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The play Ghosts (1881) by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen chronicles the complicated relationship between Helen Alving and her son, Oswald. Ghosts documents a day in the life at the Alving estate as Helen prepares to open an orphanage in honor of her late husband. A three-act play, Ghosts explores the complex social issues of sexually transmitted infections, incest, and euthanasia—topics that made the play highly controversial when it was first produced.
Ghosts followed the success of Ibsen’s most renowned play, A Doll’s House (1879). Referred to as the father of realism, Ibsen is considered one of the most influential playwrights of the 19th century.
This guide was written using the public domain edition of Ghosts.
Content Warning: The source material features discussion of suicide, incest, and euthanasia.
Act I begins on a rainy day at the Alvings’ country estate. Regina Engstrand, a young maid, argues with her father, Jacob, a carpenter. Jacob just completed building an orphanage for Helen Alving in honor of her deceased husband. Using the money he earned, Jacob hopes to open a hostel for sailors and attempts to convince Regina to come work for him. She refuses.
After Jacob leaves, Pastor Manders, Helen’s old friend and business advisor, arrives for the orphanage’s opening. As Helen greets the pastor, she updates him on her son, Oswald, who returned home after a two-year absence. Pastor Manders and Helen review documents concerning the opening of the orphanage. Manders worries that he will appear lacking in faith if they choose to insure the orphanage. They both agree not to insure it and briefly discuss a fire that occurred yesterday in Jacob’s workshop.
Oswald arrives, interrupting their conversation by greeting Manders. Oswald has been away in Europe working as an artist. He and Manders debate the morality of the artists Oswald lived with, who engaged in sex outside of marriage and bore children out of wedlock. After Oswald excuses himself, Manders confronts Helen over Oswald’s controversial opinions in support of free love. As the two argue, Manders shames Helen for her past decision to leave her marriage following her husband’s infidelity and praises himself for convincing Helen to return. Helen reveals to the pastor that her husband’s behavior continued after her return; he had a child with one of the family’s maids. In response, Helen sent Oswald away to protect him and took control of her husband’s finances. She shares with Manders her reasons for constructing the orphanage to preserve her husband’s legacy using money from her dowry. As they prepare for dinner, Manders and Helen overhear Oswald and Regina in an intimate moment.
In Act II, Manders and Helen return to the room after dinner and discuss how to stop Regina and Oswald’s love affair. Helen confesses that Regina is the product of her husband’s affair with the maid—she is Oswald’s half-sister. Distressed, Helen debates whether to tell Oswald the truth about his father. Manders attempts to convince her to maintain her husband’s legacy and keep his secret. Regretful of her past decision to return to her husband, Helen no longer shares Manders’s beliefs, but both agree that Regina must be removed.
Jacob enters the room and asks the pastor to lead a prayer meeting at the orphanage. The pastor and Jacob exit.
Helen invites Oswald to sit with her. Oswald informs his mother that he has been diagnosed with syphilis. The doctor attributes Oswald’s condition to his father, but Oswald does not believe the doctor and blames his own indiscretions. He confesses his desire to pursue Regina, who soon enters the room and joins them. As Helen prepares to tell Regina and Oswald the truth about their consanguinity, Regina notices a fire at the orphanage. They all flee the room.
Act III commences in the aftermath of the fire. Pastor Manders, Jacob, and Regina discuss the origins of the fire, which was most likely caused by Jacob. Jacob convinces Manders that Manders might have started the fire with a candle. However, Jacob is willing to lie and say the fire was his fault. Helen returns and instructs Manders to freely use what money is left for the orphanage. However, worried about the destruction of his reputation—both for causing the fire and for convincing Helen not to insure the building—Manders instead decides to use the money to fund Jacob’s sailors’ hotel in exchange for Jacob taking the blame for the fire. The men exit.
Oswald reemerges. Helen reveals the truth about her husband to Oswald and Regina. Disturbed by this revelation and Oswald’s illness, Regina leaves to create a life for herself. Helen and Oswald wait for the sun to rise. As they wait, Oswald shares his plans to die by suicide by taking morphine pills. He had hoped to convince Regina to help him complete the act, and now he asks his mother to fulfill his wish. She reluctantly agrees. While the sun rises, Oswald begins to suffer from a neurological attack as Helen struggles to decide whether to follow through with Oswald’s plan.