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The stage directions tell us we're in Mrs. Alving's country house next to a large fjord in Western Norway. A fjord is a steep inlet cut into the land by glaciers. Check out this picture of a fjord. The important thing, though, is that we're in the middle of nowhere.
We get some more stage directions of which we should take note. (Stage directions are important to Ibsen. He uses them to drop clues about characters and themes.)
The majority of the play takes place in a big garden-room. There are three doors leading out to other rooms. A round table is in the middle of the room, with the books, periodicals and newspapers that Mrs. Alving has been reading. (Watch out for Pastor Manders to get after her about her reading material.) There's a little sofa and worktable where Mrs. Alving keeps her knitting – she's part-intellectual, part-homemaker. Behind this room is a conservatory or greenhouse with the walls all made of glass. Through it we can see a rainy landscape. The weather in Norway is often rainy and gray.
Engstrand enters. He's a carpenter and has a bad left leg. He wears a sort of platform shoe to compensate.
The maid Regina has a garden syringe (for watering plants) in her hand, and she threatens him with it. She doesn't want him to drip water all over the room or make noise. The young master of the house, Oswald, is sleeping upstairs.
Engstrand tells Regina he's leaving for town. He's finished up the work on the new orphanage here and he doesn't want to be around for the party. He has an alcohol problem and doesn't want to tempt it.
Goodbye and good riddance, says Regina.
But it's not that easy. Engstrand wants her to come with him to town. She's not interested. But she should have respect for her father and do what he says, argues Engstrand. Regina reminds him that he's cursed her and tried to get rid of her many times before. Why does he want her in town now?
Engstrand reveals that he has a new business proposition. He's saved a lot of money from this orphanage job and he wants to use it to establish a sailor's home – only for the best people, of course. He wants Regina to come work there.
Doing what, Regina asks.
Engstrand says that he wants her to be singing, dancing, generally being a "petticoat" around the place. Yeah – you've got the idea. Engstrand's Sailor's House is really a brothel.
Engstrand asks Regina to consider whether she'll like taking care of kids at the orphanage. Probably not – but that's not what she has in mind. And she definitely has something in mind. Can't he give her a little of the money he's saved to buy a new dress?
He says he can't do that, but he'll buy her dresses if she comes to work for him. And besides, she won't have to stick with him for long. She could hitch up with a first mate or a captain.
Regina says that she's not interested in marrying a sailor. They have no savoir vivre. (Regina drops a lot of French in this scene – she's been learning it for a reason. Savoir vivre roughly translates in English as "to know how to live." So, Regina might be saying that sailors don't know how to live, or maybe even that they don't know about life.)
Engstrand never said anything about marrying. She can do it just like her mother, who got money from an Englishman with a yacht.
That's Regina's hot button. She runs Engstrand out of the room, but not before he accuses her of crushing on Oswald.
Regina tidies up in the mirror, and Pastor Manders enters wearing an overcoat, carrying an umbrella and with a small traveling bag.
Regina is happy to see him. He's happy to see her. They talk weather while Regina helps him take off his wet things.
Pastor Manders uses Regina to bring himself up to speed. Preparations for the dedication of the orphanage? Underway. Mrs. Alving? Upstairs. Oswald? Arrived last night.
Regina again argues for the necessity of quiet for delicate young Oswald.
Pastor Manders gets comfortable in the armchair. He looks at Regina. She's become a woman.
They have a chat about Regina's father, Engstrand. Pastor Manders encourages her to live with him in town. Regina makes an excuse about Mrs. Alving needing her here. And besides, she doesn't think it's appropriate to keep house for a single man. Now maybe if the man were really respectable, she would agree.
Whoa, is Regina hitting on Pastor Manders?
He seems to think that she is and gets uncomfortable, asking for Mrs. Alving.
When Regina leaves the room, Pastor Manders looks at the reading material on the table. He is not pleased.
Mrs. Alving enters and welcomes the Pastor. But where's his suitcase? He responds awkwardly that he's staying at the Inn. She teases him for not wanting to stay at her house overnight.
The conversation turns to Oswald, who has returned from Paris and plans to stay all winter.
Pastor Manders is surprised, but glad to see that his artistic life hasn't turned him away from his
Mrs. Alving and Pastor Manders are about to get down to business. But Pastor Manders can't resist inquiring about Mrs. Alving's books. They're a little progressive for his taste. (We never find out exactly what the books are.)
Mrs. Alving says these books have made her more comfortable because they've affirmed things she's been thinking on her own. What exactly does Pastor Manders have a problem with?
Well, he hasn't read them. But he's read about them. And there are many times in life when other people's opinions of things are what matter. And besides, even if you like reading this stuff – you don't have to talk about it.
Right, right, says Mrs. Alving. Let's get down to business: the orphanage.
Pastor Manders takes out the legal papers for the Orphanage to be called "Captain Alving's Foundation." Mrs. Alving has a long look. This is obviously a big moment for her.
