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Study Guide


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“Oh, law and order! I often think it is that that is at the bottom of all the misery in the world.”
—Helene Alving in Act II of Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen, 1881

“What we call our ‘civilization’ is largely responsible for our misery.”
—Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, 1929

Harold Bloom, the literary critic, once wrote a book called Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. Obviously, Bloom was not giving Shakespeare any direct credit for inventing the human race. What the critic was saying was that it was Shakespeare, particularly in plays like Hamlet, who was among the first great writers to truly understand human consciousness, and to be able to express this complex and intricate understanding in the form of art, in this case drama. Hamlet was an astonishing example of psychological insight created almost three centuries before the science of psychology was even beginning to gain popular awareness. While mental health was not exactly a new idea at the turn of the 20th century, it was during that time that Sigmund Freud and his followers codified it into a scientific discipline. If one looks at the work of Ibsen, particularly the great social realist works like Ghosts, it would seem obvious that the playwright was deeply influenced by Freud’s ideas. The only problem with that idea is that Ibsen wrote his greatest plays decades before Freud even began to publish his work!

If we are going to agree with Professor Bloom and give Shakespeare credit for his insight into the human mind, then we must do the same for Ibsen. Consider that in his classic work Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud brought a psychoanalytic approach to one of the oldest problems ever dealt with by great philosophers and thinkers of all nations and ages: the problem of the individual in society. Simply put, Freud believed that there was an extreme tension between the wants and desires of the individual that must somehow be reconciled with the needs and demands of society. We cannot just simply act on impulse, and do whatever we want when we want to. We need the protection and stability that made us first gather into societies eons ago. The question is, though, if we have to repress our desire to be a part of society, what happens to our inborn passion for personal freedom? Freud was a realist; he was not suggesting that we all abandon society and head back to the wild. He was saying that we must acknowledge that as humans, we pay a psychological price for being part of a society. The price is that repression makes happiness very difficult to come by, and that, in the end, it is the root of much of our mental instability and illness.

When Ibsen first began to write his plays, he did so amid one of the most repressive eras of modern times, the period we refer to as the Victorian Era. It was a time when in all aspects of life, people were expected to live lives of restraint, in terms of sexuality, dress, public behavior and even outward displays of intense emotion of any sort. In other words, the idea of personal happiness, or the pursuit of what both Helene and Oswald refer to in Ghosts as the joy of life, were deemed almost completely irrelevant to both the public and private lives of the Victorians. Ibsen’s plays were often considered to be radical in their own time. His so-called “social realist” plays dramatize in a very public way the argument that Freud would make almost half a century later: that what we call “civilization”, and the hypocritical guardians of that civilization (think of Manders in this play) are directly responsible for the often inescapable personal misery through which his characters suffer. Consider the social institutions that Ibsen attacks in these plays: the chains of unhappy marriage in A Doll’s House; the corruption of the press and of government officials in An Enemy of the People; and the enforced repression of “dangerous” ideas of the self in plays like Hedda Gabler. In Ghosts, we get all of these and a few more thrown in for good measure. Ghosts was probably the least loved of Ibsen’s works in his own time, and that it is precisely why it is so important to us in ours.

In 2015, we are still trying to figure out what the proper balance is between the needs of the individual and those of society. In our time, literature and art that dramatizes how society represses individual desire are accepted, and even celebrated. It is important, then, for us to remember that Ibsen was the first modern playwright to wrestle with these controversies directly on stage. Over a century after his death, Ibsen remains perhaps the most eloquent and thoughtful spokesman for the idea that we must never lose sight of the passion and power of the individual self, even when society tries to restrain us in the name of “civilization.”