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Mrs. Alving is intelligent and curious. She's a middle-aged woman, and there's no sense of being settled, no complacency with her. With her restless mind, she's always on the prowl for new ideas. She reminds us of Ibsen's other famously dissatisfied women, Nora (from A Doll's House) and Hedda (from Hedda Gabler). Mrs. Alving is those girls all grown up: she's Nora if she had stayed with her husband; Hedda if she hadn't taken her life. Mrs. Alving has had twenty more years to think about things, and she's still thinking.
There are so many moments when Mrs. Alving's contemplative nature shows itself in the text. She's a big listener. When Pastor Manders and Oswald argue about the true definition of marriage, Mrs. Alving is quiet. Only once Oswald has left does she pipe up with her surprising verdict: "I say that Oswald was right in every word" (1.349). She listens silently as Engstrand wheedles Manders into believing his version of the Johanna story. She listens to her son talk about his life in Paris, and, connecting his words to her husband, makes one of the biggest discoveries of her life. The stage directions make a big deal out of it: Mrs. Alving, "[who has been listening eagerly, rises, her eyes big with thought, and says:] Now I see the sequence of things" (1.386).
As the protagonist in an Ibsen play, Mrs. Alving carries the burden of exploring two opposing philosophies. There's the Life of Duty as espoused by Pastor Manders, and there's the Life of Personal Freedom, defended by Oswald. In Act 1, Mrs. Alving is resolutely in the Duty camp. She has sacrificed her life to this ideal, sticking with a husband who didn't treat her very well, sending her son away to preserve him, protecting her husband's reputation. When she confesses the truth to Pastor Manders he reassures her that she's done the right thing, almost congratulating her on her suffering: "You have indeed had a life of trial" (1.412). There's a part of Mrs. Alving that enjoys her martyrdom a bit too much.
In the Act 2, Mrs. Alving is ping-ponging between the two perspectives of duty and truth. She's nervous and frenetic after confronting Oswald's infatuation with Regina. She's realizing that social conformity has motivated her behavior to a great degree, and that scares her. Yet she's not ready to part with the role of protective mother. When she considers telling Oswald the truth about his father, Pastor Manders advises against it:
MANDERS. Is there no voice in your mother's heart that forbids you to destroy your son's ideals?
MRS. ALVING. But what about the truth?
MANDERS. But what about the ideals?
MRS. ALVING. Oh – ideals, ideals! If only I were not such a coward! (2.57-60)
What enables her to open up to Oswald is his revelation of the "joy of life" idea – personal freedom. He contrasts life in the sunny, life-loving South (Paris) with life here in dour Norway and confesses, "I'm afraid lest all my instincts should be warped into ugliness" (2.383). Suddenly it's light bulb time: Mrs. Alving can reveal the truth about Captain Alving while preserving her son's respect for him. She shares her discovery in Act 3. While she has considered Captain Alving her oppressor, suddenly she sees herself as the perpetrator. She helped squash her husband's free spirit:
Your poor father found no outlet for the overpowering joy of life that was in him. And I brought no brightness into his home…They had taught me a great deal about duties and so forth, which I went on obstinately believing in. Everything was marked out into duties – into my duties, and his duties, and – I am afraid I made his home intolerable for your poor father, Oswald. (3.120-122)
Now Mrs. Alving is almost totally in the "personal freedom" camp – and at the cost of reinterpreting her whole life. Mrs. Alving believes that she is a coward, but it seems courageous for her to rewrite her history, especially with herself as the villain. She redefines herself. She learns. Once she has outgrown the staid, conventional ideas of her old flame, Pastor Manders, she banishes him. Did you notice that he hardly appears in the Act 3 at all? He's almost becomes a joke.
Even after Mrs. Alving has made all these personal discoveries and reconciled herself to her past, the play still doesn't have a happy ending. A real and terrible challenge is still to come.
Mrs. Alving thinks of herself as a mother. When Oswald comes home, she tries to make up for lost time by coddling and flattering him. He finds it suffocating:
MRS. ALVING. [Beaming with delight.] I know one who has kept both his inner and his outer self unharmed. Just look at him, Mr. Manders.
OSWALD. [Moves restlessly about the room.] Yes, yes, my dear mother; let's say no more about it. (1.267-268)
There must be some part of Mrs. Alving that congratulates herself for saving Oswald from the evil influence of her husband – until she finds out about Oswald's illness. Then, taking Mrs. Alving's earlier logic a bit farther, you could say that Oswald's sickness back to her. If she hadn't been so oppressive to her husband, perhaps he wouldn't have strayed, wouldn't have gotten syphilis, wouldn't have passed it to his son? Perhaps her adherence to duty is actually what kills Oswald.
Mrs. Alving is devastated when Oswald reveals that he doesn't love his father or, by implication, her. This idea of filial duty is just an old convention that doesn't make sense to him anymore:
OSWALD. Yes; surely you can see that, mother. It's one of those notions that are current in the world, and so –
MRS. ALVING. [Deeply moved.] Ghosts!
OSWALD. [Crossing the room.] Yes; you may call them ghosts.
MRS. ALVING. [Wildly.] Oswald – then you don't love me, either! (3.171-174)
Mrs. Alving sustains a number of shocks in the play, but this one is particularly painful. She's sacrificed her life to this boy, sticking with her husband to provide some image of stability, preserving a fatherly ideal Oswald could look up to, and missing out on the joy of raising her own child. This is the thanks she gets? Mrs. Alving is learning the hard way that being a slave to duty – doing things because you think you should – may not earn the rewards you are expecting.
When Oswald asks his mother to put him to death, he's saying: stop being a Mom. He questions the whole concept of "Mom" as she understands it. He doesn't love her, he doesn't get why she loves him, and he wants her to take back the life she's given him. In asking this of her, Oswald breaks up the last "ghost" that has kept Mrs. Alving trapped in unhappiness. As she tells Pastor Manders in Act 2, a ghost is "not only what we have inherited from our father and mother…It is all sorts of dead ideas, and lifeless old beliefs" (2.85). Ideas of obligation, putting a good face on things, and family are all ideas that she puts to rest. The downside – or the upside, depending on how you see it – is that dispelling the ghosts leaves her entirely alone.
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