Mrs. Alving and Regine stand by the window looking at the orphanage, which has burned down. Mrs. Alving wonders why Oswald is still at the fire, since it’s clear nothing can be done to save the building. Shortly after Mrs. Alving ventures into the garden, Pastor Manders enters the house, followed by Engstrand, who complains about what happened. As he laments the terrible disaster, he implies that Manders is the one to blame for the entire fire. Manders objects, but Engstrand points out that the pastor was the only person to handle the candles during the blessing ceremony. Manders says he doesn’t remember holding a candle, but Engstrand insists that he saw the pastor extinguish a candle with his fingers and toss it into a pile of wood shavings. Manders, for his part, says he never extinguishes candles this way, but he also doesn’t refute Engstrand’s claim.
Aside from the fact that Engstrand has already revealed himself to be a conniving and manipulative man, audience members should be suspicious of him in this scene because of his claim that Manders threw a candle into a pile of wood shavings. This, the audience might remember, is exactly what Engstrand himself did the previous day, when he accidentally started a small fire in the orphanage. Consequently, it’s reasonable to assume that Engstrand is the one who started this fire as well. Now, though, he uses his powers of manipulation to pin the act on Manders.
Having suggested—and, in fact, insisted—that Manders was the one to start the fire at the orphanage, Engstrand pontificates about how bad this will look for the pastor. He mentions that the newspapers will lampoon Manders for ruining a charitable institution, which plunges Manders into a state of panic and fear. Entering from the garden, Mrs. Alving tries to make him feel better by saying that the orphanage wouldn’t have done anyone any good in the first place, and when this doesn’t soothe the pastor, she tells him that she wants to conclude the matter, asking him to take the paperwork with him when he goes. Collecting himself somewhat, Manders formulates a plan to sell the land the orphanage was built on and use the money in a charitable way.
Again, Engstrand puts his manipulative skills to use. As he tries to frame Pastor Manders for the fire, it becomes all the more obvious that he was the one responsible for the disaster. Nevertheless, Manders fails to recognize this, most likely because he takes things at face value, always judging people by how they present themselves. Consequently, he can’t see that Manders is actually a devious and immoral man.
Overhearing Pastor Manders’s plan to put money toward something that would benefit the community, Engstrand asks the pastor to consider helping him start his hotel for sailors. At first, Manders hesitates, saying that he will have to think about the proposal, but then Engstrand says he will take the blame for the fire if Manders funds his hotel. When Manders says that he couldn’t possibly let Engstrand take the fall, Engstrand reminds him that it’s not the first time he’s taken the blame for something he didn’t do. Realizing that this is indeed the case, Manders thanks Engstrand and agrees to fund the hotel.
During this exchange, it becomes undeniably clear that Engstrand is not only tricking Pastor Manders into thinking that he was the one to start the fire, but also that Engstrand most likely manufactured this situation so that he could secure funding for his hotel. Indeed, it’s quite possible that Engstrand purposefully set the orphanage on fire in order to put Pastor Manders in a difficult position, one that he can now leverage to get his way.
Engstrand tells Regine to come with him to work in the hotel for sailors, but Regine refuses once again. Engstrand then declares that the hotel will be called the Captain Alving Home. With this, he and Pastor Manders take their leave.
It’s quite apt that Engstrand’s brothel-inspired hotel will bear the legacy of Captain Alving. After all, Captain Alving was a sexually promiscuous man who managed to maintain a good reputation in the eyes of people like Pastor Manders. Similarly, Engstrand’s hotel will be an immoral and promiscuous place even though Pastor Manders will almost certainly continue to think of it as a morally upstanding and respectable institution.
When Engstrand and Pastor Manders leave, Oswald enters and suggests that the Captain Alving Home will inevitably burn down, pessimistically stating that there will never be anything to commemorate his father. As she tries to soothe him, Mrs. Alving mentions that Oswald is ill. This alarms Regine, who asks what Mrs. Alving is talking about. Before she can answer, though, Oswald asks Regine to shut all the doors, saying that he’s experiencing a “deadly feeling of dread.” Once the doors are shut, he asks his mother and Regine to come close to him, saying that he wants Regine to be near him at all times, since he wants her to give him help when he needs it, though he doesn’t specify what kind of help he’s referring to and Regine doesn’t seem to know what he’s talking about.
