The following article is reprinted from Henrik Ibsen: The Man and His Plays. Montrose J. Moses. New York: Mitchell Kennerley, 1908. pp. 344-379.
It was after the publication of A Doll's House, and while consternation reigned supreme in conservative households over this bold and daring declaration of feminine independence, that a Swedish lady is said to have written across her luncheon invitations, "You are politely requested not to discuss Ibsen's new play." Yet it has been torn to tatters and everyone advances a theory based upon personal prejudice. After all is said, we cannot but feel that it is of no material difference to us that Ibsen refused to answer the question: Did Nora return? The significant fact was that an assertive answer, in the form of definite action, was given to the question: Shall a wife remain a puppet and be a slave to her husband's selfish aims?
In Peer Gynt, The League of Youth, and Pillars of Society, we may follow the evolution of Nora; in all of the plays up to the final act of A Doll's House, we have recognized the sacrificing woman. But Ibsen's "third empire" could no longer hold the idea of the feminine, without individuality; it could no more allow the family to be founded upon such unequal and such a false relationship, than it could allow society to elevate a blatant climber, like Stensgard, or a deplorable Pillar of Society, like Consul Bernick. Once started on this question of marriage, Ibsen takes the obverse and reverse view of the picture. It was necessary for Nora to proclaim her rights; for if she had not, well--Ibsen wrote Ghosts instead of answering the question.
In the fall of 1877, Ibsen heard of his father's death; he had thought, during his visit to Norway, of going to Skien, but he was thoroughly disinclined to come in contact or in collision, as he expressed it, with tendencies foreign to his nature. Whatever others might think, he could not subject himself to this state of things. He wrote his uncle, Christian Paus, to that effect, sending him a portrait of the nephew who must have changed in twenty-seven years. Ibsen was now nearing fifty, and after a prospective trip to Italy he was thinking of permanently settling himself in Christiania, since it was necessary for Sigurd to return; but he knew that he would not find there the fibre of the great world--"liberty of thought and a wide view of things." This doubt held him back.
He and his family remained in Italy for about a year, beginning in the fall of 1878. His life in Rome was a quiet one, but he was comfortably fixed, and he was purchasing old paintings at very low prices, indeed, so low that he boasted he might be able to sell them at thrice their value. The art lover struggled against his antipathy toward "unemployed capital" of any kind; with these and more he would buy, he might decorate a house in Munich where he would return. He saw much of the artist life during the winter. This was all very pleasant to him, and at one time he thought of sending Sigurd back to Munich, where he was at school, himself remaining in Rome. But Ibsen needed to come in contact with German literary life, and besides, he regarded Munich as a species of "spiritual home": even in Italy he felt too far away from the centre of intellectual activity. Sigurd was now a University student about to begin his law courses.
The heat of Rome in June made Ibsen plan to visit Amalfi, where there was "opportunity for bathing," and where he might finish his new play, already begun. His letters during this year exhibit many domestic touches; he was smacking his lips over certain good wines, and planning to furnish his rooms according to very definite tastes.
A Doll's House was finished in Amalfi during the summer of 1879; once begun, it engrossed his entire time, for it is believed that during April he had heard of an incident which occurred in the Danish courts, concerning a young married woman, which had given him an excellent suggestion for certain elements in Nora's character. This may have been the immediate impulse, but it was not the initial impulse. Even though Ibsen could not countenance Mill on "The Subjection of Women," and even though he began on the woman question with a detestation for all the talk about emancipation, his larger interest in the balance of the human scale was primarily behind him. The motivation itself may be traced in evolution. The lie was clad in romance throughout The Vikings at Helgeland; it reacted upon the individual in Peer Gynt and The League of Youth; it demoralized the community in Pillars of Society; it undermined the home in A Doll's House; it was to curse the child in Ghosts.
There is a clever bit of speculation on William Archer's part as to the technical maturity which descended upon Ibsen in the final scene of the play. No one can gainsay him as to the marks of the "well-made" drama which are to be found throughout the first two acts; but though there is an evident line of demarcation between Nora's emancipation and the events leading up to Helmer's reading of the incriminating letter, we can but theorize after all about the possibility of Ibsen's original intention, when he first set out to write, of making the play end satisfactorily, in the tone of Pillars of Society.
Indeed, he as much as says that he was forced to furnish a happy ending for the North German theatres, in order to avoid the dangers of having others adapt in accordance with popular taste. The surprise is that Ibsen ever argued himself into the belief that such a concession was necessary. "When my works are threatened," he wrote, "I prefer, taught by experience, to commit the act of violence myself."
His business manager, Mr. Wilhelm Lange, had shown him the necessity for a second ending. Therefore:
"I sent to him, for use in case of absolute necessity, a draft of an altered last scene, according to which Nora does not leave the house, but is forcibly led by Helmer to the door of the children's bedroom; a short dialogue takes place, Nora sinks down at the door, and the curtain falls."
