In Ghosts, a play about how people present themselves, Henrik Ibsen demonstrates that people leading immoral lives often still have untarnished reputations. In particular, the late Captain Alving is deeply revered by his community, despite the fact that he was a philandering alcoholic whose only accomplishments should be attributed to his wife, Mrs. Alving. Mrs. Alving has always wanted to confess that her husband was morally corrupt, but has refrained from doing so because she wants to maintain the family’s image. On the eve of opening an orphanage dedicated to the memory of her husband, though, she confides in Pastor Manders—a close family friend—that Captain Alving was “debauched.” Manders is beside himself when he hears this, but his initial reaction to the news suggests that he cares more about how people present themselves than how they actually behave. To that end, he takes issue not only with Captain Alving’s wretched behavior, but with his indiscretion, implying that the man’s biggest mistake was that he failed to fully hide his bad behavior from his wife. Throughout the play, Ibsen underlines the extent to which people invest themselves in keeping up appearances and the destruction to interpersonal relationships this can cause, highlighting the harmful obsession with reputation that was characteristic of 19th-century society.
Pastor Manders isn’t completely unaware of Captain Alving’s immoral ways, but he thinks Alving only misbehaved as a young man. Pastor Manders once talked Mrs. Alving out of running away from Captain Alving, insisting that Alving would surely turn over a new leaf and leave behind his unseemly ways. Now, years after Captain Alving’s death, Manders is quite proud of his advice, believing that Alving completely reformed himself. What he doesn’t know, though, is that Captain Alving continued to live an immoral life as a heavy drinker and unfaithful husband. This disconnect between Manders’s rosy view of Captain Alving and the actual way Alving lived his life underscores that a person’s public image can be misleading. Without knowing this, though, Manders reproaches Mrs. Alving for doubting her husband. The fact that he so easily condemns her decisions illustrates just how confident he is passing judgment from afar. In turn, Ibsen implies that reputations and appearances can be quite deceiving, giving people like Pastor Manders the false impression that they know their peers better than they actually do.
Rather ironically, Pastor Manders insists that Mrs. Alving did her husband a “great wrong” by trying to leave him. Furthermore, he says that she also wronged her son, Oswald, by sending him away from home at such a young age (something that, in reality, she only did to ensure that the boy wouldn’t be negatively influenced by his father). As Manders levels these claims against her, Mrs. Alving waits patiently to point out that he has no idea what he’s talking about. “None of these things you have been saying about my husband and me and our life together after you had led me back to the path of duty, as you put it—absolutely none of these things do you know from first-hand,” she says, implying that he shouldn’t pass judgment without digging beyond her family’s surface-level reputation. After all, he doesn’t actually know anything about her relationship with her husband, instead forming inaccurate ideas based on nothing but Captain Alving’s status in the community, which Mrs. Alving herself helped him sustain. In turn, Manders’s assumptions about Mrs. Alving’s married life make it even harder for her to finally stand up for herself by revealing her husband’s wretched ways. As she finally explains that she fought an “endless battle” to hold her life and family together, Manders is astonished and disturbed, responding, “Am I to believe that your entire married life…all those years together with your husband…were nothing but a façade.” In this moment, he begins to understand why it’s so foolish to judge people based on their outward appearances, finally recognizing that it’s possible for people to construct “façades” that keep their vices hidden.
To show Pastor Manders the extent of Captain Alving’s misbehavior, Mrs. Alving tells him that she heard her husband make a sexual advance on the family maid. This, she explains, took place while she was sitting in an adjacent room. This story thoroughly appalls Manders, but the nature of his outrage is rather strange, as he focuses not on Captain Alving’s infidelity, but on his failure to properly hide his urges. Reacting to this news, he calls Alving’s behavior “unseemly” and “indiscreet.” Instead of fixating on Captain Alving’s actual misdeed, then, Manders responds negatively to the man’s indiscretion, inadvertently indicating that Captain Alving’s real transgression was his inability to maintain his appearance as an upstanding man. In other words, Manders focuses not on the moral implications of Captain Alving’s infidelity, but on the related social dynamics, finding it unacceptable that he would present himself in such a socially unacceptable manner. This reaction helps Ibsen highlight the obsession with decorum that runs throughout Mrs. Alving’s community—an obsession that apparently overshadows more significant ethical concerns.
