After dinner, Mrs. Alving and Pastor Manders return to the living room to continue their conversation. Mrs. Alving says that they have to find a way to remove Regine from the house to keep Oswald from pursuing a romantic relationship with his half-sister. However, neither she nor Manders can think of where to send her, since Engstrand isn’t really her father. Mrs. Alving explains that Johanna left after learning she was pregnant, though Captain Alving gave her a large sum of money to keep quiet about the entire ordeal. When she got back to town, she convinced Engstrand to marry her and say that he was the one who got her pregnant, telling him that a rich foreign sailor was the real father and that this sailor had paid her to cover up the truth.
Now that Oswald’s romantic feelings for Regine have come to Mrs. Alving’s attention, she has to deal once again with the repercussions of Captain Alving’s behavior. In this way, then, Ibsen demonstrates the ways in which the past keeps rearing its head in Mrs. Alving’s life. In addition, Engstrand’s willingness to take the blame for impregnating Johanna aligns with his opportunistic nature, supporting the idea that he is constantly looking for ways to get ahead—even (or perhaps especially) in unfortunate situations.
Pastor Manders is furious to hear that Engstrand has lied to him for so many years about Regine. He finds it detestable that Engstrand would agree to marry a “fallen woman” for the price of 300 dollars, prompting Mrs. Alving to point out that she herself married a disreputable man and inherited a lot more. When Manders argues that this isn’t all that similar, Mrs. Alving tells him that she never truly loved Captain Alving. In fact, she implies that she loved Pastor Manders and that she wanted to be with him when she ran away from Captain Alving, but Manders pretends not to know what she’s talking about. Regardless, he says, the fact of the matter is that Mrs. Alving was lawfully married to Captain Alving—a statement that causes Mrs. Alving to suggest that society’s obsession with rules is the root cause of unhappiness.
Ibsen complicates Mrs. Alving and Pastor Manders’s dynamic by introducing the idea that Mrs. Alving once loved the pastor. Of course, Manders claims that he never picked up on this when she ran away from Captain Alving, but it’s unclear whether or not this is true, since this is most likely what he’d say even if he did recognize that Mrs. Alving had feelings for him. After all, if he knew that she loved him, he would certainly feel even more compelled to uphold his priestly duty to tell her to return to her husband, since he wouldn’t want anyone to think that he had failed to do so based on her fondness of him. In contrast, Mrs. Alving disparages society’s obsession with duty and obligation, perhaps believing that this is exactly what kept Pastor Manders from responding to her affection.
Animatedly, Mrs. Alving declares that she’s tired of living her life according to a set of rules. In alignment with this, she says she should never have kept the truth about Captain Alving from Oswald, calling herself a coward for refusing to tell him that his father was a wretched man. Pastor Manders, for his part, tells her that this isn’t the case, since she was only doing her duty as a wife and mother. After all, he claims, children are supposed to respect their parents. What’s more, he suggests that Oswald has idealized his father, so to tell him the truth about Captain Alving would be to ruin his image of what it means to be an upstanding, respectable man.
Yet again, Pastor Manders shows his dedication to traditional ideas about familial relationships, this time saying that Oswald should continue to look up to the memory of this father even though that image of Captain Alving is inaccurate. Whereas he chastised Mrs. Alving earlier for being a bad mother, now he reassures her by saying that she was right not to tell her son about Captain Alving’s wicked ways. However, Mrs. Alving has decided that she wants to tell Oswald because she thinks it’s the right thing to do. In turn, audience members see that Mrs. Alving’s ideas about right and wrong have to do with real-life circumstances, whereas Pastor Manders’s morals are based on abstract ideas regarding what’s proper.
Mrs. Alving reiterates her feeling that hearing Oswald and Regine in the next room was like hearing the ghosts of her past. In response, Pastor Manders says that her ideas about ghosts are products of the literature she’s been reading, but she tells him that he is actually the one who encouraged her to think this way. When he told her to return to her duties as a wife, she explains, she decided to more closely examine the ideas and theories that fuel the norms set forth by the church and society in general. Upon looking more closely at such customs, Mrs. Alving came to feel that the beliefs Pastor Manders has devoted his life to are feeble and unfounded.
Although Mrs. Alving’s ideas about ghosts and the past are largely about the ways in which the things her husband did continue to haunt her, she also uses the metaphor to address the fact that old belief systems often encroach upon her life—as evidenced by Pastor Manders’s overbearing manner of judging her. When Pastor Manders turned her away and urged her to return to her husband, he emphasized the importance of adhering to society’s customs surrounding marital loyalty. Consequently, Mrs. Alving decided to reexamine the very framework that gave birth to these customs, which is ultimately what led her to take such a dim view of Pastor Manders’s system of belief and the way it shapes society.
