Henrik Ibsen

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Ghosts Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Henrik Ibsen's Ghosts. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Henrik Ibsen

Henrik Ibsen was born into into a wealthy family in Skien, Norway in 1828. After failing his university entrance exams, he decided he’d rather focus on writing than pursuing higher education. When he first began to write, though, he was quite unsuccessful, rendering himself and his wife extremely poor. In 1864 he left his wife and his five-year-old son, Sigurd (who grew up to become the Prime Minister of Norway) and moved to Sorrento, Italy. He later moved to Dresden, Germany, where he wrote his most famous play, A Doll’s House. After his initial unsuccessful years, Ibsen became more popular as a writer, although his plays were often thought of as scandalous and inappropriate. He returned to Norway in 1891 and died in Oslo in 1906 after suffering several strokes. He is now one of the world’s most famous playwrights, and his work is performed more often than that of any other playwright except Shakespeare. He is often considered to be “the father of realism” in drama, and is also thought of as a pioneer of Modernism.
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Historical Context of Ghosts

Syphilis, the disease that overcomes Oswald in Ghosts, first emerged in Europe the 15th century. For hundreds of years, people argued about the disease and its origins, often using it to spread xenophobic messages by giving it names like the French Disease, the Italian Disease, and the Spanish Disease, depending upon where the speaker was from. The xenophobia surrounding the sickness had to do with the fact that syphilis is spread through sexual contact, meaning that many traveling sailors would both catch and transmit the disease when sleeping with prostitutes in various foreign ports, thereby fueling a distrust of people from other countries. In addition, people often saw syphilis as evidence of a person’s immorality because the disease is sexually transmitted. This dynamic shows up in Ghosts, since the play examines how people in 19th-century society judge one another based on whether or not they live up to the time period’s moral standards. On another note, it’s worth recognizing that, although that the play suggests that a son can inherit syphilis biologicially from his father, the medical science at the time had already debunked this notion. 

Other Books Related to Ghosts

Ibsen’s most famous play, A Doll’s House, is similar to Ghosts in that it examines the institution of marriage in the late 19th century and reveals the period’s unjust gender dynamics. However, Ghosts is unique because it addresses 19th-century social taboos by telling a story about syphilis and sexual promiscuity. In fact, Ibsen was publicly criticized for taking on these controversial topics, which is why he wrote An Enemy of the People, a play that he used to respond to the outcry against Ghosts. In An Enemy of the People, a man reveals an uncomfortable truth about the society he lives in and is subsequently ostracized for doing so—a clear reaction to the fact that the playwright himself was skewered for writing Ghosts.
Key Facts about Ghosts
  • Full Title: Ghosts
  • When Written: 1881
  • When Published: Premiered in 1882
  • Literary Period: Realism, Modernism
  • Genre: Drama, Family Drama, Realism
  • Setting: The Alving estate in western Norway
  • Climax: Just as Mrs. Alving is about to tell Oswald the truth about his father’s immoral ways, Regine notices that the orphanage is engulfed in flames.
  • Antagonist: Captain Alving

Extra Credit for Ghosts

19th-century Subscription Services. To avoid censorship in London, a group called The Independent Theatre Society created a subscription-based model of staging plays. Because audience members had subscribed to the organization, the performances were considered private instead of public, meaning that productions didn’t need to be approved by London authorities. Ibsen’s Ghosts was The Independent Theatre Society’s first play.

Lost in Translation. Ibsen disapproved of his English translator’s decision to interpret the play’s original title—Genganere—as the English word “ghosts.” The playwright felt that this translation failed to capture the sense of recurrence and repetition that the word genganere communicates.