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Ghosts | Study Guide

Henrik Ibsen

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Ghosts | Quotes


One doesn't have to recount to all and sundry everything one reads and thinks within one's own four walls.

Pastor Manders, Act 1 (Pastor Manders and Mrs. Alving)

Pastor Manders thinks the books Mrs. Helene Alving is reading are scandalous and that she should keep her progressive ideas to herself to avoid public disapproval. His comments also hint at his own fear of revealing anything to the public that would make him seem less than holy.


But this is the very essence of the rebellious spirit, to crave happiness here in this life. What right have we human beings to happiness? No, we must do our duty, Mrs. Alving!

Pastor Manders, Act 1 (Mrs. Alving's Secrets)

Pastor Manders lectures Mrs. Helene Alving, as he has done in the past, claiming that duty to religion, society, and public appearances trump personal happiness, even if it means living a life of lies. This conflict between duty and happiness is a key tension in the play.


It was your proper role to bear with a humble heart that cross that a higher will saw fit to lay upon you. But instead, you rebelliously cast away the cross, left the groping soul you should have aided, went off and risked your good name and reputation and—nearly ruined other reputations in the bargain.

Pastor Manders, Act 1 (Mrs. Alving's Secrets)

Pastor Manders uses God and religion to enforce traditional roles for women, who should welcome a life of hardship. Women seeking happiness are "rebellious." Men seeking happiness, even when they treat women poorly, deserve help. However, what he is really worried about is his own reputation.


All your life you've been governed by an incorrigible spirit of willfulness. Instinctively you've been drawn to all that's undisciplined and lawless.

Pastor Manders, Act 1 (Mrs. Alving's Secrets)

Pastor Manders conveys a typical idea of the time: women are all instinct and emotion, not reason and intelligence. Mrs. Helene Alving is clearly smart and intellectually inquisitive, but because she is a woman striving for personal fulfillment, she is bound to be deplored and decried.


He was one of those people whose lives never detract from their reputation.

Mrs. Helene Alving, Act 1 (Mrs. Alving's Secrets)

In describing Captain Alving, Mrs. Helene Alving sums up the essence of hypocrisy, which society enables. No matter how he acted, Captain Alving could present a false front (with Mrs. Alving's help) and be revered by the community.


I thought the child would be poisoned just breathing this polluted air. That's why I sent him away. And now you can understand, too, why he never set foot in this house as long as his father lived. No one will know what that cost me.

Mrs. Helene Alving, Act 1 (Mrs. Alving's Secrets)

Although Mrs. Helene Alving's motives were pure and her sacrifice real, she does not yet realize that Osvald Alving was poisoned anyway, biologically, when he is said to have inherited his father's syphilis. This idea that the past is inescapable is key to the plot.


We mustn't stir up any scandal.

Pastor Manders, Act 1 (Mrs. Alving's Secrets)

Pastor Manders expresses the rule that governs his life. He is obsessed with avoiding scandal, or even the appearance of scandal, even at the expense of his and others' happiness.


Yes, always law and order! I often think they're the root of all our miseries on earth.

Mrs. Helene Alving, Act 2 (After Dinner)

Mrs. Helene Alving has learned throughout her own painful life experiences that when law and order are allowed to squash an individual's attempts at happiness, misery is the only possible result. She chose law and order, and the consequences were a miserable marriage and an absent, missing child.


But I can't stand it any longer, with all these webs of obligation. I can't stand it! I've got to work my way out to freedom.

Mrs. Helene Alving, Act 2 (After Dinner)

Mrs. Helene Alving edges closer to making a break with her past. To work her way to freedom, she must tell the truth about her life. She felt an obligation to cover up her husband's indiscretions, and the lies became a prison. Like Osvald Alving, she equates working toward something, whether a clear conscience or a painting, with salvation.


When I heard Regina and Osvald in there, it was as if I was seeing ghosts. But I almost believe we are ghosts, all of us, Pastor. It's not only what we inherit from our fathers and mothers that keeps on returning in us. It's all kinds of old dead doctrines and opinions and beliefs, that sort of thing.

Mrs. Helene Alving, Act 2 (After Dinner)

Mrs. Helene Alving expresses a key message of the play, recalling the behavior Osvald Alving seems to have inherited from his father. But the conservative mindset, represented by Pastor Manders, also haunts one's choices and warps one's thinking, which can also ruin the future.

These lines also can refer to Henrik Ibsen's theater. His plays were being condemned for not fitting the "old dead doctrines" of drama. He is breaking from those ghosts and creating a new doctrine of staging, character development, and theatrical realism.


The sins of the father are visited upon the children.

Osvald Alving, Act 2 (Osvald, Regina, and the Fire)

Osvald Alving repeats his doctor's assessment of his illness. He thinks his doctor was wrong, because he still believes his father lived respectably.


And my house for wayfaring seamen—that's going to be known as 'Captain Alving's Home,' yes. And if I get to run that house after my own devices, I think I can promise you it'll be truly worthy of that great man's memory, bless him.

Engstrand, Act 3 (Engstrand Takes the Blame)

Engstrand slyly declares the truth. His house for seaman, really a house of prostitution, will in many ways represent Captain Alving and his life as a womanizer. Engstrand's project is another example of something that is not what it seems.


There's the first light of dawn already on the mountains. It's going to be clear, Osvald! In a little while you'll see the sun.

Mrs. Helene Alving, Act 3 (Osvald and Mrs. Alving Alone)

Mrs. Helene Alving describes the first glimpse of sun since the play began. Once the truth is told, the darkness of a lifetime of secrets vanishes like the rain to reveal the sun. The air is clear, literally and figuratively.

The sun represents Osvald Alving's life in Europe, the assumed land of free love, the joy of life, and people who live honestly in spite of society's rules. The sun contrasts with the dreary rain and clouds of Norway, where hypocrisy, repression, and attention to duty, to Henrik Ibsen, snuff out the joys of life.

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