Protagonist Helen Alving is a devoted mother and successful businesswoman trying to found an orphanage in the aftermath of her husband’s death. Haunted by her past choices to conceal her husband’s disreputable past, Helen works tirelessly to ensure her husband’s legacy will live on through The Orphanage and to free herself from the burdens she carried throughout their marriage. The return of her son Oswald overjoys Helen; she hopes to repair their relationship and leave him with an inheritance comprised of the fruit of her hard work. Unfortunately, a chilling discovery of Oswald’s sexually-transmitted infection and romantic relationship with a maid upends Helen’s plans and forces her to confront her past.
Throughout the play, Helen relies on her old friend and business partner Pastor Manders as a confidant. However, Helen’s growing dissatisfaction with social conventions and exposure to the secular world distances her from Manders, for whom she once expressed a deep love. Manders reminds Helen of her past choice to return to her husband at Manders’s urging, and her decision to adhere to society’s expectations for women. Regretful, Helen determines that she must break free from social conventions and expose to Oswald the truth about his father’s indiscretions, which led to the birth of Regina, his half-sister and the maid in whom Oswald expresses an interest.