This does not in any way weaken Ibsen's own attitude as to how the play should consistently and dynamically end. It only points to the fact that he was much more interested in the conditions which made it necessary for Nora to leave. But he was emphatic about the effect of a happy ending upon the poignancy of his morale; he stigmatized the concession as "barbaric violence" and he declared himself thoroughly opposed to it.
When Ibsen forwarded the altered scene to the director of the Wiener Stadttheatre, he called the latter's attention to the great loss in effect incurred thereby. This emphasis of the theatrical value only adds to my conviction that in a discussion of A Doll's House, people lose sight of the fact that primarily Ibsen was a dramatist and not a pamphleteer, that, for a stage climax, the slamming of the door as Nora departs and the transfiguration on the face of Helmer are more likely to be impressed on the mind, more likely to fix in unmistakable tones the underlying, the fundamental tragedy of this doll's house, than all the quiet domestic reconciliations and sudden sentimental understandings with which the stage is deluged.
As late as 1891 Ibsen referred to his concession, incidental to Eleonora Duse's first impulse to use the happy ending; he claimed that he was forced to comply with managerial demands because the copyright law afforded him no adequate protection. But this much he could say, that "it was for the sake of the last scene that the whole play was written."
The piece was published in Copenhagen on December 4, 1879, and with great rapidity it spread from country to country. As an acting drama, its attractiveness has not been so much in idea as in the two dominant situations which lie in the tarantella dance and the final exit. But in these two situations, we are to note a difference in the depth of Ibsen. It is an easy matter for a fairly intelligent actress to thrill you with the wild emotional tension of the dance, but the final scene makes demands upon a very mature conception and a very ripe artistic grasp. The departure of Nora may be theatrically effective, but it is also far and above this in spiritual meaning.
A stage rôle lives by reason of its effectiveness on the stage; we have far outgrown the sacrificial realism of Dumas' Camille; Sudermann himself passed beyond the limitations of the German romanticism of Magda, which on the one hand struggles with a certain tradition handed down from Dumas, and on the other with a certain individualism taken from Ibsen; moreover, the time will come, if it is not already here, when we shall cease to regard Nora as a startling type. But these feminine vehicles for acting will survive the force and freshness of the ideas they represent because their framework is striking.
In 1879 and for many years after, A Doll's House was regarded solely in the light of an unwarranted attack upon marriage, the mere husk of Nora's behavior being taken. Ibsen was called an anarchist in the social scheme of things; people could not see beyond their conventions; they could not grant that his so-called feminine individualism was simply the means of clearing life of those ruts which retarded the establishment of true relations, just as his rampant idealism in Love's Comedy helped to clear the atmosphere of a deal of cant regarding the official stages leading to the consummation of the marriage bond.
We are inclined to approach Ibsen's plays as we would approach a technical treatise upon this or that subject; we entirely ignore the poetic viewpoint in our effort to see whether he has established properly the scientific standpoint. Ibsen appears to me to be gloriously indifferent as to the particulars in his scientific facts. He knows enough to be able to present one with an instinctive understanding of the various dangers attendant upon these facts. In detail, his theory of heredity may run far away from the knowledge of the medical profession ... [However], the principle, the philosophic motive, the basic use of heredity in Ibsen's plays are not only quickening, but true, according to our present moral, ethical, and mental planes. The particular accuracy may be questioned, but the impressionistic truth is undeniable.
There is wonderful compression in the dialogue of A Doll's House; in this respect it is far above the technical maneuvering of Pillars of Society; there, one had to have a special scene, a special grouping of characters to serve in explaining the past situation upon which the present action depended. Here, however, Ibsen's art seems to have become endowed with the power of concentration; the past history of Nora, the incidents affecting her character, are worked in as inherent elements of the story; they are there when wanted, but holding as much significance in developing the character further as in explaining the fundamental nature upon which the character is built. In this respect, the cloak of Scribe is now naught but filmy threads, which are to fall away entirely from the shoulders of Ibsen the moment Nora divests herself of the Capri dress.
How shall we take A Doll's House--as a preachment or as a portrait of a woman who is the victim of education and the tragic thrall of a certain popular conception of marriage? If one begins from the standpoint of the feminine, one will perforce be obliged to include the other phase; this is sufficient indication of the unity with which Ibsen has reconciled the two aspects. His portrait of Selma is here enlarged; we remember how fresh and invigorating was the declaration of independence in the midst of the false atmosphere of The League of Youth. Her cry represents rebellion against the arrested growth of womanhood; in the instantaneous flash of her outburst we are presented with the clue to Nora.
When Ibsen knocks out the fourth wall of the Helmers' room he does not say to you, I am going to show you how a tragedy may occur between a man and his wife. He says: Here a tragedy is being lived, a tragedy in which individuals are being impeded by a false system of social duties and responsibilities. I am going to show you a husband, to all outward appearances conforming to the most polished terms of the code, a wife who seemingly is fulfilling the dictates of the marriage law to honour and obey. Now, let us analyze, step by step; let us rend the veil and reach the truth.
