Ghosts | Study Guide

Henrik Ibsen

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Ghosts | Symbols



Henrik Ibsen uses the orphanage built in honor of Captain Alving to represent hypocrisy. Mrs. Helene Alving builds the orphanage with Captain Alving's money to burnish his reputation, as well as to keep Osvald Alving from inheriting anything from his corrupt father. The orphanage creates a false memory within the family and within the community of Captain Alvin as a loving husband and devoted father. Yet, from its inception, the orphanage is a hollow monument. It was not built to honor a good man or to do good in the community but rather to detract attention from a secret immoral life.


For Ibsen, fire symbolizes the destruction of lives built on lies. The Alving estate that built the Captain Alving Memorial Orphan's Home is grounded in falsehood. Mrs. Alving and Captain Alving both lived double lives. The orphanage's destruction by fire represents the failure of this sham union. The play tries to show that no good can come from such rotten roots.

Through destruction, however, the fire also comes to symbolize purification. The fire purifies an institution built on deception, leaving money for Engstrand's brothel, a more fitting tribute to Captain Alving.


Ibsen uses the sun to represent the joy of life found when individual freedom is pursued. In Norway, the land of Pastor Manders's repressive morality and social conventions, it rains. Osvald Alving, however, grew up in a different environment, one that embraced personal liberty. The sun represents Osvald's artistic career and the joy he experienced in Paris. He grumbles about the gloomy weather and observes to his mother that at home he never feels the joy of life: "You don't know much about that here." Osvald asks for the sun at the end of the play as he moves closer to death.


Ibsen uses disease to symbolize the corruption of mind and body created by misplaced devotion to duty and slavish adherence to convention. Captain Alving's and Osvald's joyful natures are stifled by strict social conventions. The desire for sex should be an important and respected force within the family home. Here, however, it is viewed as sinful, and it is driven from the home to find its fruition in dark, seedy locales such as Engstrand's proposed brothel.

Ibsen makes this symbol into something real with Osvald's illness. The syphilis Osvald is said to inherit from his father functions on a symbolic level, not a biologically realistic one; Osvald cannot get syphilis from his father except through sex with him. Nonetheless, the purported disease will cause dementia, failure of the body, and ultimately, death. Captain Alving's infidelity and Mrs. Alving's web of lies poisons their home and leaves their son to face a cruel death: "The sins of the fathers are visited upon the children."

Questions for Symbols

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