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Sadomasochism in Henrik Ibsen's "Ghosts"

“Ghosts” by Henrik Ibsen has attracted the attention and focus of many critics throughout the years and became one of the most famous plays in English Literature. The play tackles various unconventional subjects that were considered taboo, especially during the 19th century. Ibsen sheds light on gender discrimination and contrasts the gendered power of the Norwegian Bourgeoisie. The list goes on from sexually transmitted diseases, hypocrisy, and corrupt families to incest and failed marriage. Ibsen’s portrayal of patriarchal society and hereditary guilt between father and son challenge conservative thoughts and beliefs. Ibsen was known as being a fierce fighter for women’s rights and a strong supporter of individuality and individual rights. He is also the father of modern drama who introduced Realism to the world. Ibsen used to give his female characters a voice in a society that oppressed and silenced them. He wrote about and described society. He was also portraying the ideologies and truths, creating an accurate representation of contemporary life.

Masochism and sadism are both defined as one’s enjoyment of pain. It is when an individual derives pleasure from the pain inflicted on him (masochism) or from the pain inflicted on others (sadism). It is “a taste for suffering.” Medically, both sadism and masochism are considered sexual disorders. However, when one dives into masochists or a sadist’s psyche, one realizes that these so-called “disorders” are deeply rooted in the unconscious. These disorders are continuously studied and researched by psychologists and psychiatrists all over the world. Some link these disorders to sexuality, others to one’s background and childhood, trauma, oppression, self-destructiveness, repressions, or even the escape from oneself. Most of these themes are present in Ibsen’s Ghosts and have been elaborated on by numerous critics. Thus, these themes can be linked to the sado-masochism of the story’s characters. When one closely observes the characters of the play, their disturbing traits and thoughts start to increasingly reveal themselves.

Lesley Manville and Jack Lowden in Ghosts at Trafalgar Studios. Photographer: Tristram Kenton Photograph: Tristram Kenton

Ibsen’s play demonstrates how patriarchal societies oppress females and treat them as lower-class individuals. Moreover, according to critics such as A. B. M. Monirul Huq & MD. Firoz Mahmud Ahsan, all Ibsenian characters “are much prone to self-destructiveness mostly because of their failed attempts to stand alone against the domineering majority” (2013). This common trait shared by all the characters is due to their failure of being alone. Furthermore, the characters isolated themselves due to their self-destructive nature. This can also be linked to their masochist tendencies and nature. Another critic, Lesa M. Bradford debates that even though Mrs. Alving was trapped in an unhappy marriage, she stayed regardless, holding back her true feelings: “Because she let the men dominate her life and her decisions, she ended up losing everything that she held dear and had worked so hard for” (Bradford, 2007). She did this due to the stereotypes in society, setting a woman free and acting on her desires. Mrs. Alving drew a sort of pleasure from victimizing herself and staying trapped in her situation.

Freud explains masochism and sadism by linking them to the pleasure principle. He presents masochism and sadism as two sides of the same coin, for he defines masochism as passive sadism.

“The death drive” also known as “Thanatos” is what leads individuals to self-destructiveness, whereas the libido tames it. The pleasure principle becomes a servant for the death drive when it is desexualized. Moreover, Freud’s Ego is embodied in Mrs. Alving. She thrives for the love of both the ID and the Superego. She keeps sublimating Oswald and creating an ideal image of him, while his wickedness and lustful truth are the symbolism of Freud’s Id. The masochist is addicted to perfectionism. He is slowly led into self-destructiveness when his mother attempts to stand between him and his love. Additionally, masochism can also be observed in Johanna, as she tolerates and accepts her husband’s behavior. She also “fell victim to sexual bondage and found herself in the clutches of Captain Alving” (Hossain, 2016).

She becomes a victim of a toxic man who has been using her and exploiting her, but she doesn’t try to do anything about it.

