In his play “Ghosts”, Ibsen forces the reader to think about his own ideas and believes, as well as those of society and past ages. Symbolism is one technique repeatedly used to portray the author’s ideas through rain, light, fire, the orphanage, Oswald, and through Engstrand himself. The use of religion is also interesting in the way the town people and Pastor Mander uses it.
There are many symbols present throughout Ibsen’s work. Rain is used as a symbol of the cleansing of evil and impurities. Outside of Mrs. Alving’s home it remains rainy and stormy until she faces the truth about her husband. The rain washes away the disguises so that the truth may be seen. Generally when this takes place the sun, another symbol, rises, revealing the reality of the situation. Mrs. Alving said, “And there we are, one and all, so pitifully afraid of the light” (271). All the characters are afraid to face reality, especially Mrs. Alving, represented by the light. Fire is yet another symbol Ibsen uses. When Oswald comes downstairs with Alving’s pipe, he recalls an incident when he was given a pipe in his youth. Young Oswald smoked until he became sick. This is a foreshadowing of his illness, another sickness caused by careless actions. Another example of fire is seen when the orphanage, built in honor of Alving, is burned (287). The fire creates a symbolism that represents the truth, rising quickly and devouring all illusions. However, when the fire is extinguished, the fantasy world is up in smoke and all that remains are the painful ashes of the past.
The orphanage is used as a subtle symbol for the illusion created by Mrs. Alving. The brothel, Captain Alving’s Home, symbolizes the reality of his life. In the end however, the truth is made known about both by the burning of the orphanage (287), and the brothel taking its place. These two actions illustrate the awakening from illusion to reality in the play. Oswald can also be seen as a main symbol. He is ignorant of the truth, giving him a false sense of innocence. He seems to have some power to stand up for his own beliefs, something his mother lacks. Oswald, is used to represent the truth of his situation which is hidden in is past. His illness and his wanting to die illustrate this idea. A final symbol used throughout the play is that of Engstrand. He represents society as a whole. Engstrand has a crippled leg; yet he says about his ethics he has “two good legs to stand on” (277). Society is very much like this. It seems to be solid and stable but has weak foundations. Society will never completely heal or lose its flaws, nor will Engstrand.
Religion plays a major role in the everyday lives of the townspeople. The members of this community do not have not have the same direct contact with their God as the members of the ancient Greek world, but reach their God through a divine person (Pastor Manders). In this way, the society presented is further away from the Holy Spirit, but closer to the priest. This gave the priest enormous power as he was a “Pathway to Heaven” for his congregation (265). This may be seen in Pastor Mander’s obsessions of how he is perceived by the people who entrust him. His power is illustrated during his discussion with Mrs. Alving over whether or not the orphanage should be insured or not. “You see! In town, we have a great many such people. Followers of other denominations. People might very easily come to the conclusion that neither you nor I have sufficient trust in the ordinance of the Higher Power” (254). The orphanage is to be raised in Captain Alving’s honor, yet it’s his own reputation which Manders is worried about. Mrs. Alving’s name is just mentioned to obscure the obvious reason for saying this. This illustrates how the church was used for personal achievements, and not only to reach divine sanctity. The common people’s conduct is also an important is also in important mirror in how the religion permeates the society in this drama. Mrs. Alving has been living on her own, unbounded from society and regulations. She has become a free-thinker, commonly reading books that are not sociably accepted. Manders response to this, reflects the attitude of the time by saying, “Remember the duty you owe to this orphanage which you decided to found at a time which your attitude towards spiritual matters was quite different from what it is now- as far as I can judge” (253). In the society Ibsen creates, it is not God’s role to judge, but that of Manders and the other members of society.
Many ideas are presented in Ibsen’s play “Ghosts.” The use of symbolism, such as rain, light, fire, and characters illustrate various concepts involved throughout the play. Religion, and the misconceptual use of it by Manders and society, also illustrates the unusual scenes painted by Ibsen within the play.