Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen Summary

Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen Summary



(a) An Introductory Note :

After completing A Doll’s House in 1879, Ibsen returned from Italy to Munich in the autumn of 1879. He was unable to write any actual writing thereafter and he only brood upon the theme and characters. Thus, Ghosts occurred and was published by Gyldendal of Copenhagen on the 13th December, 1881. The play immediately aroused a dismay and antagonism. It was beyond anything that Ibsen had predicted. For a long time, Ghosts continued to be associated with scandal and 20 years after its publication, it stopped the ageing Ibsen from being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

(b) Place and Time of Action :

The play was set in the late 19th century Norway in the wealthy household of the Alvings. Jakob Engstrand, a carpenter, works on the “Captain Alving Memorial”, an orphanage or asylum, that is opening the next day of the action of the play. Thus the play opens with Regina and Engstrand engaged in a struggle for territorial possession -whether or not he can be allowed to enter the living room from the garden room.

The struggle concludes with Engstrand’s victory-he enters the room despite Regina’s objection. The rebuff continues in the 2nd Act. In the final act, the orphanage is completely burned down. The action continues at Alvings’ house and closes with Mrs. Alving’s clutching of the pills and wondering what to do as her son suffers from an incurable disease, inherited from his father.

(c) The Background of the Ghosts :

Ghosts was Ibsen’s greatest scandalous success and helped place him as a central figure of the European avant-garde. Thematizing, among other subjects, divorce, venereal disease, prostitution, incest and euthanasia, the play was bound to challenge not only the dominant aesthetic idealism of the time, but also various forms of censorship, official and unofficial. Ghosts became a central play for the new, independent theatre movement in Europe in the 1880s and 1890s. Ibsen anticipated the play to get violent reactions. If the play did not create an uproar, it would not have been necessary to write it, he told his Danish publisher. As the author had predicted, Ghosts created a sensation.

(d) The Story in Brief :

Helene Alving is about to dedicate an orphanage she has built in memory of her late husband, Captain Alving. She reveals to Pastor Manders that her marriage was miserable in a secret way because her husband was unfaithful. She has built the orphanage to deplete her husband’s wealth so that their son Osvald will not inherit anything from him. Pastor Manders once advised her to return to her husband despite his philandering, and she followed his advice in the hope that she could reform him.

But her husband continued his affairs until his death, and Mrs. Alving stayed with him to protect her son from the taint of scandal and for fear of being shunned by the community. Eventually Mrs. Alving discovers that her son Osvald, whom she had sent away to avoid his corruption of mind by the father as he has always held Captain Alving high in his belief , is suffering from syphilis that she believes he inherited from his father. Mrs. Alving also discovers that Osvald has fallen in love with her girl-child servant Regina Engstrand, who is revealed to be the illegitimate daughter of Captain Alving and is, therefore, Osvald’s half-sister.

Mrs. Alving, infact, maintains the respectability of her husband before Osvald and the outsiders. Her drama of making the orphanage in the memory of Captain Alving remains a dream as it catches fire, even before its opening. In the end, she compromises with the harsh and inalignable truth that her only son suffers from Syphilis. Thus, Osvald urges his mother to administer Morphin tablets to him to rid him of his suffering. Mrs. Alving then finds herself in a dilemma and unlimited agony, rather intolerable misery.

(e) An Act-Wise Analytical Summary :

I. Act One :

The action is set in a spacious garden room in Norway on a rainy day. There are two persons engaged in an exciting topic. One is Regina, the maid of the house and the other person is her father, Jakob Engstrand, a carpenter. The daughter tries to avoid the father who insists on pressing her with his pleas. Jakob who had been working on the “Captain Alving Memorial”, -an orphanage home which is going to be open the next day, wants to open a good brothel for the sea-men. Jakob suggests her daughter to come with him there and work for a well being.

But Regina does not want to leave the Alving mansion and wants her father to leave the place as soon as possible because Pastor Manders is going to be there soon. When Manders comes, he advises Regina to go to her father but she denies it. She calls Mrs. Alving and Pastor Manders greets the lady of the house. They discuss about the opening of the orphanage the coming day which was built in honor of late Captain Alving.

They also discuss about Mrs. Alving’s son, Osvald, who has come home from Paris and is resting upstairs. Osvald works as an artist in Paris. Pastor Manders is disturbed to find progressive and ungodly books in Alving house but Mrs. Alving tells him that she has been looking for truth due to the events of her early marriage. Though she dutifully married Captain Alving, he was a debauched man. So she left him and went to Manders. But Manders did his duty to send her back to her husband.

The conversation again resumes on the memorial. Manders has been doing the business side of it and plans to give a speech at the inauguration. He pressurises Mrs. Alving not to insure the building since it would seem to demonstrate a lack of faith in Providence. She agrees to it but thinks it as a foolish act because Jakob Engstrand accidentally started a small fire there the other day. Manders defends Engstrand as trying to get his life together and says that Regina must go to her father. But Mrs. Alving tremendously refuses to let her go.

Then Osvald comes downstairs, smoking a pipe. When Mrs. Alving asks him to put it out, he says that he only wanted to try it as he has a memory of his father forcing him to smoke as a child until he threw up. Pastor Manders finds Osvald’s stories about Paris disgraceful and distasteful. After Osvald leaves the scene, Pastor Manders scoffs at Mrs. Alving for letting her son grow up like this and advises her to try to save him from being misguided.