The play has not progressed very far when we discover that the plea is to be made entirely from the feminine side. Nora, the mother of three children, is stunted in her spiritual growth, but as events will show, the higher activities of the woman are dormant. She is the product of a father who has petted her and found a certain pleasure in loving her, but he has never really shown her by word or deed that she is essential to him; he has simply used her as a means of satisfying his self-conceit. In this environment, where she has not been regarded on a thinking basis, her moral, her ethical sense has not expanded. Nora's husband has all the self-conceit of her father, but, unlike the father, he has an inscrutable sense of business honour.
Nora is thus regarded not as an essential part of Helmer's life, but merely as an accessory; she is to be moulded to his pleasure, to his idea; that mutual help is only right, according to this state of things, which dovetails with the individual desire of the husband. Outwardly, the law may claim that all this is in high conformity with the law, but it is spiritual, moral, social suicide to allow such conditions to exist.
There is no hope for the child brought up in an atmosphere thus steeped in lies; if we are to have a "third kingdom," we must not stunt the whole development of the woman. Ibsen's contention is, therefore, that by this equality of freedom we assure the future freedom of society, even as by the marriage bond, or the mutual acceptance of the responsibilities of life, a husband and wife assure the future growth of the race. Some people would say that Ibsen's danger rests upon his insistence on the absolute freedom of the individual, even in a state of marriage; and they thus illogically declare him to be against marriage, as they have time and time again proclaimed him no believer in love. But he holds nothing of the kind in A Doll's House; he does not infer from the tragedy there existing that marriage is a failure; he makes no inference, but what attitude he does assume is this: I will show you why I think this marriage between Nora and Helmer is a failure. And in doing so, he throws all the weight of his argument in the Nora side of the scale. This girl-wife is an undeveloped child; she nibbles her macaroons, she shows inconsequential joy over the worldly betterment of Torvald, she is a mere "song bird," instinctively committing subtle acts without knowing exactly why. Her logic is unprincipled, besides which she has inherited some of the weakness of her father. But this is no fault of hers; it is the fault of her education. Nature has made her a mother in fact, but in spirit, as yet, she is simply a child among her children. When she leaves them, she does so in order the better to understand them and her own duty toward them in the future.
In three acts, Nora grows as a woman, similarly situated, would develop in real life; she is awakened, regenerated, re-born under a scourge which tears her soul; the weakness of her retarded sense of right thus becomes the source of her immanent strength. It is apparent when Mrs. Linden and Krogstad are introduced upon the scenes, both with a past history in which their lives have touched, that they are to have little to do with the immediate problem other than hasten it to a head. Their eventual union is a flash of the old Ibsen; it is the Scribe in him; he is here following a worn-out formula.
Nora in the past has forged her father's name in order to obtain money for a journey which Torvald's health demands. The dramatic machinery places this note in Krogstad's hands--he himself a forger who has served his time and who would now rise save that society will not let him.
Sacrifice after sacrifice is made by Nora to pay off this debt, and in its way it might have been liquidated had not Krogstad lost his position at Torvald's bank, and been pushed by the latter to the verge of despair. It is when Krogstad stands upon the threshold of the Helmer home, with the forged note in his hand, and with the momentary desire to drag Nora into the gutter with him, that the latent woman in Nora begins to stir.
Physically, she has attained her growth; she is very agreeable to look upon; Helmer in an excited state makes us uncomfortably aware of this in the third act, after his return from the tarantella. But not until this moment, with Krogstad watching her at play with her children, is her mental status to receive a shock. Heretofore every one has sheltered her ignorance; now is the commencement of her salvation.
Helmer loathes debt and he would consider it beneath his dignity to be beholden to his wife in any way. When Nora tells Mrs. Linden of her scheming to save her husband's life--without saying anything of the manner in which the scheme was worked--her monologue exposition of her own character is masterly in execution; Ibsen often reaches those heights in technique where the absolute inevitableness of his dialogue is felt. Why should he not work for effect in the way he groups his characters? He is first and foremost a dramatist.
So it is that I have no quarrel with the manner in which his big climaxes, and his intermediate climaxes are reached, just so that their effect is not disconcerting. Drama is not life itself, but a reflex, and at that a reflex only of critical moments. We are dealing here with a crisis in Nora's life; the rallying point in one's individual existence may become evident suddenly.
When Krogstad's threat to expose Nora hangs over her, she is merely frightened; her begging Helmer to reinstate him in the bank is not fraught with any tragedy until Helmer airs his opinions upon Krogstad's moral weakness, his cowardice, his trickery in concealing his forgeries; but worse still, the effect of all this on his children. In bringing forward his views on heredity, Torvald turns Nora's fright into a deeper fear.
