Study Guide

Ghosts Guilt and Blame

By Henrik Ibsen

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Guilt and Blame

REGINA. Poor mother! you very soon tormented her into her grave.
ENGSTRAND. [With a twist of his shoulders.] Oh, of course! I'm to have the blame for everything. (1.43-44)

What does that twist of the shoulders mean? Does Regina actually get to him, or make him feel guilty? Or is he shrugging off her accusation?

MRS. ALVING. I had to bear it for my little boy's sake. But when the last insult was added; when my own servant-maid – ; then I swore to myself: This shall come to an end! (1.411)

Mrs. Alving is not above feeling shame at her husband's affair with her maid. She could stand his behavior as long as it wasn't staring her in the face. When she had to encounter his behavior in her own house, in the guise of someone socially beneath her, she had to do something about it.

MRS. ALVING. It seemed to me the child must be poisoned by merely breathing the air of this polluted home. (1.411)

Mrs. Alving thinks of guilt and sin as a contagious illness – she can stop it from spreading if she just keeps the healthy apart from the diseased. Who really has the disease, though? If Mrs. Alving had found a happy way to live with her husband, could Oswald have stayed home? Would Captain Alving still be alive? Would Oswald be well?

MANDERS. And it is to this man that you raise a memorial?
MRS. ALVING. There you see the power of an evil conscience. (1.414-415)

Since her husband's decline, Mrs. Alving has been driven almost entirely by the need to conceal the truth of his behavior. Her own guilt and fear motivates this final act – the memorial – which she believes will put her unease to rest.

MANDERS. Your conduct has been wholly inexcusable, Engstrand; and from this time forward I have done with you!
ENGSTRAND. [With a sigh.] Yes! I suppose there's no help for it.
MANDERS. How can you possibly justify yourself? (2.146-148)

Is that a sigh of remorse from Engstrand? That doesn't seem likely. Engstrand almost seems ready to give up on the Pastor. But the Pastor, needing Engstrand, gives him one last chance to explain himself.

MANDERS. Yes, that is just what we must talk about. What have you to answer?
ENGSTRAND. Why – a man's conscience – it can be bad enough now and then. (2.128-129)

Engstrand doesn't know what Manders is getting at yet, but buys time with this vague confession of guilt. He understands Manders's need for a congregation, and is always willing to come forward with a confession or two.

OSWALD. I have never led a dissipated life never, in any respect. You mustn't believe that of me, mother! I've never done that. (2.250)

Oswald is usually so independent and strong-willed. Why does he want to assure his mother of his innocence? Is it going to help him get what he wants from her?

OSWALD. [After a while, looks up and remains resting upon his elbow.] If it had only been something inherited – something one wasn't responsible for! But this! To have thrown away so shamefully, thoughtlessly, recklessly, one's own happiness, one's own health, everything in the world – one's future, one's very life – (2.280)

Almost more than the illness, Oswald is tortured by guilt and regret, believing as he does that he brought it on himself. While he defends the artist's way of life, he believes he is too weak to take part in it.

OSWALD. [Wanders restlessly about.] But it's all the torment, the gnawing remorse – and then, the great, killing dread. Oh – that awful dread! (2.334)

Oswald is caught between the past and the future. On the one hand, he's filled with second thoughts about the way he's lived. On the other, he sees certain death in his future, after a potentially long, humiliating decline.

MRS. ALVING. And now, my poor suffering boy, I am going to take the burden off your mind –
OSWALD. You, mother?
MRS. ALVING. – all the gnawing remorse and self-reproach you speak of. (3.104-6)

This is one of those sad moments in the play where Mrs. Alving thinks she's figured it out – only to have the rug pulled out from under her again. She almost believes she can heal Oswald by telling him the truth about his father. At least she can assure him that his illness isn't his fault. But what does it matter? Oswald is terminally ill.

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