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Mrs. Alving and Pastor Manders come in from dinner, still in shock. Oswald says he'll go out.
Wanting to get rid of Regina, Mrs. Alving sends her down to the laundry.
Manders and Mrs. Alving have an urgent chat.
What are they going to do? Mrs. Alving is sure Oswald isn't serious about Regina. She's just got to be sent away. But where?
To her father, suggests Pastor Manders. He then realizes that Engstrand is not her father. He feels particularly duped because he's the one who married Engstrand and Regina's mother.
Mrs. Alving compares Engstrand to herself: he married a fallen woman, and she married a fallen man. Her relatives totaled up just how rich a marriage to Captain Alving would make them. It was a lawful marriage, but maybe law and order account for all the misery in the world.
She regrets lying about Alving's behavior, and calls herself a coward. She wishes she had told Oswald the truth.
Pastor Manders warns that she can't do it. She has a duty, as Oswald's mother, to uphold a respectable image of Captain Alving.
What about the truth, she says? The truth is, she's a coward.
But anyway, she won't let him mess with Regina. At least not in an underhanded way. If he wanted to marry her, or make some other arrangement, she would be fine with that.
Pastor Manders can't believe what he hears. Is Mrs. Alving condoning incest?
Mrs. Alving explains that they're in the middle of nowhere, and that kind of thing isn't condemned the same way. Then she adds a controversial remark about God beginning the world that way.
Pastor Manders declines to debate with her and instead asks why she considers her behavior cowardly.
She's afraid of ghosts. And by ghosts, she means dead ideas still hanging around, exerting their influence, though the world has changed.
Pastor Manders blames those darn books.
Oh no, she replies. She says that she has the Pastor to thank for her new ideas. When he forced her to submit to the man she found utterly repulsive, she started to look more closely at the Pastor's doctrines. And it all fell apart.
Pastor Manders is affected. Is that what he gained in his life's hardest battle? He's proud that he resisted the temptation for her to stay.
In Mrs. Alving's opinion, turning her away was a crime against them both.
They don't understand each other.
Back to the Regina problem. What to do with her?
Engstrand enters, hoping the Pastor will come down and lead a prayer service at the just-completed orphanage. The Pastor is still miffed that Engstrand lied about getting Johanna (Regina's mom) pregnant. He interrogates the carpenter about the truth of Regina's origins.
Engstrand is quick to figure out the best way to get ahead: act penitent and apologetic to the Pastor. He also manages to spin the story of Regina's fall so that he sounds like a hero sacrificing his own honor to save her reputation.
Pastor Manders still can't tolerate the idea of him taking money to marry Johanna. Engstrand explains it away by saying it went to Regina's education.
Pastor Manders is taken in. He now expresses his admiration for Engstrand's behavior.
Engstrand gives his story a bold finish. He saved Johanna's soul but in his Christian humility didn't want to talk about it. Besides, when he meets the Pastor, he always has so many sins to confess…
Pastor Manders eats it up. The two men shake hands and the Pastor wonders: is there anything he can do to make up for misunderstanding Engstrand's motives?
Well, as a matter of fact there is. Engstrand wants to set up this sailor's home in town. Would the Pastor help him out a little?
The Pastor will definitely consider it. But Engstrand should get down to the Orphanage and light the candles for the prayer celebration. The Pastor will be right there.
After Engstrand leaves, Pastor Manders turns to Mrs. Alving. Wasn't that a different take on the story?
Oh yes, she says wryly. She calls Pastor Manders a big baby and threatens to kiss him.
He gets nervous, packs up his bag and leaves for the prayer service.
Mrs. Alving is alone – but is surprised to find Oswald still at the table in the next room. She wonders if he heard anything?
Mrs. Alving sits down with her knitting, occasionally hearing him clink the glass as he pours more alcohol for himself. Warning him against drinking too much, she asks him to come in to sit with her.
Oswald comes in, agitated. He's restless, bored, and annoyed by the weather. He can't work.
Maybe you shouldn't have come home, his mother suggests. She explains that she would sacrifice her happiness for his.
Oswald is surprised that she cares whether he's home or not. His mother seems to have been fine without him all these years.
Twilight falls, Oswald paces around, and eventually is ready to give her the bad news. He's not just tired: he's sick. His mind is broken, and he will never be able to work again. He doesn't know where it came from, because he's never led a dissipated life.
Mrs. Alving doesn't believe it can be as serious as he's saying.
Oswald describes his symptoms. First he had headaches: violent pains in the back of his neck. Then he discovered he couldn't concentrate on his work. He went to see a doctor. The verdict was that he was "worm-eaten" since birth.
(Ibsen doesn't say this explicitly, but what he's talking about here is hereditary syphilis. You can't inherit syphilis from your father, actually – but Ibsen is more interested in the metaphor than the hard science.)
When the doctor said that "the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children" (2.270), Oswald showed him Mrs. Alving's letters describing Captain Alving as morally upright.
Only then did the doctor agree that Oswald must have brought the illness on himself, through his own behavior.
Oswald despairs over the idea that he has thrown away his life by living in a free, unconfined way that has proven too much for him.
He's happy to be home with his mother – but wishes she didn't care so much for him. He doesn't want to talk more about it though. Won't she get him something to drink?
Oswald complains again about the rain. Mrs. Alving fears he'll go away again, but he dismisses that idea.
Regina comes in with champagne and a lamp.
Mrs. Alving says she can't deny Oswald anything now, which gives him just the opening he wants. It's about Regina. Mrs. Alving is wary.
Oswald confesses that Regina is his only hope. She's infatuated with him – she has been learning French because she wants to go to Paris – and Oswald wants to take her up on it.
When Regina enters, Oswald asks her to stay – and have a glass of champagne. Both Regina and Mrs. Alving are a little unsettled by this.
When Regina sits down, Oswald starts talking about the joy of life. It's the opposite of duty, which seems to govern everything here at home. Mrs. Alving listens with intense interest.
All of Oswald's painting has been inspired by the joy of life: people happy and laughing in the sunshine. Oswald is afraid that living at home will destroy all of that in him.
Something huge is happening in Mrs. Alving. She stands up, says she understands for the first time. And she will speak.
Just then, the Pastor enters, feeling good after the prayer service. He's shocked by what he hears: Oswald and Regina planning to marry; Mrs. Alving about to come out with the truth.
She's opening her mouth – and suddenly shouts are heard from the Orphanage. It's burning down.
Suddenly, it's the end of the act. But not before Pastor Manders delivers the semi-comic "And we left it uninsured!" (2.420).