In Ghosts, Henrik Ibsen criticizes society’s fixation on economic success. More specifically, the playwright condemns the fact that people often prioritize wealth and other superficial indicators of success over actual happiness, or even morality. This is especially true for Jacob Engstrand, who thinks almost exclusively about his chances of making money and attaining some form of upward mobility. Similarly, Regine tries to leverage her job as a maid in the Alving household so that she can make a better name for herself in society, focusing only on endeavors or relationships she thinks will lead to success. But although Engstrand and Regine share a desire to attain wealth, Engstrand isn’t particularly interested in working hard to gain success. Instead, he’d rather manipulate the people around him, hoping to trick them into helping him pursue his various aspirations. When he succeeds in putting Pastor Manders in a vulnerable position, for instance, he doesn’t hesitate to benefit from the man’s sense of insecurity, ultimately convincing him to fund a hotel for sailors that—unbeknownst to Manders—will essentially function as a brothel. The fact that this kind of manipulation actually works for Engstrand illustrates Ibsen’s belief that society often allows people to lead greedy lives.
Early in the play’s first act, Ibsen spotlights the subtle ways in which an individual can manipulate another person. In a conversation with Engstrand, Regine finds herself having to fend off his attempts to trick her into leaving her job as a maid at Mrs. Alving’s house. Before he even tells her why, exactly, she should leave the Alvings, he tries to make her feel guilty. Indeed, when she asks what he wants from her, he says, “How can you ask what a father wants with his only child? I’m a lonely, deserted widower, aren’t I?” Not only does Engstrand remind Regine that he’s her father (which she later learns isn’t true), he also tries to make her feel bad by calling himself a widower, emphasizing his loneliness so that she’ll take pity on him. Furthermore, he points out that Regine is his only child so that she will feel a sense of obligation to make him happy. In doing so, he clearly hopes that she’ll feel as if she owes him something, and it is only at this point that he reveals his plan to open a hotel for sailors and his wish that she will work in the establishment. That he unveils this plan after trying to make Regine feel sorry for him is a clear sign that he is attempting to manipulate her, using her emotions against her in order to get what he wants—namely, wealth. In addition, the fact that he’s willing to manipulate his own daughter suggests that he lives in a community that condones or at the very least tolerates this kind of behavior, which prioritizes money and upward mobility over all else.
Despite Engstrand’s efforts, Regine isn’t easy to manipulate. She even tells him not to come to her with “fiddle-faddle” when he tries to make her feel bad for him, an indication that she knows exactly what he’s doing and wants to stop him from weaponizing this false display of sentimentality. Furthermore, Regine has her own plans for upward mobility, since she hopes that working with Mrs. Alving will lead to a prosperous future. To that end, she hopes to marry Oswald, thus wedding herself to the Alving fortune. This decision, however, has nothing to do with love, as made evident when Regine quickly abandons Oswald after learning that he has syphilis and is her half-brother. Of course, nobody would expect her to marry him after learning that they’re related, but the fact that she quits her job and leaves the Alving household immediately after learning this news suggests that she only ever cared about gaining Oswald’s money. Now that she can’t marry him, she says she won’t spend the rest of her life “looking after invalids.” It’s understandable that she would have a strong reaction to what she has just discovered, but she most likely wouldn’t say such a callous thing about Oswald if she had ever actually loved him. What’s more, she makes it clear that her primary goal is to attain wealth when she adds that “a poor girl’s got to make the most of things while she’s young,” implying that she’s eager to find financial gains through marriage before her youthful good looks fade. In this regard, she is similar to her father insofar as she’s willing to cast aside emotion in favor of gaining wealth or economic opportunities. Once again, then, Ibsen suggests that these characters live in a world that prioritizes wealth, upward mobility, and status over relationships or sentimentality.
Regine’s subtle manipulation of Oswald and Mrs. Alving pales in comparison to Engstrand’s successful attempt to blackmail Pastor Manders into giving him money. He does this by asking Manders to bless the orphanage, which Engstrand himself was in charge of building. Shortly after the blessing (which involves candles), the orphanage goes up in flames, and Engstrand claims that he saw Manders throw a partially lit candle into a pile of wood shavings. Furthermore, he says that the newspapers are going to harshly condemn the pastor for setting fire to a charitable institution. By blaming Manders for the fire while simultaneously making him feel guilty, Engstrand works the pastor into a panic. This, of course, is a calculated move, since he wants the priest to feel as if the news of his mistake—a mistake he didn’t actually make—will ruin his entire life. At this point, Engstrand says that he will publicly take the blame for the fire, prompting Manders to agree to fund his hotel. That this transparent scheme to profit off of the pastor actually works is a testament to how easy it is for conniving individuals like Engstrand to take advantage of others. In fact, Engstrand likely acts this way because he knows that he lives in a society that economically incentivizes this kind of behavior, since he once accepted a large amount of money from Captain Alving to pretend that Regine was his daughter. Accordingly, Ibsen urges the audience to recognize the ways in which undeserving people often profit off of society’s corrupt norms.
Wealth and Manipulation ThemeTracker
Wealth and Manipulation 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.
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?
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!