life?

As Mrs. Helene Alving listens to and digests Osvald Alving's philosophy about personal choice and freedom in Act 3 (Engstrand Takes the Blame), she begins to form a new understanding of her past. More importantly, she sees her husband in a new way. After a lifetime of despising his drinking and marital infidelities, she now sees him as someone who, in fact, had some of the joy of life (just like Osvald) but did not have the escape his son had. Having to live in the repressed, duty-driven world of Pastor Manders and his kind, Captain Alving saw his joy of life turn to dissipation. Once Mrs. Alving truly understands the joy of life and the responsibility to nurture it, she claims that "it was as if a new light had been shed over the whole" of her life. She now knows the consequences of burying one's desires.

In Act 3 of Ghosts, what does Regina Engstrand mean when she says, "I've got this joy of life too, Mrs. Alving—in me!"?

Regina Engstrand has been preparing for a trip to Paris with Osvald Alving since his last visit, but has seen her plans thwarted by the revelations that Osvald is her brother and is ill. She wants to see the world beyond provincial Norway and move up from her social class. "I can't stay out in the country," she scoffs in Act 3 (Engstrand Takes the Blame), "and run myself ragged for invalids." She intends to make the most of whatever opportunity she can find. She has listened to Mrs. Helene Alving explain the joy of life, and Regina echoes about herself what Osvald earlier proclaimed. She, along with Osvald and Captain Alving, are the three characters who represent the quest of personal freedom.

In Act 3 of Ghosts, why is it significant that Osvald Alving is not bothered by revelations of his father's dissolute life?

Osvald Alving's reaction to the news about his father in Act 3 (Osvald and Mrs. Alving Alone) shows his dissatisfaction with society's expectations. He does not feel compelled to follow convention and express love for a father he never knew. Mrs. Helene Alving, usually progressive in her thinking, is shocked at his lack of emotion upon learning about his father's decadent ways. "Surely a child ought to feel some love for his father," she reasons, "no matter what." He calls such thinking "an old superstition," an outdated idea. Osvald's admission that he feels little for Captain Alving extends to a revelation that he has few deep feelings for his mother. He is unwilling to express sentiments he does not feel just because society expects him to.

What is the fear that grips Osvald Alving in Act 3 of Ghosts?

Osvald Alving's anxiety about the future consumes him in Act 3 (Osvald and Mrs. Alving Alone). He fears turning into an invalid and having to depend on his mother to feed and care for him as he turns old and gray. He fears the slow decline, the "softening of the brain," that is not necessarily fatal all at once. Osvald fears dying ("the thought of it is excruciating"), but he also expresses fear about when the end will come. He waits in dread for the final attack of his disease. He also worries that he will have no one to help him die on his own terms. Osvald hopes to have someone give him the morphine that will kill him, but now that Regina Engstrand is gone, he fears Mrs. Helene Alving will not do it.

How can Mrs. Helene Alving's comment to Osvald Alving, "Now you can really see your home," be interpreted in two ways in Act 3 of Ghosts?

The weather has been dark and rainy since Osvald Alving returned home, which has been a source of anxiety for him. In Act 3 (Osvald and Mrs. Alving Alone), Mrs. Helene Alving means, in one sense, that the weather has cleared and Osvald will be able to see the beautiful landscape of his homeland. However, Mrs. Alving's words can also mean that the truth has exposed the secrets of his family. Osvald now has an unvarnished view of his home, a view that is full of misery and tragedy. He can now "really see" parents he does not know, a society he rejects, and repressive teachings that stunt personal freedom. This home will, ultimately, also be the place of his death.

In Act 3 of Ghosts, why is it significant that Osvald Alving's last words are "the sun"?

Throughout the play, the sun has symbolized the joy of life and individuals' freedom to live the life of their choice. Osvald Alving contrasts the sun of Paris and the personal fulfillment found there with the gloomy weather of repressive Norway. The sun represents Osvald's best chance at life, his happiest times, and his most creative days as an artist. After the dark revelations of the play, the sun finally rises on a new day, but the promise of the dawn is too late for Osvald and Mrs. Helene Alving in Act 3 (Osvald and Mrs. Alving Alone). In his death Osvald summons all that was good in his life. It is a tragic and ultimately hollow utterance to end the play this way.

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