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‘Rocks are infinitely more dangerous when they are submerged, and the sluggish waves of false sentiment and hypocrisy have been washing over reality far too long already’ (Coward). Discuss with reference to modern drama. This essay will explore the work of Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts and John Galsworthy’s Justice and will ask, in relation to Coward’s quote above, whether they regard societal norms as obscuring deeper truths, or whether their realism leads them to regard societal norms as truth itself.
Although Ibsen put his hopes in his notions of ‘truth’ and ‘liberation’ as the cornerstones of a new and better society, these very same notions are what cause the downfall of Ghosts. The idealist characters prevail whilst the characters who discover a different truth are left in despair.
The essay will therefore explore a tension between idealism and a modernist’s sense of reality in the works of Ibsen and Galsworthy. Ibsen once wrote that Ghosts would case alarm for some people and if it had not then there would have been no need for him to write it? By saying this, Ibsen positioned himself as an outsider of society but also makes clear his aims of being a realistic commentator on contemporary life.
However, Ibsen’s play was met with an even more hostile response than he expected: critics claimed it was an ‘abominable play’, ‘a disgusting representation’ and a ‘dirty act done publicly’. The last quote suggests that it was not so much the content of the play itself as the fact that it was aired publicly that was offensive to Victorian society, but it was indeed that murkier reality behind the splendor of the Victorian façade which Ibsen wished to expose in his work.
James McFarlane argues that it is a crisis in an individual’s life, brought about by the internal workings of narrative which conveniently serves as a metaphor or vehicle for Ibsen to comment on society’s hypocrisy: ‘Ibsen concentrates on some phase in the contemporary situation where a latent crisis suddenly becomes visible. In this way, he was able to embody contemporary problems through the medium of an individual’s destiny.’
This implies that ‘false sentiment’ and ‘hypocrisy’ were an existing social problem, hence Ibsen’s need to write about it. Ibsen includes a number of socially representative types: Linda Nochlin writes that this is because a work of realism aspires to convey a moral message of general validity.
Ibsen himself drew attention to the realism of his Ghosts and that he was striving towards an objective reality: ‘my intention was to give the reader the impression of experiencing a piece of reality’. The overall message that the play Justice by Galsworthy conveys is that the law and morality are two separate entities, thus again drawing attention to the underlying hypocrisy of the social order surrounding Galsworthy, and indicating the need for reform.
Galsworthy wrote the play in an attempt to halt the routine use of solitary confinement. Unusual for artworks attempting to bring about social reform, Justice actually helped to achieve its goal within a few months. However, Galsworthy maintained that his play’s purpose went beyond that.
The play demonstrates a ‘less modern’ way of thinking showing the law to be outdated and blind to inhumanity. Mr How is confronted with a moral dilemma when it is discovered that Falder has forged a cheque, a moral dilemma that would not have been beyond the experience of a middle class audience of the period. He then deliberately propels Falder into the crushing machinery of the law.
Thus, the law becomes responsible for Falder’s downfall, showing how concrete the hypocritical attitudes of society have become. Both Justice and Ghosts were considered to be problem plays, in the sense that they aimed at exposing individuals dilemmas brought about at the hands of a wider society. They treat various social problems in a realistic and semi-melodramatic fashion.
To return to Galsworthy’s play Justice, society’s unequal and often unfair treatment of its citizens can be seen to affect the character Ruth. Her duty’ to her husband overrides all else and her suffering is not taken into consideration. The Victorian ideal of marriage compels her to remain in an abusive relationship with her husband and in the end, after Falder is arrested, she has the resort to prostitution to support her children: ‘It was starvation for the children.
And then my employer happened – he’s happened ever since.’12 Ibsen draws further attention to the prevalence of double standards with the illicit relationship taking place between Ruth and Falder’s old employer. Cokeson calls the situation ‘extenuating circumstances’ whereas James How calls them ‘dissolute habits’ (Falder’s love for Ruth and his desire to remove her from brutality), and there is a clear divide between an old and new way of thinking which I will discuss in detail later on.
To return to my point, these hypocritical double standards are clearly in play. For example, there is an emphasis on the sanctity of marriage yet the only way Ruth can earn a living is through selling herself, presumably, to married men.
Prostitution was an unmentioned occurrence, and even within the play it is only suggested indirectly, saying the happened, and it does not become clear what exactly has happened until the reader experiences Falder’s reaction. The taboo remains hidden while the ideals that individuals ultimately fall short of remain on the surface of society. The reader can see the same attitude towards marriage in Ghosts by Ibsen.
Mrs Alving tried to escape her marriage because of her husband’s affair but was sent to him by Pastor Manders: ‘Yes, you can thank God that I had the necessary strength of mind to dissuade you from your outrageous plan; and that it was vouchsafed to me to lead you back to the path of duty – and home to your rightful husband’.
The reader may notice in several instances Mrs Alving seems to make romantic advances towards Pastor Manders: ‘Can’t you really be persuaded to stay the night this time? […] I do think a couple of old people like us…’ Pastor Manders responses seem to indicate he may too return her feelings, but instead chooses to focus on duty: ‘We have our duty to do, Mrs Alving’16. In which case, he goes against his own natural desires to maintain the ‘duty’ he sees for himself within society – his liberty is thwarted by past traditions.