It's worth keeping in mind that Oswald still doesn’t know about his father’s wicked ways. This is why he is upset that the orphanage burned down, complaining that there will never be anything to memorialize his father. Ironically, his very own sickness is a tribute of sorts to Captain Alving, since Oswald wouldn’t be sick if it weren’t for his father. Unaware of this, though, he continues to believe that his syphilitic condition is the result of his own behavior.
Oswald asks Regine to relax around him, asking why she doesn’t call him by his first name. In response, she says that Mrs. Alving wouldn’t like it if she addressed him so casually, but Mrs. Alving says this isn’t the case anymore. Turning to Oswald, she says she’s going to relieve him of his worries about inheritance, saying that his father—like him—was never able to find any joy while living in this house, so he sought comfort and happiness in other ways. She admits that she couldn’t manage to bring any happiness into the household because she’d been taught to uphold various standards regarding her duty—notions that only drove Captain Alving further from her. Getting to her point, she tells Oswald that his father was a debauched man.
Finally, Mrs. Alving tells Oswald the truth about his father. In doing so, she partially blames herself for failing to make Captain Alving happy, an outlook that is no doubt informed by the patriarchal ideas about a wife’s duty that people like Pastor Manders have spread throughout society. At the same time, though, she subverts this sexist expectation by saying that such outdated and restrictive customs are the exact reason she was unable to bring happiness into her home. In turn, she suggests that society’s obsession with duty is part of what’s responsible for Captain Alving’s downfall.
Mrs. Alving also tells Oswald and Regine that Captain Alving is Regine’s true father. Upon hearing this, Regine immediately decides to leave, realizing that she can’t marry Oswald because he’s her half-brother. When Oswald tries to convince her to stay, she tells him she would never have planned to marry him if she’d known he was sick. Now that she knows the truth, she explains, she’s going to leave the Alvings in search of a husband, believing that she has to find a suitable partner before her good looks fade. Before taking her leave, she criticizes Mrs. Alving for not having the decency to raise her in a respectable fashion, since she is just as much Captain Alving’s daughter as Oswald is his son. Having said this, she sets off to find Pastor Manders, saying that if no other options present themselves, she’ll simply live at the Captain Alving Home.
For seemingly her entire life, Regine has been biding her time in the Alving household and waiting to benefit from her proximity to the family. At the beginning of the play, this meant denying Engstrand’s offer for her to work in his hotel, since she thought that such a position would be beneath her. Now that she sees that she won’t find any kind of upward mobility by remaining with the Alvings, though, she decides to go to the Captain Alving Home. That she’s able to make this decision so quickly indicates that she never actually had feelings for Oswald. Instead, she simply wanted to benefit from her relationship with him. And though she deserves to be upset, her immediate decision to chase other opportunities signals that she—like Engstrand—is interested first and foremost in gaining wealth and moving up through the ranks of society.
After Regine leaves, Mrs. Alving asks Oswald if he’s devastated by the news that his father was a wretched man. In response, he tells her that it doesn’t really matter to him, since he hardly knew the man. This shocks Mrs. Alving, who thinks that a son should love his father no matter what, but Oswald points out that he has absolutely nothing to be thankful for when it comes to his relationship Captain Alving. He says that his mother’s idea that children should love their parents unconditionally is just an outdated belief. “Ghosts!” Mrs. Alving says, and Oswald agrees that this is an apt word.
Although Mrs. Alving is eager to abandon the various rules and beliefs that have kept her from leading a happy life, she sometimes can’t help but perpetuate such ideas. In this moment, she voices a version of Pastor Manders’s notion that children owe something to their parents, though she quickly realizes that this isn’t really the case once Oswald takes issue with the claim.
Oswald tells his mother that if he’s going to stay at home, she has to learn how to be happy around him so he can escape the fearful and foreboding feeling he constantly experiences. He then reminds her that she promised earlier that she would do anything for him. Continuing, he points to his head, saying, “The disease I have inherited…has its seat here.” He then tells her that he has already been overcome by the disease once, but that this episode passed. However, his doctor assured him that the next time the illness overtakes him, he will likely never return, becoming catatonic and unable to do anything. This, Oswald says, is why he will need help addressing the situation when it inevitably comes to pass.
