In his play Ghosts, Henrik Ibsen poses the question of whether objective morality exists. Morality defines right and wrong through the lenses of religion, culture, class, and philosophy—lenses that offer differently nuanced approaches to ethical dilemmas. In Ghosts, Ibsen argues that objective morality does not exist and that humans create their own morality based on their subjective experiences.
The play centers Helen Alving as the key figure undergoing a moral dilemma. A devoted mother and successful businesswoman, Helen welcomes her son Oswald back into her home after a long absence and questions the past choices that have fractured their relationship. Through her reconciliation with Oswald, Helen rejects the conventional life she has led, which silenced her from exposing the truth of her husband’s infidelities to Oswald. Throughout the play, Helen engages in philosophical debate with her old friend, former love interest, and business partner Pastor Manders about her growing resentment of the social conventions that bound her to duty and honor toward her disloyal husband. Manders attempts to impose a belief in Christian objective morality onto Helen by reminding her of a woman’s sacrificial duty. Yet, confronted by Oswald’s unhappiness and suffering, Helen sees that her choice to abide by religious absolutes blinded her to the deleterious effects of her silence on Oswald.