Her persistency in pleading for Krogstad irritates Helmer; he defies her by mailing the clerk's dismissal to him. Every move that is taken closes around Nora, tighter and tighter. The last resort is reached by Krogstad; he comes to Nora on Christmas day; he tells her that he will not unveil her weakness to everyone, but that Torvald must know. This brings terror to Nora's soul; she now recognizes that the I O U given to this man is his weapon of defense, and she is made to realize it still further when she sees him drop it in the letter-box with an explanation of all it means.
That wild practicing of the tarantella at the close of the second act--what is it but a legitimate theatrical contrast of intensest emotion with apparent light grace? It grips the audience, for all the while one knows that the soul of Nora Helmer is being carried through the fires of a regenerating scourge. The wounds are being torn apart, so that they may heal all the more healthily. Mrs. Linden has gone to plead with Krogstad for the withdrawal of the letter, while Nora, by her seeming vagaries of the moment, is keeping Helmer away from the box. This is an effective theatrical situation; it is not, however, the vital scene of the play.
Already there has occurred to Nora the possibility of a miracle happening. She has thoughts of suicide; then, if her name is dishonoured, Torvald will surely rise up and take the blame himself. It is only the impulse on his part to do this that Nora wants to occur. When she tells Mrs. Linden of the forgery, she impresses upon her in a vague way the necessity of remembering that she did it, and not Torvald. So at the close of the second act, physically weak, when Nora hears the Christina has not seen Krogstad, her only consolation is in the coming of the miracle. Her husband may now sacrifice for her as she has sacrificed for him!
It makes no difference whether Krogstad and Mrs. Linden renew the love episode of many years before; it is now too late for the letter to Torvald to be withdrawn; there must indeed be an end to this unhappy secret. So that when Helmer returns from the tarantella, dragging the unwilling Nora with him, we feel that the supreme moment is at hand.
The conflicting elements in Torvald's character are subtly portrayed; he is a live figure, with those small weaknesses that in the bulk go to make a man of consuming selfishness, and conventional respectability. As he sits with Nora, the stereotyped romance of his nature wells up; yet there is no real vital understanding between himself and his wife; his eye catches her smooth shoulder, her glorious neck, he holds her in his arms, but they are further apart on that night than ever before.
For when Helmer goes to the letter-box and takes Krogstad's missive into his room, we can almost count the moments before he throws the door back, and re-enters, frantic with rage which sweeps over him; it is his honour, his future, his feelings that are foremost in his mind; his thoughts grapple with the suspicion that may fall upon him, the power that Krogstad now has over him. Surely Nora realizes that there can be no miracle! His final blow lies in his threat about taking the children away from her, even though she remain in his house for the sake of appearances!
Then Nora receives a note from Krogstad, which Torvald, in his wild suspicious state, opens himself. It contains the I O U and an apology; Helmer is overjoyed--he is saved, his position in the public regard is secure. Only afterwards does he think of Nora; of course he will forgive her; she may lean on him; he will offer strength to her womanly helplessness; he will protect her.
But the time for shielding Nora has passed; her husband's cowardice has prevented the miracle of miracles from happening. Yet in the three days through which she has fought, a miracle has happened--Nora has become a woman. When she lays aside the Capri masquerade, the doll's house tumbles to the ground. Torvald is faced by an individual he does not know.
For eight years they have lived together and this is the first time they have ever seriously talked about serious things. One may say that this is the first instance in which Nora has demanded such consideration, but that does not take from the fact that she has only lived with Torvald; in spirit she has never been his wife. She has never really been happy, only heedlessly merry, and the reason for this is that Torvald has only required of her, surface satisfaction. Nora must educate herself; she must set about it alone; Helmer is no fit teacher for her; she must stand alone. If she has been blind to experience, then she must make herself whole.
Now comes the declaration of independence. Helmer believes a wife's holiest duties are to her husband and children, but Nora contends that there is above all else the duty toward herself. The world might insist that she is primarily a wife and a mother, but she is of a different opinion. "I believe," she declares, "that before all else I am a human being, just as much as you are--or at least that I should try to become one." Here is a concise statement of Ibsen's view of the woman question. It is a defiance flung at his worn-out romantic theory of the woman's saga.
Nora no longer can abide by what people say, or by the statements made in books; she must explain clearly to herself the meaning of religion; she will not act without knowing. If she is to live in a society, she must learn, she must settle for herself whether she or society is right. Helmer cannot understand her attitude; in fact, her mention of the miracle puzzles him. "No man sacrifices his honour, even for one he loves," he tells Nora, to which she replies: "Millions of women have done so." As Brandes says, this remark reveals Ibsen as keenly alive to the progressive thoughts of the day.
And now it looms up before Nora that for eight years she has lived with a strange man, has borne him three children, has been married by law, but has never been a wife. After all, the miracle of miracles is happening. Torvald declares that he has the strength to become another man; Nora is determined to be a different woman. She gives him her wedding ring; she removes from her the bondage which has marked the doll's house. To make things different in the future, the two must so change that communion between them shall be a marriage. In such a spirit Nora leaves the house.
