Ghosts is a play about how the past influences the present. The play’s Norwegian title, Gengangere, is the Danish word for ghosts, but it also has connotations of repetition, suggesting that Ibsen is interested in examining how the past repeats itself. This is evident in many ways throughout the play, as Oswald Alving’s life begins to resemble his late father’s, despite the fact that he has supposedly led a much different existence. This, at least, is what Mrs. Alving thinks, believing that Oswald is nothing like his debauched father because he spent his formative years far away from the man. Now, though, she learns that Oswald is entering the late stages of syphilis, which is what killed her husband. The implication in the play is that he inherited this from his father, despite the fact that this is biologically impossible. Nevertheless, Ibsen uses Oswald’s syphilis to outline the idea that certain painful histories don’t simply disappear, but instead resurface in generations to come. According to this line of thought, Oswald is just another “ghost” in Mrs. Alving’s life, evidence of her husband’s immoral ways. Because she doesn’t want her son to die, though, she struggles to fully banish the ghost of her husband from her life. In this regard, Ibsen shows the audience that repeating the past is inevitable, and that moving on from troubling chapters of life is a complicated and difficult process.
Mrs. Alving believes that she protected Oswald from his father by sending the boy away from home when he was a child. Confident that she shielded him from Captain Alving’s immoral ways, she thinks of this matter as a thing of the past, something she settled long ago. Since then, she hasn’t even allowed Oswald to come home while his father was still alive, fearing that Captain Alving would “poison” the young man by ruining his innocence. It’s worth noting her use of the word “poison” in this moment, since the word implies a sense of contamination, as if Oswald could somehow catch his father’s immorality. This reveals Mrs. Alving’s belief that exposing her son to her husband’s undesirable disposition might perpetuate that very disposition, turning Captain Alving’s bad behavior into something that refuses to die.
Now that Captain Alving himself has died, Mrs. Alving thinks she and her son are completely free from his influence, but she begins to worry that this isn’t the case when she hears Oswald make a sexual advance on the maid, Regine. This is something that Captain Alving did when he was alive, coming onto a different maid (Johanna) while Mrs. Alving was sitting in the adjacent room. The recurrence of such behavior in Oswald shocks Mrs. Alving, who tells Pastor Manders that she can’t seem to flee the “ghosts” of her past. By saying this, she suggests that Oswald has become an embodiment of his father’s wicked ways despite her previous belief that Captain Alving’s negative influence was a thing of the past. In this sense, she suggests that it’s effectively impossible to move on from certain things in life, as people are unavoidably impacted by what has come before them. Meditating on the influence that relatives (especially parents) have on their family members, she says, “It’s not that they live on in us; they are simply lodged there, and we cannot get rid of them.” According to this theory, there’s nothing Oswald can do to avoid replicating his father’s misguided ways, since he’s doomed to follow in Captain Alving’s footsteps regardless of how hard he or his mother try to change this.
The idea of inheritance factors into the ways in which Captain Alving has passed his legacy to his son. Although it’s biologically impossible for a father to genetically pass syphilis to a son, it’s generally accepted that this is what happens in Ghosts, as Oswald’s doctor tells him that “the sins of the fathers are inherited upon the children.” By saying this, the doctor indicates that Oswald’s illness is somehow the result of his father’s reckless sexual behavior. There are also other hints that Captain Alving passed the sickness to his son, as Oswald himself at one point refers to his condition by saying, “The disease I have inherited.” In this way, Ibsen presents yet another reason that it’s so difficult for Oswald and Mrs. Alving to move on from the past, since Captain Alving’s decisions—his promiscuity and wild sex life—continue to affect them even after he himself has died. Furthermore, even if audience members don’t believe that Oswald literally inherited syphilis from his father, it’s clear that the young man has at the very least inherited some of Captain Alving’s deviant ways, as evidenced by the fact that he has an illicit sexual relationship with Regine, effectively mirroring the inappropriate relationship his father had with his maid.
Although it’s worth noting the ways in which Oswald has either literally or figuratively inherited his father’s sins, the play’s focal point is ultimately on Mrs. Alving and her attempt to escape her husband’s influence. That Oswald has become an embodiment of his father confirms her previous belief that it’s impossible for a person to outrun the ghosts of his or her past. The only way to do this, it seems, would be to euthanize Oswald when—at the end of the play—he asks her to do so. However, this would mean killing her only son, to whom she is quite attached. In other words, Mrs. Alving is emotionally invested in the very person who reminds her of Captain Alving, the bane of her existence. This predicament demonstrates why it’s not always so easy to move on from painful pasts, since such memories are often very much wrapped up in the things that a person still values in life.
The Past, Inheritance, and Moving On ThemeTracker
The Past, Inheritance, and Moving On Quotes in Ghosts
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?
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.
Ghosts. When I heard Regine and Oswald in there, it was just like seeing ghosts. But then I’m inclined to think that we are all ghosts, Pastor Manders, every one of us. It’s not just what we inherit from our mothers and fathers that haunts us. It’s all kinds of old defunct theories, all sorts of old defunct beliefs, and things like that. It’s not that they actually live on in us; they are simply lodged there, and we cannot get rid of them. I’ve only to pick up a newspaper and I seem to see ghosts gliding between the lines. Over the whole country there must be ghosts, as numerous as the sands of the sea.
OSWALD. At last he said: there’s been something worm-eaten about you since birth. He used that very word: ‘vermoulu’.
MRS. ALVING [tense]. What did he mean by that?
OSWALD. I couldn’t understand it either, and I asked him for a more detailed explanation. And then he said, the old cynic…[Clenches his fist.] Oh…!
MRS. ALVING. What did he say?
OSWALD. He said: the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children.
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!
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!