Pastor Manders says that his fight to remain true to his faith has been a profound triumph, but Mrs. Alving insists that it was nothing but a tragedy for both of them. Hearing this, Pastor Manders claims that he has never had any romantic feelings for Mrs. Alving—something she refuses to believe, suggesting that he has simply chosen to forget the past. She, on the other hand, is constantly fighting the ghosts of history.
Pastor Manders is capable of willfully forgetting his past because he can turn to his faith, using it as a way to reassure himself that he was right to deny his love for Mrs. Alving. She, on the other hand, doesn’t believe in the outdated ideas that keep Manders from following his heart, which is why these ideas haunt her. In other words, she believes that Manders’s reasons for denying her are trivial, and this makes it even harder for her to cope with the fact that she endured a miserable life with Captain Alving simply because Manders told her to.
Just as Mrs. Alving and Pastor Manders begin to talk once more about what they should do with Regine, Engstrand enters and asks Manders to come bless the orphanage, which has just been completed. However, Manders asks if Engstrand is truly in the right state of mind to attend a religious ceremony, asking him if he has anything he’d like to get off his chest. When Engstrand sidesteps this question, Manders reveals that he knows the truth about Regine and scolds Engstrand for keeping the truth from him for all these years. Having said this, he informs Engstrand that their friendship is over, but Engstrand makes a case for himself by getting the pastor to admit that a man should never go against his word. Since he promised Johanna that he’d never say anything, he couldn’t possibly have told Manders the truth about Regine.
In this exchange between Engstrand and Manders, the audience sees how skillful Engstrand is at getting people to side with him. Although Manders is angry at him for lying, Engstrand manages to frame himself as a selfless and morally upstanding man, thereby exhibiting his talent for presenting himself in a flattering light regardless of the circumstances.
Engstrand emphasizes the fact that he was only trying to help a woman in need when he agreed to keep Johanna’s secret about Regine. As he tries to convince Pastor Manders that he did the right thing, it becomes clear that Engstrand still has no idea that Regine’s real father is Captain Alving, rather than an anonymous foreign sailor. He also suggests that he was especially willing to help Johanna because he knew that nobody else would want to marry him, since he has a bad leg. This, he reminds Manders, is because he tried to convince a group of drunken sailors to morally improve their lives, so they threw him down the stairs. Although Mrs. Alving grunts at this story, clearly seeing through Engstrand’s insincerity, Manders believes Engstrand.
Once again, Engstrand attempts to manipulate another person into feeling sorry for him, this time using his injured leg to gain sympathy from Pastor Manders. As he delivers an unlikely story about how he got this injury, he convinces Pastor Manders that he’s a good man who took in Johanna and Regine out of the kindness of his heart.
Still trying to defend himself, Engstrand tells Pastor Manders that he never spent any of the money that Johanna received to keep quiet about her pregnancy. Instead, he claims, he put the savings toward Regine’s education. Believing Engstrand, Manders shakes his hand and apologizes for doubting him, saying that he wishes there was some way he could express the positive feelings he has about him. In response, Engstrand tells Manders about his idea to create a hotel for sailors, insisting that the establishment could help otherwise wayward men avoid temptation when they come ashore. Manders likes the sound of this idea, but says they’ll discuss it later, since he has decided that it would, in fact, be a good idea to bless the orphanage. Accordingly, he tells Engstrand to light candles in the building and to meet him there soon.
It’s hard to believe that Engstrand really put all of the money he received for marrying Johanna toward Regine’s education, considering that Regine’s only education has been in Mrs. Alving’s house—an experience that clearly hasn’t cost her any money, since it’s not actually a formal education. On another note, Manders demonstrates his naivety when he says that he’ll consider funding Engstrand’s hotel, since it’s rather obvious that the hotel will be nothing but a glorified brothel. Nonetheless, his failure to recognize this aligns with his tendency to judge people from afar, never bothering to look beyond the surface to examine a person’s true character.
After Pastor Manders and Engstrand go to the orphanage, Mrs. Alving finds Oswald drinking and smoking a cigar. Frowning at the decanter of liquor, Mrs. Alving warns her son against drinking too much, but he ignores her. He then tells her that he’s sick, saying that his illness is unique because there’s something wrong with his mind. This, he believes, means he’ll never be able to work again. When she asks how this happened, he admits that he has no idea. He tells her that he has never been one to live dangerously, so he doesn’t know how he became so sick. When he went to a physician, he says, the doctor told him that he has been “worm-eaten” since birth.