This startling action raised consternation when the play was published, and to this very day the camps are divided. After all that righteous indignation, after all the firm conviction that Nora displays, to have had her take off her coat and remain, would have thrown the play into bathos, and technically would have resulted in an anti-climax. Besides which, even though through revelation Nora may have suddenly developed, it would take a longer time to make a man of Helmer. The separation--which in Norway would be equivalent to a divorce--gave the two time to adjust themselves to their awakened view of life. And should it be absolutely necessary for one to have a solution, then it were safe to say that nature in the end furnishes it by having given to the Helmers three children. The happy ending is worthy of Scribe; the logical ending was the original force of Ibsen.
The importance of the play, however, rests in its moral force; as Boyesen says, its power is not violent, but it throbs with nervous tension. You can take an external view of the piece, and claim that the unhappiness of the Helmer household was due to the selfishness of Torvald; but Ibsen's belief is that it was due to the fact that society countenances the relations between husband and wife where the latter is immature. And that immaturity was wholly due to the peculiar condition of Nora's education. That we have outgrown our reticence in respect to this subject is seen in the consideration, now confronting our educators, as to how far we should admit into our instruction for adolescence a knowledge of the elements differentiating the sexes, and of the elements serving to draw them together.
In their ignorance some people take pride in speaking of the stagnant atmosphere of Ibsenism, but however much you may agree or disagree with this style of drama, you cannot blind yourself to the energy contained therein. Yet because people disagree with a man and dislike for the moment his general tone, is no reason that this man is easily killed. The case of Henrik Ibsen in England exemplifies this fact. Soon after its first production in London by Miss Achurch, A Doll's House, while treated with a certain leniency, was regarded solely in the light of a fad; critics could see nothing noble in Nora--noble in the romantic sense. They became facetious; they took certain statements in the dialogue with strange literalness. Only a few men like Dowden, Gosse and Archer saw the significance of the slamming door.
Jules Lemaître misinterprets the "miracle of miracles"; he argues that inasmuch as Torvald's awakening is quite as pronounced as Nora's, they should have remained together. He writes: "Her husband does not comprehend her. He in himself represents formal and pharisaical propriety and the respect of social conventions. She herself has the presentiment of a morality and of a religion more sincere, larger, freer of forms, more intelligent and more indulgent. And it is in order to discover them fully that she goes into solitude.... Hé, Madam Nora, do not look so far away; continue to be a good mother and a good wife!" Lemaître argues on the principle that while Ibsen does not attack marriage as an institution, he does criticize scathingly the manner in which the institution in a majority of cases is perpetuated; the French critic narrows down until he arrives at the minute points in what he regards as Ibsen's thesis; he does not take the broad sweep of the vigorous criticism. Hence his statement that were one to consider the points constituting a perfect marriage, one would never marry. Ibsen's plea, on the other hand, in the realization of his "third empire," is that provided the foundation is healthily laid, the details will take care of themselves. It is only because of the false basis that the ignoble consequences, even the minutest, are relentlessly thrust before our vision.
Where the moral situation receives its most poignant strength is in the imagined picture of a mob scene where Nora, as Dr. Brandes says, frail as she is, stands against the forces of society. Over and above any particularization, A Doll's House represents Ibsen's fundamental social belief. He makes no special demands for Nora, but, regarding her as a human being, writes his play with the sole intention of showing another reason why the individual must be given the right of freedom.
Even in this play there are evidences that he will be heard from again: first, in the matter of heredity; second, as to the danger to society in the perpetuation of a lie; and, third, in a re-statement of the marriage question from the standpoint of Nora's remaining with her husband and children. Again we may, from the scientific facts, have certain cause to quarrel with Ibsen.
"The conflicts of individuals with law and conventions," writes Shaw in his preface to Man and Superman, "can be dramatized like all other human conflicts; but they are purely judicial"; yet there are deeper conflicts than this. Ethical teachers most generally approach Nora from the standpoint of being an enemy to moral law and order; they arraign her as a desecrator of the marriage bond, when, by her stand, she simply represents an effort to make the bond secure.
The winter of 1879-1880 was spent by Ibsen in Munich; in the spring of the year he was full of the idea of writing a book about his artistic development, not an interpretation, but a plain statement of facts. So intent was he that for a long while he persisted in the plan; but notwithstanding, Hegel raised many objections which were accepted by Ibsen; the latter was firmly of the opinion, however, that only he could tell his inmost motives. Ten years before, he had claimed with some show of pride, in a letter to Botten-Hansen, that he had always written because impelled by deep reasons, and not only because his subject was good.