McFarlane argues that ‘Pastor Manders confirms the existing social structure as a ‘pillar of society’. He is not prepared to give this up at any price.’ This indeed seems to be the case, even at the price of Mander’s own happiness. In addition, McFarlane states that ‘the Bourgeoisie individual became a defender of the status quo and a traitor to his officially expressed values. He is used as a device to represent Victorian society, and he has seemingly outdated views in contrast to Mrs Alving’s books.
These are described as having a more ‘natural’ way of thinking, and likewise, Osvald is presented as having a further liberated view on life after travelling. Nevertheless, it becomes evident that when the truth is revealed it exposes a far more ‘dangerous’ reality (as Coward’s quote states) than the previous charade of false sentiments.
This dangerous reality manifests itself in the final scene of both Justice and Ghosts. In Justice, after the truth has surfaced about Ruth’s prostitution, Falder resorts to jumping out of his office window and breaking his neck. In Ghosts, when the truth emerges it has terrible consequences – Regine leaves Osvald and finally Osvald’s own deminse: ‘I never asked you for life. And what sort of a life have you given me? I won’t have it – you can take it back.’
Thus, hypocrisy and false sentiment, to quote Coward, may in fact be more tolerable than the darker more sinister reality which it obscures, and which both Ibsen and Galsworthy are intent on ultimately revealing through their dramas: for Ibsen, ‘truth’ and ‘freedom’ were worth seeking out in the name of social justice, even if they reveal an unbearable state of affairs. Although the Victorian era was far less liberal than our own in its approach to law and order, it nevertheless allowed for inconsistencies in its applications of justice, an approach reflected in Justice.
For example, as | mentioned earlier, prostitution is allowed to take place while the unbreakable bonds of marriage are upheld. In addition, the law fails Falder too: ‘the judge instructs the jury, you must not allow any considerations of age or temptation to weight with you in finding your verdict.’ However, these same factors are what encourage the reader to feel sympathy for Falder’s situation.
This makes the law appear inconsistent since morally speaking, Cokeson is right to emphasize extenuating circumstances that led to temptation. Here, is where the false sentiment of Victorian society becomes dangerous since is affects the mental health of the individual, as seen in the case of Falder. He is considered to be fine because he has gained weight, but the health of his mind is not questioned. What he has lost mentally is not quantifiable.
In addition, the reform that took place just months after the play suggests a true to life account of events. Cokeson emphasizes the hidden reality by saying, ‘Of course what you don’t see doesn’t trouble you; but I don’t want to have him on my mind. This quote seems to emphasise a different reality to the pretence of Victorian society. There is a clear contrast between the two lawyers in Justice: Frome and Cleaver.
Frome is a young man, clean-shaven in a very white wig,’ whilst Cleaver is ‘a dried yellowish man, of more than middle age, in a wig worn almost to the colour of his face.” Both characters are representative of a social type, in accordance with Noclin’s realism, mentioned earlier. Frome represents a younger, modern way of thinking, more ethically minded and liberal in approach.
In contrast, Frome is more experienced in the law and could represent the older traditions: he defends his position of power and status quo similarly to Pastor Manders from Ghosts. Frome deliberately seeks a way to get around the law, bringing to attention to the stress that motivated the crime. He takes a fresher approach, whereas Cleaver demands ‘justice’. Hypocrisy is particularly evident here since justice is used in a way which does not suggest its true meaning.
The reader feels it is unjust that Falder should be punished yet false sentiment remains. This false sentiment can also be seen in Oswald’s disease in Ghosts. Halvdan Koht wrote, ‘Oswald is branded with disease, not because his father was a beast, but because Mrs Alving had obeyed the immoral ethics of society. “26 In this instance, it seems more harmful that the truth remained hidden.
However, the catastrophic events of the truth surfacing do seem to suggest otherwise. Michael Meyer wrote, ‘Ghosts is about the devitalizing effect of a dumb acceptance of convention. This seems particularly evident where Mrs Alving is concerned since her acceptance of convention, and not wanting to shatter her son’s ‘ideal view on his father costs her her own son in the end.
Truth and ideals are expressed as two different entities, shown in the conversation between Mrs Alving and Pastor Manders, ‘Manders: Don’t you feel your mother’s heart prompting you not to shatter your son’s ideals? Mrs Alving: But what about the truth? Manders: But what about ideals?:28 It is as though ‘ideals’ are a separate reality.
To conclude, disingenuous feelings and actions on the part of those who instilled law and order in Victorian society is particularly evident in both plays Ghosts and Justice. However, it is unclear whether Ibsen and Galsworthy are implying that these attitudes are more dangerous to society or whether they actually prevent a more sinister reality from emerging: the ambiguity seems deliberate, however.
Nevertheless, this reality seems to exist, Ibsen and Galsworthy imply, whether the façade is kept up or not. This is prominent in Ruth’s prostitution which is edged around carefully, rather than put bluntly. In the same way, Oswald in Ghosts hints at freer life yet he is restricted. Ibsen believed the truth’ enabled liberation and this does indeed eem to be the case, to an extent. However, the truth is equally dangerous in creating an overly sinister, dangerous reality.
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