Feminism in Classics: Ghosts by Ibsen

Ghosts, a realist contemporary play was written in 1881, the age of great social upheaval, suffragette movement for women’s political and economic rights, by Henrik Ibsen focuses on gender discrimination between men and women in 19th century Norwegian Bourgeois. While Ibsen discusses the grim image of the filthy atmosphere of that age, characters that support Christianity, bourgeois society, and marriage, along with taboos like the incestuous relationship between master and maid-servant as well as brother and sister, Ghosts has been one of the most criticized plays in the history of young literature. It portrays a mistreated wife turned widow, a mother fighting against society’s patriarchal norms for her son, Oswald.

Ibsen on 26 May 1989 in the Women’s Rights League said “I am not a member of the Women’s Rights League. Whatever I have written has been without any conscious thought of making propaganda. I have been more poet and less social philosopher than people generally seem inclined to believe. I thank you for the toast but must disclaim the honour of having consciously worked for the women’s rights movement. I am not even quite clear as to just what this women’s rights movement really is. To me, it has seemed a problem of humanity in general.” Even though he famously refused to be a feminist, his feminine characters have been portrayed as powerful and strong and it is often believed real-life figures like his feminist mother-in-law and his mother had inspired these characters as he once said “Everything that I have written is most minutely connected with what I have lived through, if not personally experienced for every man shares the responsibility and the guilt of the society to which he belongs. To live is to war with trolls in heart and soul. To write is to sit in judgment on oneself.”

 Therefore, it is believed that the protagonist, Mrs Helena Alving is inspired by his mother, Marichen Ibsen whose husband Knud Ibsen took to alcohol and became abusive towards her. Similarly, the protagonist, Mrs Alving faced abuse by her immoral husband. She thought that her husband haunted her for he mistreated her.

“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.”

In addition, she takes over his business. She encouraged Oswald to study art and never told Regina about her true origins. She sent Oswald away when he was a child as she felt breathing the foul air of the polluted house would “poison” him.

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.”

There was a significant change in her character by the end of the story, from a woman strictly upholding stagnant values of duty and sacrifice, living a life that is founded on lies and pretences, she is able to confront the truth of her situation when she sees the harm she unwittingly does to Oswald. This trope of women considered as “femme fatale” has been widely popularized in today’s media.

Another female character, Regine Estrangd is also portrayed as a victim of patriarchal society, she’s been limited by her sex and status. She plays a major role when Mrs Alving realizes Oswald is in love with Regina, his half-sister.

Power and Sexuality also play a major role in this play. In the play, it can be seen that how men had imposed control over women. This has been shown in the illicit relationship between Mr Alving and Johanna, a maidservant of their house.

From Mrs Alving’s perspective: Standing at the door, she heard her own servant whisper: “Stop it, Mr Alving! Let me go!”

“Let me go, Engstrand! Stop it! I’ve been in service for three years with Chamberlain Alving at Rosenvold, and don’t you forget it!”

Johanna had been a victim of sexual exploitation and rape by Mr Alving. She soon gave birth to Regine and Engstrand was persuaded to marry her by giving him three hundred dollars to prevent social humiliation. Her character went on to be described as “degenerate”. Even though she was the victim, she was blamed. The cause of this situation can be understood by quoting a speech on sexuality by Catherine Mackinnon-

“Women and men are divided by gender, made into the sexes as we know them, by the social requirements of heterosexuality, which institutionalize male sexual dominance and female sexual submission. If this is true, sexuality is the linchpin of gender inequality.”

Lastly, I would conclude by saying I don’t believe Ghosts is a feminist play but it did a remarkable job in presenting the real society of that age which has allowed to evoke wider interest because the complex portrayal of the discourse of power and sexuality remain central concerns in today’s societies as well.

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