This personal sense permeates his letters at this time; his sole aim, in his belief, was to effect, through the ideas expressed in his plays, his "spiritual emancipation and purification." No doubt there are extant some memoranda which will represent his firm opinion as to his consistent growth, but on the whole, it was wise in Hegel to check this self-analysis, however much readers of Ibsen may have lost by the abandonment of the plan. On March 16, 1882, he wrote to Hegel from Rome, nevertheless, emphasizing that many people claimed that he owed the public some autobiographical statement; a few months before he had written to Professor Olaf Skavlan, who was founding a magazine, offering to send him parts of a manuscript, "From Skien to Rome," upon which he had been engaged.
The determination not to write a play was soon broken by Ibsen. The summer of 1880 was spent at his old haunts in Berchtesgaden, where he was joined by Jonas Lie. Then for the winter he returned to the Via Capo le Case in Rome, and in the following summer (1881) was at Sorrento; how different, though, the product of his work now, and in 1867, when he had first visited this place! It is the difference between Peer Gynt and Ghosts.
The work on his new play had so rapidly progressed that he had finished it by the end of November, 1881. When he wrote to Ludwig Passarge on December 22nd, consenting to the latter's desire to write a biography, he commented upon the deluge of letters reaching him by every mail from people decrying or commending it. He was rather satisfied over the effect; he knew it was dangerous stuff for the German theatre as well as for Scandinavia, but notwithstanding this, Hegel, sounding the interest of the public in Ibsen, issued ten thousand copies as the first edition.
The public might have known by the delineation of Dr. Rank in A Doll's House, that Ibsen was making preliminary sketches for a play on heredity. But in hewing out his plot for Ghosts, he made a combination of two elements in his previous play. Helmer had been drawn as a character of smug respectability; Dr. Rank was suffering from the sins of his father. Oswald Alving is the product of the moral rottenness of Captain Alving and of the moral weakness of his mother. Ibsen proves, therefore, satisfactorily to himself, that Nora was right in leaving her children.
"My poor innocent spine must do penance for my father's wild oats," says Dr. Rank, adding in a vein of grim humour that it was too bad, "especially when the luckless spine attacked never had any good of them." Captain Alving by his wild indiscretions with his serving maid, and by his debauchery, undermines the future physique of his son, and bequeathes to him certain ungovernable instincts which well-nigh involve him in incest. Regina represents the outcome of Captain Alving's escapade; she has inherited a completely distorted moral view, and her nature is made up of the lowest inclinations.
This is by no means an edifying canvas, and Ibsen does not mean to have it so; but his object is not exploitation; he wishes only to prove, granting his unscientific bungling with heredity, that Mrs. Alving might have prevented the catastrophe of Oswald's mental decay, if she had taken her own initiative and not listened to the conventional, superficial advice of Pastor Manders. Her regeneration, unlike Nora's, arrives too late.
Ibsen, therefore, was setting a torpedo beneath the ark, and the manner in which the explosion was received far exceeded his expectations, although, as he wrote to Hegel, he was prepared for some of the folly and violence which came from the press. Björnson and Brandes were firm in their support, the latter hastening to declare himself in a scholarly review. From Rome on January 3, 1882, Ibsen sent him grateful acknowledgment.
"In Norway, however, I do not believe that the blundering has in most cases been unintentional," he wrote; "and the reason is not far to seek. In that country a great many of the professional reviewers are theologians, more or less disguised; and these gentlemen are, as a rule, quite unable to criticize literature rationally.... The reverend gentlemen are very often excellent members of local boards; but they are, unquestionably, our worst critics."
Here, then, is Ibsen's own estimate of Pastor Manders. His next comment was made on January 6th:
"I was quite prepared for the hubbub," he began;... "they endeavour," he continues "to make me responsible for the opinions which certain of the personages of my drama express. And yet there is not in the whole book a single opinion, a single utterance, which can be laid to the account of the author. I took good care to avoid this.... My intention was to produce the impression in the mind of the reader that he was witnessing something real. Now, nothing would more effectually prevent such an impression than the insertion of the author's private opinions in the dialogue. Do they imagine at home that I have not enough of the dramatic instinct to be aware of this?... Then they say the book preaches nihilism. It does not. It preaches nothing at all. It merely points out that there is a ferment of nihilism under the surface, at home as elsewhere. And this is inevitable. A Pastor Manders will always rouse some Mrs. Alving to revolt. And just because she is a woman she will, once she has begun, go to great extremes."
Whilethere was perhaps more intention in Ibsen's design than he would care to confess, still the general tone of his letter is true. He was not trying to circumvent criticism; he was only claiming for Ghosts the right to be judged logically. His error lay in the desire to present a real picture, for by doing so, he overworked reality, making it repulsive. The element of relief is wholly lacking in Ghosts.
On January 24, 1882, Ibsen wrote:
"I was quite prepared for my new play eliciting a howl from the camp of the stagnationists, and I care no more for this than for the barking of a pack of chained dogs. But the alarm which I have observed among the so-called Liberals has given me cause for reflection."