Mrs. Alving lets him lecture her, but when he concludes, she states firmly that she has to speak to him as well. She tells him that Captain Alving was not at all a good man, he was never reformed and died just as dissolutely as he lived. In fact, he even tried to seduce Regina’s mother once in their own home. So she had to sent her away with money and child to Engstrand. Later, she took the child, Regina, to live in Alving home.

Mrs. Alving rues that she had to see and bear so much and did everything to prevent the truth from coming out, how she took best care of her husband until he died, diverted all his money to fund for the orphanage, and raised her own money to live well-off with her son. She expects to be free as soon as the memorial opens. Pastor Manders is stunned to hear all these and assures to keep the scandal secret. Suddenly, the two hear Regina and Osvald together in the other room but Mrs. Alving gasps that it is the ghosts.

Act Two :

This Act starts after dinner. Both Osvald and Regina are out of the house. Mrs. Alving and Pastor Manders discuss about the relation between two young people. They agree that Regina must be sent away to her father, Engstrand. Mrs. Alving wishes to have an easy solution and would even seem to condone incest if they could live happily without no one’s awareness. But Manders rebukes her when she says how, in the past, Captain Alving gave $300 to Johanna, Regina’s mother to prevent her from spilling the secret out.

Engstrand shows up suddenly asking if Manders might give an evening prayer that night at the memorial. Manders agrees but, at the same time, pressures him to admit how he tried to blackmail Captain Alving through Regina’s mother for marrying a fallen woman like her. Engstrand yet remains reluctant and thinks himself to be a good Christian by helping a fallen woman. He promises that he did not take the money. So Manders is convinced and apologises for his misdeed.

After Pastor Manders and Jakob Engstrand leave, Osvald goes to his mother and explains to her how he is not tired from any ordinary illness, rather his mind is broken and so he cannot work. He went to a doctor even and had found out that he had been sick since birth with a hereditary illness. Then,He bemoans the fact that he is ruined now and full of dread. He also tells Mrs. Alving that he must go away and Regina is to be his salvation.

Osvald’s mother is stunned and begs him to stay with her and not to think of Regina in an incestuous way. Pastor Manders soon enters the room as when Mrs. Alving is about to tell Osvald and Regina the truth. But they notice some flames off at a distance and see that the orphange is burning.

The whole orphanage is completely burned down at the beginning of the final Act, Mrs. Aving and Regina, totally upset, stand together. Mrs. Alving asks Pastor Manders to settle the whole matter as she wants nothing more to do with it. Manders is totally dismayed and blames Engstrand especially when he arrives. But Engstrand holds Manders responsible for the accident and threatens him that everyone will now disparage him. But Engstrand also suggests a way out to Manders that if he helps him with finance for the seamen’s brothel, Engstrand might take the blame upon him. The Pastor gratefully agrees, and they both leave the Alving house.

III. Act Three :

When Mrs. Alving and Regina are looking for Osvald, he returns from the wreckage of the fire, fitful and upset. He claims that everything of his father’s memory had burnt. Mrs. Alving finally tells him the truth about his father’s nature and stops him from blaming himself. It was his father, Captain Alving who lived a terrible life and passed this disease onto him. It was also her fault for not giving Osvald a better house and a better living. She even tells Regina of her true identity. Regina then and there wants to leave because she is critical that why she was not raised as a gentleman’s daughter then and no more wants to live wih them. Mrs. Alving wants to protect herself and her son, but Regina leaves, saying Pastor Manders will do that.

Mrs. Alving calms down Osvald and promises to look after him with utmost care and would do anything for him. Osvald tells her about the worseness of the condition and how he has gathered morphine pills to get relief from the breakdown. He has no one but his mother to rely on now.

Mrs. Alving cannot bear to know all this but shakily agrees to look after him the way he says, thinking it will never be possible to worsen so much. After days of unceasing rain, the sun begins to come up. When Osvald asks to see the sun, his tone becomes dull and lifeless. He seems to shrink in his chair, with all his muscles going limp, face expressionless and eyes staring vacantly. To her horror, Mrs. Alving realizes that Osvald’s mind is gone. So she clutches the morphine pills but hesitates knowing not what to do. She is trembling fearfully and helplessly. Thus, the play ends in despair and uncertainty.

(f) Character List :

Ibsen’s Ghosts has not many characters, in fact the total living participating are five. These areMrs. Helene Alving, Pastor Manders, Osvald Alving, Regina Engstrand and Jakob Engstrand.

Of course, another character is often mentioned and found to have a distinct bearing on the action as well as the beginning and end of the play. He is, however, not a living character, not at all seen on the stage, but mentioned time and again and remains actually the main force behind the sad end of the play.

(9) Plot Structure :

The Plot Diagram of the Play Introduction–The beginning of action.

Preparations are started, mainly by Mrs. Alving and Pastor Manders for the inauguration of the orphanage in the memory of Captain Alving. Rising Action-Return of Osvald to home from Paris – His intimacy with Regina. The Orphanage is on the fire.

Climax-The orphanage is destroyed by fire. Mrs. Alving’s information to Osvald and Regina that they are the children of the same father. Falling Action-end of the play.

Osvald informs his mother of the dangerous nature of his disease. Regina leaves the house of Alvings; Osvald is debilitated; Mrs. Alving faces a brutal choice for her son’s death.


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