At this point, Ibsen reveals that Oswald is in the late stages of syphilis, meaning that he could lose control of his body and mind at seemingly any moment. It’s worth noting that Oswald refers to the disease as something that he has inherited, finally understanding that his illness has nothing to do with the way he lived his life. At the same time, it’s worth noting an alternative reading of the play—because syphilis cannot be inherited from a father, it’s possible to argue that Oswald’s “inheritance” is more figurative than literal. Because it’s clear that he has taken after his father insofar as he likes to drink and has a strong sexual appetite, it’s plausible that he actually has led the same kind of sexually promiscuous life as Captain Alving, contracting syphilis through sexual activity instead of genetically. Either way, Oswald has inherited something from his father, either literally receiving Captain Alving’s disease or simply taking after his reckless ways.
Now that Regine has left, Oswald says, he has to depend upon Mrs. Alving. Producing a small box from his pocket, he tells his mother that he has made plans for what to do when his illness overcomes him once and for all. He has saved twelve morphine pills, he explains, and will need Mrs. Alving to give them to him once he’s entered a catatonic state. His mother screams when she hears this, saying that she couldn’t possibly kill her own son, reminding him that she’s the very person who brought him into this life. “I never asked you for life,” Oswald says. “And what sort of a life is this you’ve given me? I don’t want it! Take it back!”
When Oswald asks his mother to euthanize him if he becomes catatonic, Ibsen invites audience members to consider what, exactly, people owe to their loved ones. Throughout the play, Ibsen has explored the various ways in which Mrs. Alving feels indebted to her family members, ultimately suggesting that the sacrifices she made for Captain Alving weren’t worth the cost of her personal happiness. Now, though, Mrs. Alving faces an even harder decision, since she cares so deeply about Oswald. Although she would seemingly do anything for him, she doesn’t want to kill him, since this would mean plunging herself into endless misery.
Mrs. Alving tries to run from the house to fetch a doctor, but Oswald keeps her from leaving, telling her that she would give him the morphine if she really loved him. After a moment of thought, she finally agrees to euthanize him if it comes to it, insisting that it won’t be necessary. Thankful, Oswald sits in an armchair as Mrs. Alving lowers herself onto the nearby sofa. As he stares out the window into the darkness of early morning, his mother goes on about how he will be happy and healthy while he lives with her.
Mrs. Alving agrees to kill Oswald, but she tries to convince herself that this won’t be necessary. This, it seems, is a feeble compromise she makes with herself, as she tries to keep Oswald happy by promising to do what he wants while simultaneously putting herself at ease. In this moment, then, she tries to negotiate the disconnect between what she wants and what her son wants.
While Mrs. Alving talks and talks, the sun begins to rise, showing itself through the windows. “Mother,” Oswald says, “give me the sun.” Unnerved, Mrs. Alving asks what he said, and he slowly—catatonically—chants, “The sun. The sun.” Just when Mrs. Alving asks what’s wrong, Oswald’s body goes slack and his empty eyes stare forward. Mrs. Alving shakes him and screams his name, but he only intones his mindless incantation, saying, “The sun…The sun.” Frantic, Mrs. Alving searches for the morphine pills, but when she finds them, she can only scream, saying, “No, no, no!...Yes!...No, no!” as she stands in utter indecision before her inert son.
That Oswald asks his mother to “give [him] the sun” suggests that he sees death as a release from his dreary life. He has mentioned at various moments throughout the play how he longs to see the sun when he comes home, claiming that he can’t paint when it’s so grey and dismal outside. When he finally catches a glimpse of the sun, he conflates it with the morphine, asking his mother to give it to him so that he can slip into a happier existence. This, however, puts her in an impossible position because she wants to make him happy but doesn’t want to kill her own son. After all, this would mean once more sacrificing her own happiness in life, as she’s done so many times before. As she stands in front of him, she is completely unable to decide what to do—an indication that Oswald’s request is simply too great a burden for her to bear.