Thursday, April 12, 2012

Ibsen's Ghosts

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Henrik Ibsen’s play Ghosts is concerned with challenging the conventional norms of society, many of which he views as “no longer beneficial”. Through his characters, Ibsen explores the conflict that arises because of the outdated ideas that people cling to, as is the case with Pastor Manders who is subsequently self-righteous and hypocritical. Ibsen also shows the devastating consequences that the past or “ghosts” can have on people’s lives. Osvald for instance, is haunted by his father’s “sins” in the way of inherited syphilis. Furthermore, Ibsen demonstrates how traditional ideas can entrap otherwise progressive people, particularly women such as Mrs Alving, who feels she hasn’t the strength to “go against” an oppressive, patriarchal society. Ultimately, these “conventional ideas and attitudes” are outdated because they impact adversely on people lives.

At the time Ghosts was written (1881), western society was undergoing major changes. Even the Church was having to re-asses its methodology as it was fast losing influence among the middle class; the majority of people. Henceforth, at around this time the church’s teachings and methods were greatly revised.

Mrs Alving, when replying to a pompous Pastor Manders, gives an example of the church’s waning influence

Manders “I stand here as a priest, just as I stood before you at the most critical moment of your life.”

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Mrs Alving “And what has the Priest to say to me?”

Members of the clergy had long been revered as God’s representatives on earth, therefore speaking the absolute and were not to be questioned. Not only is Mrs Alving’s flippant response a hint of defiance against the church, but also against a man. Her challenging and questioning of mens’ authority is a very forward move indeed.

Despite this, Pastor Manders is still the embodiment of the old, rigid way of thinking. He is a self-righteous idealist who considers it his role to judge and condemn.

“There may still be time to turn him from his sinful ways. Mend your own ways, and save what is left to be saved in him. For the truth is, Mrs Alving, you have failed as a mother, and I consider it my duty to tell you so.”

From the above excerpt, it can be seen how strongly Pastor Manders clings to the traditional, staunch branch of Christianity, which saw members of the clergy condemn, more than comfort and criticise more than counsel.

The decreasing influence of the church provoked fear in many, not least the clergy. This fear led to a suspicion of any ideas or “intellectual trends” which appeared to contradict the Church’s teachings.

It is suggested that Mrs Alving is reading books, which may do exactly this, possibly she is reading about the growing movement of Women’s Suffrage. Pastor Manders indignantly tells her

Manders “You surely don’t imagine I waste my time examining that sort of publication?”

Mrs Alving “Which means you know nothing at all about the thing you’re denouncing.”

Pastor Manders “I’ve read quite enough about such books to disapprove of them.”

Pastor Manders has not read these books, yet he is quick to abhor them. One cannot form a balanced, reasonable judgement on something when they are basing their argument solely on the opinions of others.

Pastor Manders justifies his preconceived ideas about the books by saying

“There are many occasions in life when one must rely upon the opinions of others. That is the way of the world. And- rightly too, how else could society continue?”

Ibsen regarded this “swapping of opinions between people” as supremely lazy, as it did not call upon the individual to have any independent thought. Ibsen contested that all people must have their own thoughts and opinions. He went as far to say that this was our human obligation

“For a student has essentially the same task as the poet to make clear to himself, and thereby to others, the temporal and eternal questions which are astir in the age and in the community to which he belongs.”

Ibsen despised the way old, unchallenged ideas were relentlessly passed from one person to another, with no thought being made on the receiver’s end. In Ibsen’s mind these were the “Ghosts”- age-old attitudes which continue to haunt man through their influence.

The “Ghost” which haunts Osvald is his inherited syphilis, which he has contracted through no fault of his own. Osvald however is plagued by the fallacy of his father’s “good” name

Pastor Manders “Yes, you’ve certainly inherited a worthy name from an industrious man my dear Osvald Alving, lets hope it’ll be an inspiration to you.”

Osvald cannot believe that his father led a dissolute life and rejects a Doctor’s opinion that his syphilis was inherited. Ibsen describes this by saying “the sins of the father are visited on the son”. In this case however, it is also “the sins of the mother which are visited on the son”, because had it not been for Mrs Alving’s false depiction of Alving, Osvald would freely accept that his syphilis is the unfortunate inheritance from a morally void man. Many would view Osvald’s unnecessary guilt and shame, which has been caused and perpetuated by his own mother worse than the disease he has inherited off his father. Therefore the pretence Mrs Alving keeps up for the sake of Alving’s good name is a value that would be better to discard in lieu of the harm it can cause.

The “Ghost” which haunts Mrs Alving is her adherence to her sometimes-misplaced sense of duty. However Mrs Alving’s sense of duty also shows her strength of character in some cases “I had to endure it for my little boy’s sake.” Had she left the marriage Osvald surely would have suffered, as unmarried women and their children were not looked upon kindly. Despite this, it is because of her sense of duty that she feels she must deceive her son and keep quite about her husband’s true nature. It was because of her “duty” towards her class, whose sanctity rests largely on its good name and secrecy surrounding sordid issues, that she endured an intolerable marriage so as not to upset the stability of the bourgeois class

“I had to fight twice as hard- a desperate battle so that no one should know what sort of man my child’s father was.”

