Oswald Alving has returned home to visit his mother on one of the occasional visits he has made since leaving home as a young boy. He was sent away to prevent him from becoming morally contaminated by his father, Captain Alving, who subsequently died of syphilis. This time, however, he intends to stay and marry the maid, Regine; he is unaware that Regine is his half-sister, sired by the profligate Captain Alving.

Parson Manders, the mother's former lover, also visits and reprimands Mrs. Alving for not living a more conventional life and rearing her son. In the play's climax, Oswald reveals that he, too, is suffering from syphilis and will inevitably develop dementia. To make up for the past and to prove her love, Oswald asks his mother to give him a fatal dose of morphine when signs of dementia appear. At the end of the play it is not clear what she will do.


The play raises an interesting issue of contagion. How has Oswald gotten syphilis from his father? Mrs. Alving is evidently not infected and Oswald had presumably never shown signs of congenital syphilis, although a physician in Paris told Oswald that he had been "worm-eaten since birth."

Could Oswald be promiscuous like his father was? Perhaps, but the implication is that the syphilis (like Oswald's anger) is a "ghost" of his abnormal family and childhood. See Barbara Fass Leavy's To Blight With Plague: Studies in a Literary Theme (New York University Press, 1992) for a full discussion of syphilis as a dramatic motif in "Ghosts." Leavy notes that the play evokes the myth of the Garden of Eden and the fall: the punishment (syphilis) for Captain Alving's sin is passed down through generations.

The play also raises the more contemporary issues of assisted suicide and euthanasia: Will she or won't she agree to give Oswald the morphine? Will the lethal injection be proof of a mother's love? Or just another family sin?


First produced in 1881. Translated by Rick Davis and Brian Johnson.

Primary Source

Ibsen. Four Major Plays


Smith & Kraus

Place Published

Lyme, N.H.