Pastor Manders’s obsession with appearances is the exact mindset that long discouraged Mrs. Alving from publicizing her husband’s wretched ways in the first place. What’s interesting, though, is that her attempt to “fight tooth and nail to prevent anybody from knowing” Captain Alving’s true nature is, in the end, what ultimately kept her from happiness. After all, if everyone had known about Captain Alving’s debauchery, it would have been easier for Mrs. Alving to leave him. By helping him maintain his public image, though, she ensured her own misery. Outlining this dynamic, Ibsen warns audiences against the dangers of overvaluing reputation, which not only keeps people from addressing immorality, but also diminishes their happiness.
Reputation, Judgement, and Morality ThemeTracker
Reputation, Judgement, and Morality Quotes in Ghosts
There has to be some women about the place, that’s clear. Because we’d want a bit of fun in the evenings, singing and dancing and that sort of thing. These are seafaring men, you’ve got to remember, roaming the high seas. [Comes closer.] Now don’t be such a fool as to stand in your own way, Regine. What can you do with yourself out here? Is it going to be any use to you, all this education the lady’s lavished on you? You’ll be looking after the children in the new Orphanage, they tell me. What sort of thing is that for a girl like you, eh? Are you all that keen on working yourself to death for the sake of a lot of dirty little brats?
MRS. ALVING. Well, I find it seems to explain and confirm a lot of the things I had been thinking myself. That’s the strange thing. Pastor Manders…there’s really nothing new in these books; there’s nothing there but what most people think and believe already. It’s just that most people either haven’t really considered these things, or won’t admit them.
MANDERS. Good God! Do you seriously believe that most people . . . ?
MRS. ALVING. Yes, I do.
MRS. ALVING. Anyway, what is it in fact you’ve got against these books?
MANDERS. Got against them? You don’t think I waste my time examining publications of that kind, surely?
MRS. ALVING. Which means you know absolutely nothing about what you are condemning?
MANDERS. […] It would be so terribly easy to interpret things as meaning that neither you nor I had a proper faith in Divine Providence.
MRS. ALVING. But as far as you are concerned, my dear Pastor, you know perfectly well yourself. . . .
MANDERS. Yes, I know, I know . . . my conscience is clear, that’s true enough. But all the same, we might not be able to stop people from seriously misrepresenting us. And that in turn might well have an inhibiting effect on the activities of the Orphanage.
OSWALD. […] never have I heard one word that could give offence, let alone seen anything that could be called immoral. No, do you know where and when I have encountered immorality in artistic circles?
MANDERS. No, thank God!
OSWALD. Well then, permit me to tell you. When some of our model husbands and fathers took themselves a trip to Paris to have a look round on the loose…and condescended to drop in on the artists in their modest haunts, that’s when I’ve met it. Then we got to know what was what. These gentlemen were able to tell us about places and things we’d never dreamt of.
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.
MRS. ALVING. Shortly afterwards I heard my husband come in, too. I heard him say something to her in a low voice. And then I heard. . . . [With a short laugh.] Oh, I can still hear it, so devastating and yet at the time so ludicrous…I heard my own maid whisper: ‘Let me go, Mr. Alving! Leave me alone!’
MANDERS. How unseemly! How indiscreet of him!
OSWALD [smiling sadly]. Yes, what do you think? Of course, I assured him that was quite out of the question. But do you think he would give way? No, he wouldn’t budge. And it wasn’t until I’d produced your letters and translated for him all those bits about Father. . . .
MRS. ALVING. What then. . . ?
OSWALD. Well, then he naturally had to admit that he’d been on the wrong track. Then I learnt the truth. The incredible truth! This blissfully happy life I’d been living with my friends, I should never have indulged in it. It had been too much for my strength. So it was my own fault, you see!
ENGSTRAND. Fancy a thing like that happening to a charitable institution, something that was going to be such a boon to the whole district, as you might say. I don’t suppose the papers are going to let you off very lightly, Pastor.
MANDERS. No, that’s just what I’m thinking. That’s just about the worst part of the whole affair. All these spiteful accusations and insinuations. . . ! Oh, it’s terrible to think about!