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Ibsen’s Ghost: A Modern Tragedy

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Ibsen’s Ghost: A Modern Tragedy

Edith Hamilton, in the Greek Way wrote, “Isben’s plays are not tragedies. Whether Isben is a realist or not, small souls are his dramatist personae, and his plays are dramas with an unhappy ending. The end of Ghosts leaves us with a sense of shuddering horror and cold anger towards a society where such things can be, and those are not tragic feelings.” Although Hamilton is an exceptionally talented historical researcher, it seems as though Ghosts is indeed a tragedy, even though she assumes otherwise. Even when the play was written, people discussed what type of play it actually was. People debated how to categorize the play because it had features of different kinds of drama. For example, certain critics consider it a satire of which it is an endightment of the their time of day. However the author himself refused to disclose to his readers his motivation, or even his opinion of the characters. He left it up to the readers’ interpretation. A reading of the play reveals many features consistent of Ghosts being a modern tragedy. In his Poetics (325 B.C.), Aristotle defines tragedy as “incidents arousing pity and fear” (Chapter 9), which is precisely what Isben achieves through Ghosts when one analyzes its distinguished characters. Several of the characters in Ghosts inspire fear and evoke pity. In this sense, Ghosts, by Isben can be considered a tragedy.

Ghosts is the epitome of a tragedy, for the reason that it encompasses the very ideals of one. In Aristotle’s Poetics he defines tragedy as

“an imitation not only of a complete action, but also of incidents arousing pity

and fear. Such incidents have the very greatest effect on the mind when they

occur unexpectedly and at the same time in consequence of one another;

there is more of the marvelous in them than if they happened themselves or by

mere chance.” (Chapter 9)

Ibsen embraced these standards through the development of his characters when he wrote Ghosts. Mrs. Alving and Pastor Manders are two such characters that incorporate these ideas by their lives.

The play is set on the day before the orphanage is to be dedicated to the memory of the late Lieutenant Alving. Ten years have passed since the Lieutenant died, and his widow has decided to build an orphanage in his honor, or so it would appear. The Alving’s son Oswald returns from his studies for the occasion. Throughout the course of a day, one by the one the characters appear. The play essentially opens with Regine and her supposed father Mr. Engstrage requesting with her to work for him at the sailor saloon he wishes to open, but she refuses to take part in the matter. Following their dialogue, Pastor Manders enters and has an argument with Oswald in his home. Next the reader is introduced to Mrs. Alving when she and Pastor Manders begin a discussion with each other. The drama intensifies as the characters begin to reveal their true thoughts and attitudes. Oswald is a young man who has been living in Paris developing his artistic abilities and at the same time developing his belief in freedom of expression. At his house, he encounters Pastor Manders, and the two have an argument with each other. Pastor Manders then goes on to rebuke Mrs. Alving for raising such an opinionated and disrespectful boy. This leads into a long discussion between the two in which Mrs. Alving reveals the true nature of her late husband. She shows him that he was not the righteous man that everyone thought he was, which accounts for the reason as to why Mrs. Alving left him in their marriage. Pastor Manders, being shocked by this revelation, realizes that he had misjudged her ever since he knew her. Also during this day, Oswald and Regine realize that they find love in one another, but are shocked when Mrs. Alving reveals their true connection to one another: they are brother and sister through an affair that Mr. Alving had with a servant girl. Events only worsen hereafter. Pastor Manders burns down Mrs. Alving’s orphanage, to which he cleverly hides his involvement in the matter, and Oswald tragically plunges through a series of short events that one suspects will lead to his demise. The play concludes with Oswald pleading with his mother to give him pills to help him end his life. The reader is left unsure of what Mrs. Alving will do.

Mrs. Alving is a supreme example of a woman who one cannot help but pity when they are presented with her life as one of grim resignation. Her life was based on a sense of duty she had to societies’ expectations. She even says, “All my life I’d been taught a great deal about duty- that seemed the all important thing. Everything was reduced to a question of duty…” (Act

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