The Significance of the Title in Ibsen's Ghosts
By Selchie, High School Student
The title of Ibsen's Ghosts is a signpost for the meaning of the text.
An essay hosted at LiteratureClassics.com
TASK: Why is the play called Ghosts? Discuss.
The title of a text is often a signpost for the meaning of the text. This occurs in Henrik Ibsen’s controversial play, Ghosts. However, the Norwegian title of the play, “Those-Who-Walk-Again”, is more accurate in explaining the meaning of the text. There is no English equivalent, which is unfortunate. The theme of the “ghosts” in society is an image referred to throughout the text, and works on many levels. On one level, the “ghosts” relate only to the characters, and their particular events. However, the text is also a desperate warning to wider society, and one that is still significant to today’s audiences.
The characters are haunted by “ghosts” that they are unable to control. There are five living characters in Ibsen’s Ghosts. Mrs Alving, a widow, and the play’s protagonist; Osvald, her son; Pastor Manders, her denied love; Regina, the maid and half-sister of Osvald; and Engstrand, Regina’s supposed father. Regina’s true father is Captain Alving. Both Captain Alving and Regina’s mother Johanna are dead, yet both are accountable for the unfolding tragedy. They are an example of the “ghosts”. Many of the characters are reminders of the past, such as Regina and Osvald. The events of the past also return to the characters, and cause them to uncover the truth of the situation, although this does not necessarily set them free. Finally, all are haunted by the ghosts of society’s expectations, which bind them to unhappy lives of “duty and honour”. These three areas must be examined in order to gain a full appreciation of the meaning of the text, and its message to wider society.
Most of the characters are “ghosts”, and remind other characters of the past. The most celebrated “ghost” is Osvald. The first time he is introduced to the audience, he is seen to be living under the influence of his dead father, a reminder of Captain Alving to the world. Upon seeing Osvald, Pastor Manders describes the meeting as “like seeing his father in the flesh”. He goes further to say that Osvald has “inherited a worthy name from an industrious man”, and that it should be an “inspiration” to him. Already it can be surmised that Osvald is haunted by the “ghost” that is the memory of his father.
Not only does this “ghost” influence the way Osvald behaves, as he tries to be worthy of the “beautiful illusion” he holds of his father, but it also influences the way people see him. In reality, Captain Alving was a “fallen man,” and led a “dissolute life” of “drinking bouts”, “whining self pity”, and womanising. Mrs Alving tried to keep his “irregularities” secret, to protect Osvald, who she feared would be “poisoned by the unwholesome atmosphere” in the Alving home. The Orphanage is built, not only to “dispel any rumours”, but also make sure that Osvald would not “inherit anything whatever from his father.” This last aim is futile. Although Osvald does not inherit money from his father, he inherits aspects of his personality. Osvald inherits his father’s “joy of living”, which he is able translates into the “joy of working”. He shows signs of drunkenness, as he drinks liquor to “keep the damp out”. He also makes advances to Regina, the maid, similar to the advances made by Captain Alving to Johanna. The women reacted in similar ways; Regina says, “Stop it, Osvald. Don’t be silly. Let me go.” Johanna is far more pious, pleading “Leave go sir, let me be”. Mrs Alving foregrounds the meaning of the title by saying, “Ghosts. The couple in the conservatory, walking again”.
However, Osvald inherits something far worse, something from which his mother, for all her “sacrifice”, could not protect him. Through Captain Alving’s “dissolute life”, Osvald has inherited congenital syphilis. He has “been riddled from birth”. The audience, along with Osvald, is reminded that “the sins of the father are revisited on the sons.” The “ghosts” of the past cannot be escaped. Like his father, Osvald will die of syphilis. This fear consumes him, and is only abated when his mother promises to give him “a helping hand” to end the torment if he experiences another attack.
Mrs Alving sent her son away at a young age, after the “final humiliation” from her husband. Captain Alving had “his way” with Johanna, the maid. The result was Regina, who is also influenced by the “ghosts” of her past. Johanna married Engstrand, and they brought Regina up, until Mrs Alving took her in as a maid. Regina was not aware of her true parentage, although she always suspected something of the sort, as Engstrand often reminded her of that she “was none of [his]”. When she is told, she is shocked that her mother “was like that”, even though Mrs Alving describes Johanna as a “fine woman”. Mrs Alving asks Regina not to “throw [herself] away”. Regina replies that “if Osvald takes after his father, I expect I take after my mother.” She does not feel as though she can outrun the “ghosts” of the past.