Heretofore, Ibsen had been careful to observe an absolutely disinterested view of party politics; he refused to become identified with either side, although once before, in The League of Youth, he had held the Liberals up to ridicule. Now that they were so rampant upon the subject of Ghosts, he was once more concerned literarily with their so-called progressive hopes. At this point, therefore, we may note the germs of An Enemy of the People.
"How about all these champions of liberty," Ibsen continued. "... Is it only in the domain of politics that the work of emancipation is to be permitted to go on with us? Must not men's minds be emancipated first of all? Men with such slave-souls as ours cannot even make use of the liberties they already possess. Norway is a free country, peopled by unfree men and women."
Undoubtedly, Ibsen realized that the play was rather daring; he must have set himself purposely to the task of removing those boundary posts of convention which were preventing the accomplishment of his "third empire," and he felt himself to have arrived at an age when it was requisite for him to forestall any possible attempt from men of the younger generation not so well equipped with experience. The opposition called forth by his play only served to emphasize the loneliness of his position, and the more he contemplated this isolation, the more depressed he became over the supposed liberalism of his country. As for the men of the party, "They would be poor fellows to man barricades with."
The faith Ibsen had, nevertheless, in the eventual outcome of the protesting storm, is emphasized in his letter of March 16, 1882, to Hegel: "All the infirm, decrepit creatures who have fallen upon the work, thinking to crush it, will themselves be crushed by the verdict of the history of literature.... The future belongs to my book. Those fellows who have bellowed so about it have no real connection with the life even of their own day."
Most of Ibsen's plays were published by Hegel around the holiday season; the dramatist, therefore, had excellent reason, in the case of Ghosts to declare that in spite of Christmas being a time of peace, for him it was most generally far from that. His chief worry was over the fact that he was considered more in the light of a pamphleteer than of a playwright; that, as he confessed to Mr. Archer, in a drama of five characters there was thrust in a sixth, himself. It is natural that he should be irritated as he sat in the cafés and looked over the newspapers from the North.
Brandes calls the writing of Ghosts a noble deed; he even goes so far as to see in it a poetic treatment of heredity. But the inevitable monotone of the piece, its persistent, close, bare treatment of the disagreeable, all serve to give a harrowing impression. One is almost tempted to question whether such investigation is not better fitted for the medical profession than for the stage. I say this purely as a surface remark, understanding fully the idealism which prompted Ibsen to handle so dark a subject. He has out-Greeked the Greeks in his unerring unity of development. He traces the human tragedy as relentlessly, yet as calmly and as coldly, as he described years before the tragic end to the life of David, the friend of Brandes.
Let us look at the main outlines of this "family drama." Regina is safely ensconced in the Alving household as a maid; Oswald, a painter by profession, having been away for some time, has just returned; the carpenter, Engstrand, husband to Regina's mother, is in possession of the knowledge of his wife's transgressions; Pastor Manders is moving in the community with the proud consciousness that he is the guardian of duty as conceived by the Church and by the State. But it is Mrs. Alving who represents the heart's core of this tragedy of commonplace souls; in her we detect the epitome of the life lie.
Each act suggests the disclosure of fetid substance. No matter how Mrs. Alving may have lied to conceal the true disgrace of her husband's life, no matter how, by the erection of an orphanage to his memory, the gossips of society may have been hushed by this outward show, the mists rise from the depths, well-nigh obscuring the smallest glint of light.
Years before, Mrs. Alving had broken from her husband as Nora did from hers; the former had more physical cause to do so, for Alving was a degenerate. She fled to the Pastor's house, and he was instrumental in forcing her to return to her home. The sentimental feeling that existed between them only serves to show the shallow complacency of Manders. Then there occurred the moral downfall of the husband, and the cursed consequences bound up in Regina. Mrs. Alving resorts to the lie in order to protect her son.
In the meantime, after the death of Alving, his widow begins to awaken; her reading forces doubt into her mind--doubt as to the wisdom of her past actions, and as to the future solution. It is just this broadening process which Manders deplores when he comes to talk over the details of the Orphanage with her. In him there is the selfish calculation of Torvald Helmer and the pious hypocrisy of a Rörlund.
By the manner in which Manders first greets Oswald, there is more than a presentiment that the boy is like his father in other ways than mere outward resemblances. In his conversation there is a show of absolute lack of any moral standard. The way he talks about his father presages ruin; the inconsequential manner in which he discusses free marriage--notwithstanding there is an element of truth in his statement that oftentimes these "irregular unions" are more stable and more decent than some of those based on moral law and order--is indicative of the atmosphere he has experienced in Paris.
To his surprise, Manders finds Mrs. Alving in sympathy with these views; for the first time she opposes her opinions to the narrowness of the Pastor. During Alving's lifetime, he never came to their house; it was easy, in consequence, to deceive him as to the true state of affairs. But now he is told the plain facts about the dissolute condition of the man. What about Mrs. Alving's show of self-will? He has talked to her of her lack of endurance, of her desire to shirk her responsibilities as a wife and a mother. He has judged her solely by report, as he, with others like him, judges so many of the vital things in life.
