t’s Sins upon their ChildrenSophocles’ play Oedipus the King was written for a Greek audience as a religious right and lesson around two thousand years ago, while Ibsen’s play Ghosts was written as a criticism of the Norwegian society during the 1890’s. Although these plays were written for very different reasons and under different circumstances, the universal theme connecting them is mankind’s liability to sin because the results affect a greater whole. One of the more specific themes of these plays is the negative effect that parents’ sins have upon the generations to follow.
In Oedipus the King, Oedipus is born the son of Laius and Jocasta, the king and queen of Thebes. However, when they hear Apollo’s prophecy (that Oedipus will kill his father and sleep with his mother) they decide to destroy Oedipus. Apollo’s prophecy made Oedipus an unwanted child. In this case, the parents’ transgression of the law was that they attempted to defy the gods by evading Apollo’s prophecy. Later Jocasta states that “no skill in the world, nothing human, can penetrate the future” (Sophocles 201). Oedipus, as a later response to her statement says, “all those prophecies I feared – Polybus packs them off to sleep with him in hell! They’re nothing, worthless” (Sophocles 214). In this way, Oedipus and Jocasta quit believing in the prophecies altogether. In Ghosts, Regine is the result of an affair that Captain Alving had with the housemaid, Johanna. Since Regine is a child born out of wedlock, she is unwanted by Captain Alving because she is the result of his sin, and if anyone were to discover her true origins it could destroy the respect that society has for him. She is also unwanted by Mrs. Alving because Regine is the only inextinguishable proof of Captain Alving’s debauchery. If she did not exist it would be easier for Mrs. Alving to hide her husband’s secret.
Another set of sins that parents commit in both plays is hiding the true origins of their children. For example, Oedipus’ origins are hidden from him not only by Jocasta, but also by Polybus and Merope, the king and queen of Corinth. Polybus and Merope take in Oedipus after Laius and Jocasta thought that he was dead. Unfortunately, the rulers of Corinth never reveal to Oedipus that he is not their biological child. The results prove to be disastrous. When Oedipus was informed of Apollo’s prophecy he fled from Corinth, believing that Polybus and Merope were his true parents, only to murder Laius in his travels and sleep with Jocasta after defeating the Sphinx and being crowned the new king of Thebes. Similarly, Regine’s origins are hidden from her by her mother and Mrs. Alving. The fact that Regine’s true father was never revealed to her resulted in an incident occurring between her and Oswald that was strikingly similar to that which had happened between Captain Alving and Regine’s mother. When Mrs. Alving hears this she says, “Ghosts! Those two in the conservatorycome back to haunt us” (Ibsen 120). Here, the ghosts are symbols of the sins that she remembers from her past.
Another similarity results from the parents’ sins; both Oedipus and Oswald suffer, physically and metaphorically, from blindness. Oedipus pokes out his own eyes when he discovers the truth of the crimes against morality that he has committed, and when he can no longer bear to see Jocasta hanging from the ceiling. While Oedipus’ blindness is of his own doing, Oswald’s blindness is a direct result of his father’s debauchery. His father passed on to him a disease that causes “softening of the brain”; blindness is one of the symptoms of the final stages of this disease before death. Metaphorically speaking, Oedipus is blind to the truth of his origins and to the crimes that he has committed until all is revealed towards the end of the play. Allegorically, Oswald is blind to the truth of his father’s character, even when it is told to him directly.
Death of parents due to their sins also occurs in both plays. When Jocasta discovers that Oedipus really did killed her husband and that she is now married to her son, she hangs herself from the ceiling of her bedroom. It is possible that she would not have had a death such as this if she had not attempted to defy the gods. Similarly, Captain Alving dies as a result of his own debauchery. It is very likely that he died from the same disease that he gave to Oswald, which was a sexually transmitted disease. Due to the disease that Oswald inherited from his father, he is doomed to die because he is in the final stages of the disease. Whether he will die at the hand of his mother and the pills that he has requested she give him, or from the disease itself is unknown, but he will certainly die and his death will be a direct result of the sins that his debauched father committed.
Although many of the parents’ sins are similar in effect, there are also several differences that occur throughout the two plays. For example, Oedipus is banished from society because he himself promises this punishment to the man who murdered Laius. Not only is he exiled from Thebes, but no other place will receive him because he is looked at as a “curse to society.” His daughter Antigone also goes into exile with him, therefore becoming a social outcast as well, even though she is a voluntary exile. His other daughter and sons also become socially unaccepted because they are children of incest. Although Regine is an illegitimate child, she is not a social outcast. However, she leaves the Alving household with the belief that she will be able to gain a position helping Pastor Manders, but she will most likely end up working in Engstrand’s brothel. If this happens she, too, will become a social outcast.
Another instance of contrast is the fact that Oedipus consciously murdered Laius. Although he did not know that Laius was his father, Oedipus was not forced to kill him, and a murder is always a sin, no matter who is killed. The murder was an effect of Oedipus’ hubris, his pride and arrogance. His pride can even be considered a sin in itself, as it is the first of the seven deadly sins. If this murder had not occurred, none of the other moral crimes that he commits would have taken place and his children would not have had the weight of his sins on their shoulders. Conversely, Oswald’s sin was not committed consciously. The incident that happened with Regine occurred solely because he was unaware of the fact that he was related to her. Also, there was nothing he could have done to redeem himself from the results (blindness and disease) of his father’s sins. It is in this way that Oedipus is a victim of his parents’ sins and a sinner himself, whereas Oswald is only a victim.
In Oedipus the King, Sophocles’ message to his audience is that people should not doubt the words of the gods, or those on earth who are meant to deliver their messages. This is demonstrated by the fact that all of what Tiresias says is true, and those who doubt him encounter horrible troubles throughout the play. Also, Oedipus’ hubris is a sin in and of itself, therefore one should attempt to control ones pride or the results can be disastrous. This is displayed because Laius would not have died if it had not been for Oedipus’ hubris, and if Laius had not died the many other sins and results that happened after that would never have occurred. In short, do not let your pride blind you to the knowledge of those who are wiser than you. In Ghosts, Ibsen’s message is that the Norwegian society was hypocritical and unmoral. This is shown through Oswald’s suffering because he is simply a victim who is paying for what a hypocritical society permits – men’s immorality. The overall idea behind this play is that hypocrites should not criticize others; as Manders criticizes Oswald the companions that he chose during his stay in Paris. However, they are both combined by the intricate link of sin and its effects on the whole.
Ibsen, Henrik. Four Major Plays. Trans. James McFarlane and Jens Arup. New York: OxfordUP, 1998
Sophocles. The Three Theban Plays. Trans. Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin Classics, 1984