The entire play takes place in a space in Mrs. Alving's home overlooking the garden. It consists of a large room in the foreground and a smaller room in the background, which looks out onto a fjord covered with mist. Jakob Engstrand stands at the door to the garden, while the maid, his daughter Regina tries to make him leave. She doesn't want him to wake the young master (Oswald), who is asleep upstairs. She alludes to Engstrand's drinking and bad behavior. He insists on talking to her and describes the sailor's establishment he wants to open with the money he has made working on the orphanage. He wants her to come with him and work in the establishment. He hints that she could find a husband or even prostitute herself; he even eludes to the $300 her mother, Johanna, allegedly earned for sleeping with the yachtsman who impregnated her with Regina. She balks at his suggestion and complains of how poorly he treats her. She seems very proud of her position as a servant in Mrs. Alvin's home. She makes Engstrand exit by way of the kitchen door, as Pastor Manders is coming up the front walk. Although he is angry, Engstrand agrees, as he wants to avoid the Pastor.
The Pastor enters, and Regina greets him cheerfully. The Pastor asks if everything is ready for the dedication of the orphan asylum in the morning. He notes that Regina has filled out, and they quietly chat for a few minutes. The Pastor tells her that she should go work for her father, because he needs a guiding hand. Regina won't hear of it and continually tries to ask the Pastor if he has any ideas about whom she should marry. He constantly interrupts her, insisting that her father is a good man and deserves her filial help, and finally he asks if he can see Mrs. Alvin.
Right from the very first scene, Ghosts deals with the conflicts between generations. Filial piety, or the idea that a child should respect his or her parents, is an issue from the start. Engstrand himself admits that he is a bad drinker, yet he does not seem to believe that he mistreats Regina. Regina, on the other hand, will not consider returning to live with him. The Pastor brings up the issue again. As we will learn later in the play, Engstrand is skilled in manipulating the Pastor, and he has convinced him that he is a good man and that the Pastor should talk Regina into helping her father. Obviously, the Pastor does not know the side of Engstrand that would suggest that Regina prostitute herself. Additionally, the Pastor is a strong believer in filial piety, as will be seen later in the act as he discusses Mrs. Alvin's relations with her son. Clearly, the Pastor is a character that sticks to ideals, even while he is blind to truths that are obvious to other characters, such as the fact of Engstrand's immorality.
In the beginning of this first act, we see two sides of Regina. While she is disrespectful of her father, she is full of respect for the Pastor. Yet both behaviors are a result of Regina's sense of pride and desire to move up in the world. She treats her father with disrespect not only because he mistreats her but also because she considers herself above him—she declares that she doesn't want to be seen with him. She treats the Pastor with great respect, even flirting with him—asking him whether he thinks she has filled out—because she wants to earn his respect and possibly meet a husband through him. Later in the play, we will learn that the question of Regina's class is more complicated, but even at the beginning of the play we must understand that she has a complex understanding of her own current status, as well as her potential status.
In these first two interactions, not only do we see two sides of Regina—two sides that speak almost completely different languages, one colloquial, the other an attempt at educated conversation—but we also hear Engstrand speak two languages. On the one hand, his language is vulgar, containing curses; this language reveals that he is a common, rough man. On the other hand, his language is full of cliches. He says things like, "this world's full of temptations," and speaks of "what a child owes its father." With these phrases we see the hypocritical side of Engstrand, the side that has fooled the Pastor into thinking Engstrand is a good man to whom Regina would do well to return.