All these years she has lived over a hidden abyss. She found it easy to keep from outsiders the true state of things--Alving's was a life which did "not bite upon his reputation." The ignominy his wife bore solely for the boy's sake; even the erection of the Orphanage was in order to keep the father's money from tainting Oswald.
At this moment, in the next room, the odours from the stagnant pool rise up. Regina and Oswald repeat the degradation of years before. In English we call this "Ghosts"; in French the word "Revenants" is nearer the meaning. Here we note symptoms of the double heredity; here Mrs. Alving is strickenk with the horrible consequences of the lie.
It is in the second act that she states her position, thereby indicating what her spiritual side most craves. She is surrounded by evidences of her adherence to law and order. She is an example of what Nora's life might have been had Ibsen placed a Manders in the cast of A Doll's House. It is the conventional law that does not avert the immoral conditions outside of law that has done the mischief. But her way to freedom is beyond Mander's understanding.
Why has she lied? Because of her superstitious awe for duty, the duty which Manders has preached to her. The Bible is wrong if it mean that a son should honor his parent notwithstanding he be a Chamberlain Alving. Is it right to foster a son's ideals in the face of truth? Manders has blinded himself to fact; he is a worldly man without a bit of subtle humanity about him; he learns of life second hand and quotes by rote the code of arranged by convention. He does not consider the individual.
Heretofore Mrs. Alving has been timid because of her fear of ghosts. She has inherited from the past "all sorts of dead ideas and lifeless old beliefs," even as it further develops that Oswald, by the softening of his brain, is reaping the wild oats that his father sowed.
It was wrong for Manders to send her home when she left Alving that night; it was wrong for her to have gone. Her thinking, her so-called nihilism is the result of a right reaction against duty and obligations that are false. Manders is the sort of man the world usually calls upon for spiritual consolation. Is it right to heed any human being who is as easily duped as he is by the pretensions of such a reckless character as Engstrand, the carpenter? Mrs. Alving knows him to the core; she says: "I think you are, and will always be, a great baby, Manders."
Oswald's disclosure of his doom, of his living death, is a shocking instance of keen realism. His worm-eaten condition is another consequence of his mother's lie. Not knowing but that his father was a gentleman, the boy is racked with the thought that he alone is responsible for his condition. Then is seen the awful tragedy of his passion for Regina, the physical inheritance, the ghost of his father. When he, his mother, and the girl sit together sipping champagne, the furies of hell swirl round them. I know of no triple tragedy in literature compared with this; here we obtain Maeterlinck's forces of destiny in a dark room, in their fullest proportions and in their blackest colour.
What reason does Oswald give that Regina is his only salvation? We know that he is filled with the joy of life; his paintings show that; his freedom in the outside world has shown that. If he remain with his mother his instincts might become warped. Now she sees clearly the sequence of things; now she would tell the truth.
And the truth comes out after the Orphanage is burned and Manders goes off with Engstrand, who has completely pulled a blind over his eyes by a false attitude of repentance. If you would have symbolism, the burning of the Orphanage is one phase of Chamberlain Alving's degeneracy, the burning of Oswald another; the forces of heredity cannot be averted after they are set in motion.
Mrs. Alving tells Oswald and Regina the terrifying truth; her only excuse for the weakness of her husband is that he was one of the men filled with the joy of living, who, at home in a half-grown town, had no outlet for this overpowering energy; and she, educated in the light of narrow duty, could not meet his demands. Thus we see another instance of the undeveloped woman.
The breaking up of the play is not a solution; it is too palpably a dissolution. Regina, inheritor of some of Alving's joie de vie, goes out into the world, and to her ruin; Oswald faces the agony of his disease. The curtain drops at the moment night descends upon his reason. Some believe that his muttering "The sun, the sun," is a gleam of hope, that the truth is at last relieved of the blighting effect of the lie. At what cost is the moral atmosphere cleared! Faguet, like most of the French critics who regard Ibsen largely from the symbolic standpoint, believes the sun indicative of the end of suffering, the deliverance of any one, or any society from the curse of "neurasthenia." Brandes, however, is more likely correct, when he claims that Oswald, intent on asking for poison, had confused his thoughts with what he saw. It is a psychological and reasonable distinction.
The originality of Ghosts is threefold: in construction, in daring, in the tone it added to drama. In its way it marks an epoch in stage history, and sets a standard which assures Ibsen a unique place as a technician. But it is not Ghosts upon which his future reputation as a poet depends. Somewhere Richard Hovey declared that Maeterlinck had created a new shudder; the same may be claimed for Ibsen. Yet I insist upon the constant iteration of the Ibsen impulse; a man who continually probes the inner crevices of conscience, of moral relations, cannot deal with the gilded crust. What misfortune, Ibsen seems to say, that fair humanity should be cursed by the cankers of man's own making; let us examine these cankers to see whether we cannot be rid of them.
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