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Ghosts | Study Guide

Henrik Ibsen

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Ghosts | Themes



Early in Ghosts, Henrik Ibsen introduces a key theme when he raises the topic of individual fulfillment versus an individual being expected to fulfill society's expectations. In the first conversation between Mrs. Helene Alving and Pastor Manders, Mrs. Alving reveals she is willing to entertain views about personal liberty that many consider unacceptable. Pastor Manders is shocked to see what she is reading and even more dismayed to hear that she supports the messages contained in the "scandalous" books. As Mrs. Alving provides details about her past, it becomes clear that she gave up personal happiness to submit to society's rules. The main action of the play deals with the consequences of that choice.

Ibsen uses Pastor Manders to represent those rules. The pastor is the one who advised Mrs. Alving to return to her husband, whose depraved behavior was already apparent. Rather than support Mrs. Alving's decision to leave her husband and gain happiness, Pastor Manders forced her to return to a husband and marriage she despised. Pastor Manders still judges her harshly, first for wanting to leave her husband and now for thinking that she made a mistake in staying with him. For Pastor Manders, following society's rules is equal to following God's rules, but above all, following the rules means avoiding the appearance of impropriety. This fear of scandal is the base of his beliefs, even his wholehearted endorsement of conventional doctrines.

When Osvald Alving enters the conversation with his mother and Pastor Manders, he firmly positions himself on the side of personal fulfillment. Growing up beyond the reach of Pastor Manders's superficial morality, Osvald offers a view of happiness at direct odds with the conventions of his hometown. Osvald judges people, like those he knows in Paris, on how well and authentically they treat their loved ones and friends. He has seen that the "free love" so abhorrent to Pastor Manders can lead to personal happiness even though, and perhaps because, it is outside of society's rules. Osvald is already what his mother seems to become after her lifetime of devotion to duty.

The plot of Ghosts depends on this tension between the beliefs about the individual, represented by Mrs. Alving and Osvald on one hand, and society, represented by Pastor Manders on the other. The characters' positions on these issues drive their choices, which, in turn, drive the action of the play.

Truth versus Lies

Ibsen presents the battle between truth and lies most powerfully in the Alving family. Mrs. Alving in particular is at the center of this struggle. Early in her marriage, Mrs. Alving attempted to find a truthful life for herself by leaving her drunken and unfaithful husband. But without Pastor Manders's help, she succumbs to society's expectations and returns to her husband. They present a happy marriage to the world, but it is anything but that. He is considered a virtuous man and leader in the community, but he is quite the opposite. Mrs. Alving, too ashamed to expose her husband for what he is and not willing to endure her community's criticism, begins a colossal cover-up. She runs a successful estate on her own, but her husband gets credit for it. She endures and hides his infidelity, even when it results in an illegitimate child conceived in her own home. Mrs. Alving's life is built on deception until she can no longer bear it and tells the truth about her husband and herself. Her series of revelations as she moves from lies to the truth drives the plot.

The theme of truth versus lies gradually creates a feeling of claustrophobia on stage, as characters struggle with problems created by deceit. The setting, a single room, enhances this feeling that the truth is closing in. Mrs. Alving feels smothered by lies and finally breaks free by revealing ugly secrets. But the truth becomes equally frightening for her and others, and characters find themselves stuck with miserable choices once the truth is known. There is no way out for Osvald, as he faces his fatal disease. There is no way out for Regina except eventual prostitution. There is no way out for Pastor Manders unless he allows himself to be blackmailed by Engstrand. There is no way out for Mrs. Alving other than the choice to kill her son. As Osvald locks the door at the end of the play, the set becomes a final prison in which Mrs. Alving must face the truth about her son's illness.

In many ways the theme of truth versus lies echoes the theme of the individual versus society. The characters who cannot find their personal "truth" end up living dishonest lives because they cannot break with society's rules and judgments. Ibsen shows how quickly lies can become a way of life.


The theme of consequences runs throughout Ghosts as Ibsen drives home the idea that the past can affect, and even determine, the future. Mrs. Alving, her personal history, and the effect it has had on her life and others are at the center of the unfolding action. As a young woman, Mrs. Alving was sent into an arranged marriage, because her mother and two aunts thought that Captain Alving's money was too good to turn down. As Mrs. Alving says, "the three of them wrote up my bill of sale." In a society in which women had few options for gaining material comfort, Mrs. Alving married Captain Alving even though she did not want to. "One thing is clear," she explains to Pastor Manders, "I never really listened to myself."

The consequences of Mrs. Alving's marriage and self-denial are many and tragic. Early on, she chooses duty over personal happiness. She stayed with Captain Alving, allowed his affairs to continue, and protected his (and her own) reputation. This arrangement produced an illegitimate child with few options for a respectable future, a son doomed to a horrible death, and her own unhappiness. The consequences of past actions are what haunt the characters in Ghosts.

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