The "Flawed" Tragic Structure of Ibsen's Ghosts

       Aristotelian logic, which dictates elements of tragedy including tragic mistake, recognition, and reversal, would struggle to categorically define Henrik Ibsen's play Ghosts as tragic, because of its ambiguous ending. After the curtain falls on the final scene, it is unclear exactly what transpires in the lives of the story's protagonists. The question of exactly what Mrs. Alving does with the morphine pills Osvald had asked her to give him should his disease attack his brain, is an open-ended one. There are a few possibilities as to the ultimate outcome for the characters, and clearly Ibsen knew what he was doing when he left his play seemingly unfinished, with one of its more pressing questions unanswered. Were one to examine just what these possibilities might be, one would have to keep in mind the elements of Mrs. Alving's character, and her background, which would invariably influence her ultimate decision concerning whether or not to administer the morphine to her son and end his life as he'd requested.

       One of the more predictable outcomes would be for Mrs. Alving to simply give her son the morphine, as he had asked her. Overcome by the syphilis that had slowly ravaged his mind and body since his childhood, Osvald by the end of the play has degenerated into a vegetative state, and would have no purpose left in life, except possibly to become a burden to his mother. Mrs. Alving could easily give him the pills and painlessly end his suffering at last. In addition, she could in a way, end her own suffering, because Osvald would have been her last ghost ... the last tie to painful memories and sorrowful reminders of a life she would have preferred to have lead differently. With Osvald's death, she could begin again, having severed the hold the past had on her.

       The second possibility is that Mrs. Alving could do just the opposite, that is, withhold the morphine from Osvald. He wouldn't have realized it, because his mind would have ceased to function normally at that point. It's entirely likely that as a mother, Mrs. Alving wouldn't be able to kill her own son, even though he no longer resembled her child.

       But a more dramatically intriguing and perplexing ending would be if Mrs. Alving were to do neither. Rather, it might create interesting drama if she took the pills herself and ended her own life. That way, she wouldn't have to worry about her destitution after losing everything in the orphanage fire, nor would she need concern herself with taking care of her dying son. She would have not only taken care of the ghosts that had haunted her for so long, but she would have empowered herself in one final act of defiance against a society and a life that had tied her down and stifled her for so many years.

       Society is a key factor in defining Mrs. Alving's character and her role in Ghosts. The comparison has been made to Nora in Ibsen's A Doll's House, with one significant difference: Nora left her marriage, whereas Mrs. Alving knew that she should have, but didn't. If she had done so, it's blatantly clear that her life would have turned out much differently, and almost certainly for the better. Although it is clear to the viewer that the entire play centers mainly around the tragic nature of Mrs. Alving's life and how it has been wasted, the actual tragedy of the story comes into play most poignantly at the moment of her tragic realization. This realization, an awareness of the fact that not only did she make a mistake by not leaving her husband all those years ago, but also that it is now too late for her to ever have any chance for true personal happiness, doesn't even occur until the final scene. In the last few moments of the play, Mrs. Alving realizes what poor decisions she has made throughout the years, all leading toward one catastrophic, tragic summation.

       In accordance with Aristotle's dictates, Mrs. Alving does, in fact, experience a tragic reversal. However, unlike many tragedies, it occurs extremely late in the play, and doesn't give a lot of time to sink into the plot. It is only when the sun has finally risen in the last scene, ending the one, long day in which the entire play took place, and Osvald's mind has completely broken down, that Mrs. Alving experiences her reversal. Having realized that the course of her life has led her to this moment, she becomes aware of the fact that there is nothing left for her now. Her finances are all gone, any chance at love is long since gone, the orphanage has burned down, and her son is dying before her, having already experienced mental and spiritual death. This woman simply has nothing left to live for, and no reason to continue her existence. While it follows logic that she might just administer the morphine to Osvald and end his misery, it's more plausible when keeping all these factors in mind that she takes the pills herself and ends her own misery.

       In addition to the simple and recognizable desire to escape a meaningless existence, the argument for Mrs. Alving's suicide is further fueled by the fact that at no point in this play or in the events that occurred before it began did she ever once have complete control over her life. She was in a loveless marriage, and had tried to leave, but Pastor Manders had persuaded her not to give up on her husband, so she stayed. She had also been in love with Manders, but had not pursued that avenue either, at his urging. Religious and moral conventions of a rigidly patriarchal society had kept her from living her life as her own, wresting control of it away from her in nearly every aspect. If she were to kill herself at the end of the play, instead of euthanizing her son, it would be equivalent to one last stab at the world which had controlled her for so long, instead of the other way around. She would be staging one final act of defiance, finally regaining the control she had sought for so many years.

       In light of this unconventional and less-than-obvious possibility, is Ghosts still a tragedy, by Aristotle's measure? The protagonist is dead, and her son is undoubtedly not far behind. The lives of the surviving characters are mostly in ruins, with the possible exception of Engstrand, and it appears that no objectives have been accomplished, no goals have been realized, no satisfactory conclusion has been reached. The main character experienced a tragic mistake, recognition of that mistake, and tragic reversal . . . but if she kills herself, does the play truly succeed as a tragedy? If one considers this ending from the point of view of a triumphant-at-long-last Mrs. Alving, the answer is no, there is no actual tragedy. A tragic figure must be left alive at the end of his or her tragedy, so that he or she can fully realize and be aware of the great misfortune that has befallen him or her. A tragedy leaves its protagonist alive, and often alone, to contemplate life and its newfound miseries. But were Mrs. Alving to die, she would have won her battle with fate. True, certain tragic circumstances would be irrevocable and disturbing, but Mrs. Alving would have in effect cheated tragedy by succumbing to death by her own hand.

       Herein lies the great dramatic irony. Mrs. Alving is dead, but she has escaped the stigma of a tragic figure. The viewer knows, as she does, that she should have avoided the entire situation in the first place by leaving her husband when she had the chance, but her misguided choice ultimately leaves her a martyr. In addition to lashing out against conventional, straitlaced society here, Ibsen is also trying to impart a hard-learned lesson. Much mention is made of trusting in God and providence in this play. But this emphasis is used to specifically undermine the idea that one should trust one's own judgement and instincts. Ibsen is not saying that God should not be trusted, but he is saying that one should trust one's intuition. Because Mrs. Alving fell back on convention and heeded Manders' advice all those years ago, instead of going with her own instincts and trusting what was in her heart, she committed her tragic mistake, which slowly led to the tragic events highlighted by the action of the play.

       Ibsen's own view of tragic realization lies in his answer to Aristotle's and Grecian society's concept of Fate. Ibsen believes that because the past can neither be changed nor amended, it will have retribution on the present and the future. Ibsen is clearly saying that it is very important to live in the present, in the "now," as opposed to either dwelling on the past or looking blindly forward to the future. Every choice that one makes must be made to count, and every moment must be appreciated. The only alternative is to live a life haunted by ghosts.

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