Mrs Alving is quite an unfortunate character, not only must she contend with a lecherous husband, she must also suffer in silence and shoulder the blame for her husband’s shortcomings.

Mrs Alving is held accountable for her husband primarily because she is a woman and men in those days were void of moral criticism, terms such as “fallen woman” exemplify the fact that blame for sexual indiscretion was solely the fault of the female. In Mrs Alving’s case the downfalls of her husband are somehow her fault. She makes an interesting observation about human nature however when she says

“You know how charming Alving was, no one could bring themselves to believe anything but good of him.”

By this Mrs Alving is saying how the “truth” will seldom interest people if it is too out of character to be believable. People’s minds are very simplistic, we want to categorise people as being either “good” or “bad”. It is too difficult for many of us to come to terms with the fact that likeable, respectable people can harbour some extremely negative traits or vice versa. Ibsen was adamant to stress the point that no person was either supremely good or evil; every man had pitfalls. He said “Human nature has dark recesses which must be explored and illuminated.” Thus it can be said that Ibsen was concerned with creating realistic characters that embody this statement. The old ideas of “good” and “evil” in Ibsen’s mind were far too simplistic to be applied to the complex beings that are humans.

Ibsen said that recognising this fact was not pessimistic- but liberating

“My main goal has been to depict people, human moods and human fates, on the basis of certain pre-dominant social conditions and perceptions. What we see are human conflicts, and enwrapped in these, deep inside, lay ideas at battle- being defeated or charged with victory.”

Therefore, in his play Ghosts Ibsen is concerned with the moral struggles and conflicts which his characters face, not their “practical” or economic woes.

Ibsen was concerned with the emancipation of all people, particularly women who were still very much “trapped” by a rigid, patriarchal society. He said

“A woman cannot be herself in the society of the present day, which is an exclusively masculine society, with laws framed by men and with a “judicial system” that “judges” feminine conduct from a masculine point of view.”

“Feminine conduct being judged from a masculine viewpoint” is unfair, particularly since women did not have the same luxury of judging their male counterparts from a feminine viewpoint. This inequity often led to hypocrisy.

Within the play, society’s hypocrisy towards women is exemplified by Pastor Manders when he says to Mrs Alving

“It is not a wife’s place to judge her husband…you deserted the sinner whom you should have helped.”

In a patriarchal society women were chastised for judging their husbands, but at the same time compelled to help them.

Pastor Manders own personal hypocrisy is demonstrated when he says to Mrs Alving

“How right I was to be so deeply concerned about your son! In circles where immorality is accepted, even honoured.”

This outburst is in regards to Osvald’s accounts of life within artistic circles in Paris. Manders shows his hypocritical nature when he says of Osvald’s father

“A piece of unseemly high spirits on his part, Mrs Alving..It can’t have been more than high spirits, believe me.”

Because Alving has a respected name and position in society, Manders finds it impossible to admit to himself that Alving was not the person he thought he was, or that his actions were wrong. If anything, Alving’s indiscretions were far worse than the artists, because he was a married man, who belonged to a social class that “hid” his follies, where as the artists are at the forefront of societies criticisms even though they are essentially living as man and wife without the church’s approval. This double standard embraced by Manders is grossly unfair, particularly in an age when society was beginning to tolerate couples living out of wedlock, so long as they were not promiscuous, as Alving was in his marriage.

Mrs Alving says of Ghosts “I’m haunted by ghosts..But I’m inclined to think that we’re all ghosts, Pastor Manders; it’s not only the things we’ve inherited from our fathers and mothers that live on in us, but all sorts of dead ideas and old dead beliefs, and things of that sort…we can’t rid ourselves of them.”

Ibsen is using Mrs Alving as a direct catalyst for his own views on the subject of “ghosts”. He himself wrote “we sail, with a corpse in the cargo.” Literally meaning a useless, dead weight, which inhibits our progress forward. Thus it can be said that Ibsen aptly summarised the play by calling it “a study of the effects of conventional ideas and attitudes that are no longer beneficial to society.” The “ideas and attitudes” are “no longer beneficial to society” because they are inhibiting human progress, if anything they are regressing progress because of the devastating effects they have on people’s lives.

Thus, Ibsen’s play Ghosts is a contrived documentation of a changing society, which was encountering numerous difficulties as people struggled to adapt. These changes had huge implications on almost every facet of life including religion, marriage and family. It is important to note however that not all ideals changed. Fidelity for example, was and still is viewed as extremely important by most people. Ghosts is also a play which illuminates peoples inability to escape from their pasts, or from ideas of the past. All of the characters in the play are plagued by either one of these things, which in turn creates further conflict, such as Pastor Mander’s hypocrisy and self-righteousness. Ibsen was determined to show what a devastating impact the “forgotten” past can have in the present and the dangerous nature of outdated ideas that are still put into practise. Every event in the play enforces this, which is a credit to Ibsen’s skills as a playwright.

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