In Ghosts, Henrik Ibsen invites audiences to contemplate the expectations that individuals place upon one another. The playwright asks how much, exactly, people can depend on their loved ones to help them through difficult times, ultimately suggesting that certain requests can become unfair burdens. For instance, Captain Alving depends on his wife, Mrs. Alving, to maintain his public image, putting an enormous strain on her as she struggles to hide his debauchery. Unfortunately for her, the burdens of familial duty and dependency don’t end when her husband dies, since her son, Oswald, later asks her to euthanize him. As a result, Mrs. Alving has to confront the idea of killing her own son, wrestling with whether it’s her responsibility to keep him alive or to do what he asks of her. Her inability to make this decision at the end of the play illustrates just how difficult it is to bear the weight of responsibility, especially when people feel a sense of duty to protect their loved ones. By spotlighting the sacrifices Mrs. Alving makes for her family members, then, Ibsen implies that certain things are too much to ask of a person.
As a young woman, Mrs. Alving tries to respect her own agency and autonomy by leaving her husband, Captain Alving. This very decision suggests that she doesn’t want to put up with her husband’s infidelity and is unwilling to devote herself to a man who won’t even bother to hide his debauchery. In turn, it becomes clear that Mrs. Alving recognizes that she would be sacrificing her happiness if she stayed with Captain Alving, and that this is something she doesn’t want to do. However, Pastor Manders guilts her into returning by saying that her decision to leave proves that she is thinking only of herself. Rather than considering the fact that Mrs. Alving deserves to be happy, Manders upholds the patriarchal idea that women owe something to their husbands, regardless of how the men behave. He even frames it as a woman’s duty to stay with her husband, an outlook that casts Mrs. Alving as an ungrateful person who has shirked her responsibility. “[…I]t is not a wife’s place to sit in judgment on her husband,” he says. “Your duty should have been to bear with humility that cross which a higher power had judged proper for you.” In this moment, Manders brings even more of the crushing weight of societal norms and beliefs to bear on Mrs. Alving, arguing that her obedience to her husband is something demanded by religion and by God. By saying this, he makes it even harder for Mrs. Alving to advocate for herself, implying that she is irresponsible and petulant when, in reality, she has simply recognized that, regardless of whether or not she owes her husband, she owes it to herself to be happy.
Considering that Pastor Manders, as a servant of God, has organized his entire life around the concept of duty, it’s unsurprising that he clings so tightly to such ideas. After all, he believes that it’s his job to serve God, which means protecting the institution of marriage under any and all circumstances. “Yes, you should thank God I possessed the necessary strength of mind,” he tells Mrs. Alving, referring to the fact that he urged her to return to Captain Alving when she initially ran away. Going on, he says that she should be thankful he was able to convince her to ignore what he refers to as her “hysterical intentions,” a phrase that condescendingly frames her desire to be happy as trivial, unreasonable, and inherently feminine. As he speaks to her in this self-righteous way, it becomes clear that he truly believes it was his obligation to steer Mrs. Alving back to her husband. Interestingly enough, this is complicated by the fact that Mrs. Alving has romantic feelings for Manders, and suspects that he has feelings for her in return. Rather than allowing himself to act on these feelings, though, Manders invests himself in the idea that he has a duty to uphold his religious station. In this sense, then, both he and Mrs. Alving sacrifice their happiness in the name of obligation.
Mrs. Alving’s sense of owing something to the people in her life continues when Oswald tells her that she needs to euthanize him if he succumbs to syphilis. She finds this impossible to bear, saying that she could never bring herself to kill her own son, to whom she gave life in the first place. “If you love me, Mother…how can you let me suffer all this unspeakable terror!” Oswald says, intimating that Mrs. Alving will be the one responsible for his suffering if she refuses to euthanize him. In this difficult scene, Ibsen urges readers to consider what, exactly, family members owe to one another. Although it’s true that Oswald will be happier if his mother kills him, it’s also the case that Mrs. Alving will be haunted by this decision for the rest of her life. As a mother, she feels she has a duty to help her son avoid suffering, but she also recognizes that she deserves to make her own decisions—this, after all, is what she learned after being miserable for years in her marriage to Captain Alving. In keeping with just how difficult this decision is, Mrs. Alving finds herself unable to do anything when Oswald’s syphilis overtakes him at the very end of the play. As he lies there in a nearly catatonic state, she stares at him in “speechless horror,” an embodiment of tortured indecision. That the curtain closes before she decides what to do helps Ibsen emphasize the extent to which it’s unfair to place overly burdensome expectations on loved ones, especially since an undue sense of duty can lead a person to sense of paralyzing helplessness as they experience deep emotional turmoil.
Duty and Self-Sacrifice ThemeTracker
Duty and Self-Sacrifice Quotes in Ghosts
REGINE [after a short silence]. And what did you want with me in town?
ENGSTRAND. How can you ask what a father wants with his only child? I’m a lonely, deserted widower, aren’t I?
REGINE. Oh, don’t come that fiddle-faddle with me. What do you want me there for?
ENGSTRAND. Well, the thing is I’ve been thinking of going in for something new.
REGINE [sneers]. How many times haven’t I heard that one before! But you always made a mess of it.
I know quite well the rumours that were going about. And I would be the last person to condone his conduct as a young man, assuming these rumours told the truth. But it is not a wife’s place to sit in judgement on her husband. Your duty should have been to bear with humility that cross which a higher power had judged proper for you. But instead you have the effrontery to cast away the cross, you abandon the man whose stumbling steps you should have guided, you go and risk your own good name, and . . . very nearly jeopardize other people’s reputations into the bargain.
That was the endless battle I fought, day after day. When we had Oswald, I rather thought Alving improved a little. But it didn’t last long. And then I had to battle twice as hard, fight tooth and nail to prevent anybody from knowing what sort of person my child’s father was. And you know, of course, how charming Alving could be. Nobody could believe anything but good of him. He was one of those people whose reputation is proof against anything they may do.
That was the time Oswald was sent away. He was getting on for seven, and beginning to notice things and ask questions, as children do. That was something I couldn’t bear. I felt the child would somehow be poisoned simply by breathing the foul air of this polluted house. That was why I sent him away. And now you understand why he was never allowed to set foot in this place as long as his father was alive. Nobody knows what that cost me.
MANDERS. Nobody can be held responsible for the way things have turned out. But nevertheless one thing is clear: your marriage was arranged in strict accord with law and order.
MRS. ALVING. Oh, all this law and order! I often think that’s the cause of all the trouble in the world.
MRS. ALVING. Your father could never find any outlet for this tremendous exuberance of his. And I didn’t exactly bring very much gaiety into his home, either.
OSWALD. Didn’t you?
MRS. ALVING. They’d taught me various things about duty and such like, and I’d simply gone on believing them. Everything seemed to come down to duty in the end—my duty and his duty and . . . I’m afraid I must have made the house unbearable for your poor father, Oswald.
MRS. ALVING. What a terrible thought! Surely a child ought to love its father in spite of all?
OSWALD. What if a child has nothing to thank its father for? Never knew him? You don’t really believe in this old superstition still, do you? And you so enlightened in other ways?
MRS. ALVING. You call that mere superstition. . . !
OSWALD. Yes, surely you realize that, Mother. It’s simply one of those ideas that get around and . . .
MRS. ALVING [shaken]. Ghosts!