The notion that Oswald has been “worm-eaten” since birth suggests that his illness is out of his control, something that would have come upon him no matter what he did. This, in turn, aligns with Mrs. Alving’s ideas about ghosts and inheritance, since she believes that there are certain things a person simply cannot outrun. In this sense, then, Oswald’s sickness can be seen as something he inherited, though Ibsen doesn’t yet reveal what the illness is or why, exactly, it has doomed Oswald since the very moment he entered the world.
Oswald tells Mrs. Alving that he asked his doctor what, exactly, that diagnosis meant. His doctor, he explains regretfully, replied by saying that “the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children.” Upon hearing this, Oswald nearly punched the doctor and insisted that his father was an irreproachable man. To convince his doctor of this, Oswald showed him a slew of letters from Mrs. Alving that praised Captain Alving and spoke about his good deeds. Seeing this, the doctor agreed that Oswald’s sickness couldn’t have come from his father, leading Oswald to believe that he has fallen ill because of the life he’s led with his fellow artists.
Nobody in Ghosts ever directly states it, but audiences during Ibsen’s time would have recognized that Oswald is suffering from syphilis. Most scholars note that although a son cannot biologically inherit syphilis from a father, this is nevertheless what seems to happen in the play. However, Oswald still believes that his father was a good and morally upstanding man, so he doesn’t understand how he could have possibly inherited his disease. Left with no other explanation, then, he blames himself, believing that his lifestyle—which he previously told Pastor Manders is quite pure and innocent—has led to his illness. In turn, the audience sees how Captain Alving’s behavior continues to affect his loved ones, as Oswald not only suffers from syphilis because of him, but also tears himself apart for having contracted the disease.
Talking about his illness with Mrs. Alving, Oswald wishes that it were something he had inherited, since at least he wouldn’t have to feel ashamed. Falling into despair, he laments the fact that he never sees the sun when he’s home. Miserable, he asks his mother to get him something to drink, so she calls Regine and tells her to fetch champagne. As they open the bottle, Oswald asks if his mother would really do anything for him, and when she asks why he wants to know, he says that he’ll tell her after they have a drink. Changing the subject, he talks about how beautiful Regine is, but his mother tries to discourage him from thinking so fondly of her. Still, though, he says, “Mother, Regine is my only hope!” By way of explanation, he wishes aloud that Regine might help him cope with his misery.
Mrs. Alving has to face her husband’s ghost once again when she realizes that her son has inherited his syphilis. It remains unclear whether the disease was actually passed on biologically, but even if it wasn’t, it could still be that Oswald contracted it through risky sexual behavior of the same kind his father once indulged in. Furthermore, she also has to face the consequences of her husband’s decisions when she considers Oswald’s newfound fondness for Regine, Captain Alving’s illegitimate daughter (and Oswald’s half-sister). Consequently, the audience sees how utterly incapable Mrs. Alving is of escaping her wretched husband’s influence, which becomes increasingly impossible to ignore.
Oswald tells Regine to have a drink with him and Mrs. Alving. When she goes to get a glass, he voices his theory that nobody from his hometown understands how to enjoy life. Just then, Mrs. Alving decides to tell Oswald and Regine that they are half-siblings, but she’s interrupted by Pastor Manders, who returns from the orphanage and says that he has successfully blessed the building. He also says that he will help Engstrand with his hotel, adding that Regine should move in with her father to help with the business. Speaking up for herself, Regine says she won’t go with Engstrand, at which point Oswald declares that he will make Regine his wife, adding that they can either stay or leave. However, Mrs. Alving interjects to say that this will not happen because she can finally tell her son the truth without ruining his “ideals.”
Oswald’s belief that nobody in his hometown knows how to be happy shows his mother that he has never coveted the way she or her husband lived. This, in turn, gives her the freedom to tell him the truth about Captain Alving, finally seeing that she won’t hurt the boy too much by telling him how wretched his father was—after all, it’s clear that Oswald doesn’t want to follow in Captain Alving’s footsteps anyway. For a moment, then, she feels for the first time that she might be able to help Oswald from inevitably going down the same path as his father, thereby stopping the past from repeating itself.
Before Mrs. Alving can say anything more, Regine notices that a fire has broken out at the orphanage. The entire building is in flames. Rushing out of the house, Oswald runs in the direction of the disaster while Pastor Manders tells Mrs. Alving that the fire is a sign of God’s judgment on the way she runs her household.
Yet again, Pastor Manders emerges as a critical, judgmental, and emotionally insensitive voice. Rather than taking pity on Mrs. Alving, his first reaction to the orphanage going up in flames is to blame her, once more trying to argue that her failure to lead a conventional and religious life is the source of all her troubles.