Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen

Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen (1881)

Most Important Dramatist Since Shakespeare?
Cold versus Warm Weather Writers

Henrik Ibsen (1828 to 1906-Norway-there a good background article on him here) is widely considered, based on my quick post read research, the most important dramatist since Shakespeare.   His dramas are kin to the novels of Emile Zola in that they attempt to strip away the mask of  conventional morality to uncover the hidden motives of greed, envy and lust below the surface of life.   In his times, his plots were a scandal.   Ghosts was the first of his dramas I have read though I have seen movies based on them.  Ibsen is a hugely influential writer and I will be reading more of his work.

I have been thinking for sometime on how the weather in which the writer of or the presumed audience for a literary work shapes it.   I first mentioned this in my post on  Hotel Du Lac by Anita Brookner when I said it was a "cold climate book".    I do not see someone raised in a tropical environment without long  harsh winters during which  everything turns brown or grey and  where going outside is a great chore relating to this closed in world.   I think Ibsen is very much a cold climate writer.   He comes from and writes for a world  in which it is normal to spend months inside in oppressively heated small spaces and where just going outside can be a threat to your survival.    

Ghosts is a drama about a widow, Helen Alving, her adult son Oscar (a painter), a pastor, a carpenter and his daughter.   The daughter works as a maid for Mrs Alving.   The maid thinks the carpenter is her father but in reality the father was the late husband of Mrs Alving, Captain Alving (a sea captain).  As the play opens  Mrs Alving is talking to her long term advisor  the Pastor  and tells him she wants to start and orphanage so she can spend all the money her husband left her so there will be none left to pass on to the son.   The husband was very promiscuous and the maid is in fact his daughter.    Captain Alving had an affair with another maid many years ago and she is probably the mother of the maid (these once shocking plots do not really scandalize us to much more now as we can hear much worse in the TV news every day about celebrities and politicians.).    Captain Alving continued is his behavior all his life but Mrs Alving could not leave him for fear of scandal.   To make it all worse, she finds out that her son Oscar has inherited syphilis from this father and is in love with the maid without knowing she is his half-sister.   There is an impending mercy killing or assisted suicide at the close of the drama.  

In its day, the mere mention of a venereal disease was considered the most horrible bad taste.   I think the play is still read and preformed for what it tells us about how lies and misdeeds in family lives can be like ghosts that haunt us and future generations.

Anyone seriously into modern drama or who even took a class in it in college has probably already read an Ibsen play.    Literary autodidacts should certainly at some point read his work.    I will be reading more of his work.        
If you enjoy an occasional Ingmar Bergman movie, then you will like Ghosts. 

I read this via    No translator credit was given.   You can easily find it online. 

It is part of Clifton Fadiman's Lifetime Reading Plan.

There is a very good post on the play at Things Mean a Lot where you can see how the past permeates the future in this work.   Rebecca Reid has an excellent post on this and The Doll's House in which she describes in some detail how the icy weather of Norway plays a big part in  Ghosts.

The next dramatic work I read will be The Seagull by Anton Chekhov.

Do you have a favorite 18th or 19th century drama?

Do you think growing up in harshly cold environment inclines a writer toward a tragic dark view of life?  

Mel u


CHE said...

I've done a post on Ibsen's Doll's House
Its one of my favorite plays. I really liked Ghosts too though I had no idea it was a Bergman movie. I must see it.
I definitely agree with you about weather influencing the writing. I would think of Dostoevsky and the Bronte's as cold weather writers.

ds said...

Mel, I think you raise a very interesting point about climate and writing (or painting, for that matter). It reminds me of studying Thomas Mann's Death in Venice in college: how the main character's move from Germany or Switzerland (I forget) to Venice--that is from Northern to Southern Europe--caused him to lose his inhibitions.

I agree with you about Ingmar Bergmann; his movies would lose their force in a temperate, much less tropical, climate. And as CHE points out, the Russians are most definitely cold weather writers...

Wonderful review. I like Ibsen, but don't believe I've read Ghosts. Will fix that. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for intruducing me to him.