In his essay on tragedy, Arthur Miller once wrote “the tragic feeling is evoked in us when we are in the presence of a character who is ready to lay down his life, if need be, to secure one thing–his sense of personal dignity.” This insightful view of the common man’s ability to be a tragic hero is emblematic of the female protagonist, Mrs. Alving, in Henrik Ibsen’s controversial drama Ghosts. In her fight to pull her family together and become the archetypal wife Mrs.
Alving learns of life’s tragedies- she loses everything she loves and all she has built in the name of dignity.
Regardless of the deleterious internal effects on her psyche, Mrs. Alving protects and uphold her values. She respects marriage; she knew her husband was unfaithful, yet Mrs. Alving did not end the relationship as she wanted to uphold her matrimonial vows. She recalls “soon after, I heard Alving come in too. I heard him say something softly to her.
And then I heard – oh! it still sounds in my ears, so hateful and yet so ludicrous – I heard my own servant-maid whisper, ‘Let me go, Mr. Alving! Let me be!’” (1.405). Though she fights to understand the truth, she has nobly held her tongue to save her boy and let her husband die honorably.
Although she believes it is a bad idea to leave the newly built orphanage uninsured, she protects Manders from public indignation by complying with his anti insurance idea; this becomes a regrettable decision when the orphanage burns down. She still respects Manders’ ability to function under the laws of society, but when he makes note of the ignominious progressive books she has been reading Mrs. Alving becomes defensive. She explains, “here, in my loneliness, I have come to the same way of thinking, Pastor Manders. But I have never dared to say anything” (1.351). While she has a strong belief in progressive ideas, Mrs. Alving would never shame her family by outwardly expressing them.
Mrs. Alving respects her family enough to realize they will be hurt if she does not hold everything together. She imparts only fond memories of Mr. Alving to her son Oswald and reminds him of the familial ties which they must live by. As Oswald refers to his father saying, “and yet he managed to do so much in the world; so much that was good and useful; although he died so early” the reader realizes how delusional his vision of his father is (1.295).
Deeply obliged to both her son and her late husband, Mrs. Alving fights to cover up the truth of her marriage and provide the best for her son, striving to protect his innocence and morality. She believes she can save her son from anything, though as her marital situation worsened she could not bear the thought of keeping her son in such an environment, she explains “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). She did not want him to suffer from the actions of his father, thus she sends him abroad.
Continually fighting to protect those around her, Mrs. Alving only hurts herself in the process. She invites Captain Alving’s lovechild, Regina, to live and work in their home to ensure she receives a fair education. It is only later that she becomes aware of her son and Regina’s relations- an incestual relationship made possible by Mrs. Alving’s kindness to the young Regina by letting her live in their home. In behaving under the societal guidelines and ignoring her husband’s despicable actions, Mrs. Alving only pushed him further away. The absence of a faithful husband created a perpetual loneliness in Mrs. Alving and though she found peace of mind in sending her son Oswald abroad, his absence devastated her and their relationship would never be repaired.
Plagued by the internal guilt of her husband’s unfaithfulness, Mrs. Alving concludes that their environment pushed her to become the societal façade of a wife. By viewing life through society’s vantage point, Mrs Alving became a dutiful wife, who unfortunately fell into the mechanic motions of a wife’s day-to-day duties. Upon realizing her fault, she apologizes to her son saying, “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”(3.122). Mrs. Alving sees how she added to her husband’s unhappiness and thus tries to make up for his wrongdoings. She dedicates the orphanage to him, even though he was unfaithful to her. She believes in showing respect, and making sure her husband is remembered in the light which others knew him. She believes she will have fixed everything once she rids herself and her family of the true memories of her husband.
The morality of society’s ability to coerce the family unit to function under traditionally acceptable conditions has been questioned throughout history. Henrik Ibsen enables his readers to become aware of the horrible truths that lie behind closed doors in his contentious 1881 Norwegian drama, Ghosts. Mrs. Alving suffers from the conflict between the external pressures of society battling what she believes is moral. Her societal training has taught her how to gracefully handle any situation- sweep your troubles under the rug and wait for them to creep out when you are most vulnerable.
The tragic events she faces throughout this play result in the domino effect which stems from the intricate web of society-pleasing lies she has spun since marrying Captain Alving. Eventually Mrs. Alving comes to the understanding that societal dignity is not a panacea; one’s ability to complete the tasks of a dutiful wife will not save a marriage, will not show a child love, nor will it create a fairytale ending. Mrs. Alving does not live happily ever after, rather she is left isolated. She will continue on in her dignified lonesome state of living.