Perhaps it is not so much that the characters are victims of the past, as they are victims of the lies they told to cover up the past. Mrs Alving tries to follow a life of “duty and obedience”. She covers up the “truth” with mistaken “ideals”. She tries to make the past disappear, as she builds an Orphanage in Captain Alving’s memory, to “dispel any rumours” of his “dissolute life”. Her goal is to “feel as if [her] late husband had never lived in [the] house”. However, because she was too much of a “coward” to face the “truth”, not only is her own life ruined, the lives of the people around her are also affected. However, she realises, too late, that she must “free” herself, as the “truth will come out”.
During the play, the “ghosts” of past events takes “cruel revenge” upon the characters, who have to face their greatest fears. Pastor Manders and Mrs Alving must face the “crime” of their denied love. Regina finally understands her true parentage. Osvald faces his “deadly fear” of syphilis. They all come to know of Captain Alving’s “debauchery”, and society’s hypocrisy. However, for most of them, the realisation comes too late. Mrs Alving loses everything. Still there is the unanswered question of whether she will give the “helping hand” to her son. If she does so, will it put the “ghosts” to rest, or will it create yet another case of guilt?
Ibsen tried to make the audience understand that such issues must be faced, or they would return to exact “cruel revenge” upon their victims. This is foregrounded in the way the Orphanage burns down. The “beautiful illusion” of the memorial to the “industrious” Captain Alving burns “to the ground” with “nothing to save”. The truth is slowly uncovered. Osvald proclaims that “everything will burn, until there is nothing to remind people of my father.” In this way, lies will slowly destroy themselves, as they are a “chainstitch”. If “ a single stitch” is unpicked, “the whole [facade will] unravel.” The final memorial to Captain Alving is perhaps more fitting. Engstrand’s “The Captain Alving Home”, a brothel for “seafaring men”, is far more “worthy of his memory”.
The “ghosts” of society’s beliefs and values, and their affect on the individual, is central to the text. Mrs Alving is aware that she is trapped by social opinion. She knows that society believes that “it’s not a wife’s place to judge her husband”, and that she holds very little power. She reads “terrible, subversive, free-thinking” books, which help her to “explain…a lot of the things [she has] been thinking.” Pastor Manders is used to represent the hypocrisy and conservativeness of society. He tells Mrs Alving that “craving for happiness…is a sign of an unruly spirit,” and that she has “no right to offend public opinion”. When Pastor Manders is challenged over his “personal opinions” of the “free-thinking books”, he replies that there are times in life “when one must rely upon the opinions of others.”
This spiral of conformity, which almost suffocates Mrs Alving’s individuality, is broken for a moment by her passionate outburst when she realises that she “is haunted by ghosts.” She declares that she “is inclined to think that we are all ghosts”, that all people are both the victims and the supporters of the constraints of society. Mrs Alving comes to believe that all people are loaded with “all sorts of old dead ideas and old dead beliefs”. They can’t “rid [themselves] of them”. She also realises how “pitifully afraid [people are] of the light” or the truth. People want to be free of the debilitating constraints of society, but are afraid to cast off the shadows, and step into the “light” of “truth”, where they may have to face issues long buried. Mrs Alving becomes aware that people believe that life is “a vale of tears…and [that people] do [their] best to make it one.” She wants to find the “joy of living” which Osvald describes, but instead she “struggles with ghosts, both inside and out.”
Ibsen’s Ghosts is not just a tragedy for the characters involved, it is a warning for the world at large. The play was one of Ibsen’s most controversial works, described by one critic as “an open sewer”. It was controversial because it forced audiences to face issues they would prefer to ignore. Venereal disease, euthanasia, incest, the role of women, the fallibility of the Church, the corruption of the society and its affect upon the individual, were all discussed in the play. It was a warning to people everywhere, people who were “afraid of the light”. It is still a warning, and one that should not be taken lightly. Society still robs the individual of power. People are still “struggling with ghosts”. Many issues, such as homosexuality, child abuse, mental illnesses, Indigenous Reconcilliation, and those mentioned above, are still ignored by society at large. The question that Ibsen poses to his audiences is; can we outrun the “ghosts” of the past forever, or will they return and threaten to destroy the very society that fosters them?
Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts was one of the most controversial plays ever written, and helped to immortalise him as the “father of modern theatre”. The English title is a poor substitute for the literal translation “Those-Who-Walk-Again”, in terms of meaning. However, the title is a signpost for the true meaning of the text. Not only is it the story of the tragic undoing of a courageous “coward” of a woman, the play serves as a warning to the world at large. We must address the “ghosts” haunting society, and not be “so pitifully afraid of the light”. If such issues are not addressed, “the sins of the father [will be] revisited on the sons” and the consequences may destroy those that have unsuccessfully sought to avoid them.
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