Friday, February 15, 2013

On "Ghosts" by Henrik Ibsen ***

I now see why A Doll House is anthologized so much more often than Ghosts, the second in a trilogy of plays about Victorian-era Norway. The themes are similar, but where A Doll House carries a certain realness to it, Ghosts to me seemed overwrought and even a bit silly (especially its instantaneously disastrous end). Like A Doll House, Ghosts indicts Norwegian society for thoughtless slavery to a societal morality that is all about appearance rather than heart.

Mrs. Alving is an older woman who gives generously to her church and who does her duty to family. Married for a long-time philanderer, she kept quiet about his affairs so as to keep the man's reputation intact. The personal cost of this adherence to duty is about to take a deeper toll than she could have ever imagined, even now after her husband has died.

The pastor comes off as the least respectable of the characters, as well as the most hypocritical. In one passage, he becomes incensed that a layperson in his congregation married a fallen woman for money. And yet, Mrs. Alving points out, she married a fallen man--out of duty to her family, and at the urging of the pastor himself. The pastor claims that circumstances are different. (Later, when the pastor learns that the layperson didn't marry for money, the pastor accepts the man back into fellowship, only later to praise the man when he volunteers to take the fall for the pastor with regard to something the pastor has done in exchange for a favor involving monetary compensation.)

The "ghosts" of the title references the idea that one's ancestors' sins come back to haunt you (to the third and fourth generation, as the Bible would say). Here, Mr. Alving Sr.'s ghost haunts the characters in numerous ways. Their son, as it turns out, learns that he has contracted syphilis from birth. A woman the son falls in love with turns out to be Mr. Alving's own daughter by another woman. Mrs. Alving, who finally deigns to recognize, reveal, live by the truth, is redeemed too late and loses all, bound, again, by her duty to family. The play is in the public domain and can be read here.

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