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Ghosts

Henrik Ibsen

Study Questions

Analysis

Quiz

How do images of light and dark function in the play?

Mrs. Alving, and especially Oswald, complain about the gloom that surrounds them. Because many of their problems center around maintaining public reputations, their real lives seem cloaked in darkness, and the public world itself seems to be one of darkness, where appearances are kept up while men commit gross hypocrisies, as evident in the character of Engstrand Over the course of the play, light sometimes acts as a potential antidote to this gloominess. Oswald refers to sunny Italy, where he could feel "the joy of life." Mrs. Alving has a lamp lit, ostensibly to comfort Oswald, although it does little good. When the fire erupts in the orphanage, the memorial to Captain Alving's reputation is literally destroyed, so this light serves to destroy some shadows, although it is in no way constructive, as it only leads to further confusion, with Engstrand blackmailing the Pastor. Finally, the sun rises just after Oswald and Mrs. Alving have learned the full truth of their conditions from one another, and, with the sunlight, Oswald goes mad.

What motivates Regina?

Above all, Regina wants to escape from the lower classes. At the beginning of the play, we see the difference in the way she speaks to Engstrand and then to the Pastor. She uses polite, if cliched, phrases when speaking to the Pastor, but she sounds like a common girl when talking to Engstrand. She hopes on the one hand to find an escape through Oswald, having taken seriously his promise to go to Paris. She is so earnest about this sliver of hope that she learns bits of French and drops small phrases throughout the play. Ironically, her last word, leaving the stage after learning that her father is Captain Alving, is "adieu." But she has other possibilities; she asks the Pastor if he knows of any positions for her. And once she is made to feel uncomfortable in the Alving home, she is eager to maker her way amidst the debauchery of Engstrand's new sailor's establishment—she will now follow Engstrand even though she is sure he is not her father. She immediately drops Oswald once she sees that he is mad. She is an opportunist.

In what ways is Mrs. Alving a radical?

As we learn from the disapproval the Pastor shows for her books, Mrs. Alving is interested in radical ideas. She says that they corroborate her own thoughts, thus, building her confidence. She goes on to say that she agrees with Oswald's disrespect for the institution of marriage and that perhaps Oswald and Regina should be allowed to marry, as long as the couple knows that it would be an incestuous union. Later, she tells them the truth of their shared genealogy, in spite of the Pastor's earlier protests. Yet even when she tells them about their father, she couches her story in language that makes excuses for him, as if he were simply too lively for her and the town. She cannot resist keeping up appearances, and even acknowledges that this is the case, calling herself a coward. She is a radical in thought but not in action.

What is "the joy of life"?

The notion of "the joy of life" is introduced by Oswald. He first understood it when he saw Regina and noticed her beauty, confidence, and energy. He then applies the term backward to all that he values in life; specifically, to all the things he ever painted, such as sunny days and smiling faces. He contrasts the joy of life with the gloom of Norway. It is implied that a belief in this joy of life allows one to see a certain morality in the choice of an unmarried couple to live together and that the Pastor, therefore, must not see the joy of life. Mrs. Alving seizes on the idea that Norwegian society and climate suppresses the joy of life, convincing herself and trying to convince others that her husband was not an evil man but simply a man deprived of a proper outlet for his boundless energy.

Explain Mrs. Alving's attitude toward Pastor Manders.

Mrs. Alving often resents the Pastor, especially when he constantly accuses her of gross sins of familial betrayal and personal failure. At the same time, she condescends to him, humoring his gullibility. When Engstrand convinces the Pastor that his marriage was arranged and carried out in the most moral way possible, Mrs. Alving sees through the lies but does not bother to enlighten the Pastor. Instead, she is amused by his naïve acceptance of the story. When she fled her husband, she went to the Pastor, offering herself up to him. When out of "duty," he sent her back, she was crushed, and has since fulfilled her "duty" to the utmost. Obviously his rejection had a huge impact on her. It is no wonder, given this mix of emotions, that the two agree that they do not understand one another.

What is revealed in the way each character has of speaking?

Does Oswald love his mother? Does he use her?

Do you think Ibsen believed in "the joy of life," or does he poke fun at it through Oswald's crazy ramblings?

Why is the play called Ghosts? Is Oswald a ghost? Why might "filial piety" be called a ghost?

List five things Mrs. Alving does in order to maintain her husband's good reputation.

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