Ian Glenn and Leslie Sharp as Pastor Manders and Mrs Alving

Furthermore, sadism is depicted in Mrs. Alving, as she spends most of her marriage witnessing her husband suffer and doing nothing about it. She never tries to save him from his agonies, hardly ever tries to stop him from embarking on a sexual endeavour, and isn’t even saddened by his death in the end. Conversely, she sees his death as her ticket into freedom and believes he got what he deserved. Their loveless marriage ends with his death. Consequently, she is so-called “suffering” to maintain the perfect image of their family. Even though she lived in a highly dysfunctional household and suffered from an unhappy life filled with anguish, she never tried to save herself. She never steps out of her box nor tries to get out of the toxicity she was surrounded with. Enduring pain and shame are the masochist’s way of maintaining some sense of pride in the self. Mrs. Alving’s indifference towards her situation makes the reader question if she is unhappy, or if she is satisfied with the pain and sufferance. Not only she doesn’t try to save her husband, but she also stayed in an extremely toxic and painful reality. She embodies both sadism and masochism, and she retrieves satisfaction from hurting situations. Even at the end of the play, she allegedly assists her son to take his own life, but the ending is unclear.

"Dream of the Sadist" - Expressionist painting by Otto Dix

Captain Alving and his son Osvald Alving both possess sadomasochist traits. Although Captain Alving is an unseen character in the play, his actions were narrated and described by other characters. His libido manipulates his actions, and he is driven by his ID. Captain Alving and his son Osvald fall victim to their lustful desires. Osvald continues his father’s sinful legacy and mirrors his character as he leads himself slowly into self-destruction. Both Osvald and his father are sexually driven and obsessed. The way they behave stems from misogyny. What is important is the fact that misogyny and male authority were dominant at the time. Furthermore, sadism is depicted in Captain Alving and Osvald, as they witness the women around them suffer and do nothing about it. They take advantage of them for their pleasure. They embody both sadism and masochism, for they retrieve satisfaction from painful situations. Masochism begins during childhood with the infantile experiences that shape what the person becomes in adulthood. The masochistic personality structure is also called the “self-defeating personality."

The roots of this personality structure are based on either the carelessness of the parents or the over-controlling parents. Osvald is deprived of his father and is alienated from his mother with whom he did not maintain a normal relationship. Despite the love by his mother, it doesn’t cancel the fact that she was extremely manipulative and wanted to dominate him. Moreover, both Osvald and his mother are narcissists and self-centered. In this play, sexuality and violence are linked together. Self-destructiveness and death are unavoidable; thus, the characters lead themselves into self-annihilation. The suicidal end testifies to the masochist urges. In addition, Osvald himself seeks death from the beginning. His desire for punishment is a psychological necessity, and his failure to stand up for himself in front of his mother is an indication of his masochistic nature. Regardless, in the end, he was finally able to accomplish want he wanted, fulfilling his masochistic fate. Sado-masochism, promiscuity, female dominance, and suicide are considered “taboo subjects,” but Henrik Ibsen challenges Victorian society and writes a play tackling these issues.

To conclude, masochism and sadism are portrayed in Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts and embodied in the characters of the story. When studied from a psychoanalytical lens, we realize that the main protagonists in Ibsen’s play replicate the reality of Victorian families revealing what’s behind the façade. Self-destructiveness becomes linked to the psyche and sexuality, which then becomes an embodiment of sadism and masochism. The characters’ self-destructiveness becomes inevitable and tragically ends in suicide. Osvald fulfills his masochistic destiny by taking his life into his own hands. The play illustrates the difference between Victorian men and women. It reveals the reality of sado-masochism and how it disturbs the individual's emotional, mental, and physical state. It exposes the reality of a dysfunctional household because sadism and masochism are only one aspect of their instability and disturbances.

To sum up, the psychological trouble of the characters is demonstrated in their language, actions, and socio-cultural reality. The trauma, mental illnesses, and sexual disorders they fall victim to are numerous and require closer and deeper research for one to understand their reality. Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen remains a Victorian masterpiece in modern theatre.


Hossain, A., Ejupi, V., Iseni, A., & Siljanovska, L. (2014). POWER AND SEXUALITY IN HENRIK IBSEN'S GHOSTS. European Scientific Journal, 10(11)

Huq, A. M., & Ahsan, M. F. M. (2012). Ibsenite Protagonists at Extreme Odds with the Rest of the World: A Psychological Interpretation. Stamford Journal of English, 7, 145-158.

Sprinchorn, E. (2004). Syphilis in Ibsen's ghosts. Ibsen Studies, 4(2), 191-204.

Bradford, L. M. (2007). Women in reality: a rhetorical analysis of three of Henrik Ibsen’s plays in order to determine the most prevalent feminist themes (Doctoral dissertation).

Hossain, A. (2016) Henrik Ibsen's Ghosts: A Critical Study of Hereditary Genetics. Hereditary Genet 5: 162

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Gaelle Abou Nasr

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