Mrs. Alving wants him to keep the papers and be in charge of the Foundation's affairs.
Pastor Manders has a final question for her, one he's been putting off for a while. Should the orphanage be insured?
Of course, says Mrs. Alving.
Pastor Manders fears that insuring the orphanage will make it look as if they have no faith in god. He fears public opinion. He fears attacks on himself. He fears them so much that he convinces Mrs. Alving to go without insurance.
All right, she says. But if anything happens, it's over. She won't make up the damage.
Well, it's settled then, says Pastor Manders. No insurance.
Mrs. Alving tells Pastor Manders that there was almost a fire where Engstrand works. He's careless with matches.
Pastor Manders argues that Engstrand is working on self-improvement. He told the Pastor so himself.
Mrs. Alving is skeptical.
Remembering Engstrand's request, Pastor Manders asks Mrs. Alving if she would she release Regina to go live with Engstrand?
Never. Never never never. Mrs. Alving is adamant about it.
Oswald comes downstairs. He has his dad's pipe in his mouth. He greets the Pastor and teases him about disapproving of the artist's life.
Pastor Manders is good-natured. The Pastor has seen positive reviews in the papers and knows that Oswald has done well for himself. There hasn't been as much press lately, though.
Pastor Manders thinks he looks like Captain Alving with the pipe. Mrs. Alving insists he takes after her. She's not OK with this comparison and asks Oswald to get rid of the pipe.
Oswald remembers smoking the pipe as a little boy. He threw up; he father was laughing and his mother was crying. Did his dad always play practical jokes like that?
Manders remembers Captain Alving as full of the joy of life. Oswald marvels that he got so much done in his short life.
It's a Captain Alving love fest, with Mrs. Alving noticeably silent.
Mrs. Alving changes the subject to how glad she is that Oswald will be at home for a while. She and Pastor Manders argue about whether he went out into the world too soon.
Mrs. Alving thinks it was good for him to grow up fast. Pastor Manders claims he's never had a chance to see a proper home.
Oswald begs to differ: he's seen lots of proper homes among artists in Paris. The couples may not be married, but –
What?!! Shocking. When it comes to the topic of cohabitation, Pastor Manders is conservative.
Pastor Manders turns to Mrs. Alving, expecting her to agree with him that living together without marriage is wrong.
But Oswald interrupts. He's spent a lot of time in these households and has never seen an immoral thing there. He has seen immorality in Paris, when a respectable husband comes down to slum it among artists and treats everyone like a whore.
Oswald excites himself into a headache. He wants to go for a walk before dinner.
Pastor Manders can't believe what he's just heard. Again he turns to Mrs. Alving.
She confesses that she shares Oswald's point of view. She's never had the courage to admit it – now her son will speak for her.
Pastor Manders must be angry. It's sermon time. He will speak to everyone gathered at the ceremony tomorrow, but tonight he wants to speak to her alone.
Oswald leaves to go on a walk.
First, Pastor Manders wants to take her on a trip down memory lane. Less than a year after marriage, Mrs. Alving left her husband and fled to Pastor Manders.
She reminds him of how miserable she was and how dissolute her husband was.
Pastor Manders thinks she should have taken it upon herself to reform him, instead of abandoning him. And besides, by seeking refuge with the Pastor, she endangered his reputation. Thankfully he had the moral strength to turn her out, and send her back to her husband.
And look how it all turned out, continues the Pastor. Captain Alving changed his ways and did all sorts of good works in the area, according to Pastor Manders.
But he's not through with her yet. She's a bad mother, too. Just as she abandoned her husband, she sent away her son out of sheer selfishness. And look how he has turned out.
It's Mrs. Alving's turn to talk. There are just a few small things she'd like to set straight.
Number one, Pastor Manders doesn't know a darn thing about her life. From the night she fled to him, he never again set foot in her house. Number two: Captain Alving died just as dissolute (read: drunk, womanizing, syphilitic) as he lived. And she tolerated it. For almost twenty years.
Manders can't believe it. How could she keep his bad behavior secret for that long?
Mrs. Alving used all her will to protect his reputation so that Oswald's life wouldn't be ruined.
But there was a last straw.
Captain Alving had an affair with the maid, and she got pregnant. When that happened, Mrs. Alving took control of everything. And she sent Oswald away. She lived without him so that he wouldn't be polluted by his father's presence.
Why, asks Pastor Manders, is she raising a memorial to such a man?
To quiet, once and for all, any rumors about Captain Alving. And so that Oswald won't inherit a dime of his money. It's all going to the estate. Oswald will inherit everything from her, and her alone.
And here he comes. Oswald can't go on a walk because it's raining.
Regina comes in with a package for Mrs. Alving, and Oswald follows her back out.
It's the choir parts for tomorrow. As Mrs. Alving is opening them, and relishing the end of this long saga with her dead husband, a sound comes from the next room. It's Regina and Oswald, flirting.
Ghosts! Says Mrs. Alving.
And Pastor Manders puts it together: Regina is Captain Alving daughter.