The play opens with an argument between a roughly spoken worker, Jakob Engstrand, and his daughter, Regina, who is a maid working for aging widow, Mrs. Alving. Regina thinks she is too good for her father, and she shoos Engstrand out of the house. On his way out, he meets Pastor Manders, who has come to talk about the orphanage that is being built in the name of Mrs. Alving's dead husband. The community believes that Captain Alving was an upright and moral man, but Mrs. Alving explains to Manders that the captain was really a philanderer and a drunk.
An illicit relationship with the household maid resulted in the birth of a baby girl, Regina, who was given away to Engstrand to raise as his own. When Regina was old enough to work, Mrs. Alving took her in as her maid. Manders is also glad to see Mrs. Alving's son, Osvald, who is an artist--recently returned from living on the continent.
Mrs. Alving struggles to tell her son the truth about his father, but then news arrives that the orphanage is burning to the ground. Although the fire is clearly Engstrand's fault, the canny scoundrel convinces Pastor Manders that he is to blame, and ropes him into a dodgy business that he is planning.
After they leave together, Mrs. Alving finally tells Osvald and Regina that they are brother and sister. Osvald admits that he wanted Regina because she would be able to look after him; and Regina demonstrates her true character. When she realizes that she can't marry Osvald, she storms out of the house.
With Regina gone, Osvald turns to his mother, and asks her to administer morphine to him if he loses his mind. Mrs. Alving hardly knows how to respond, but then the sun comes up. Osvald asks his mother to give him the sun, and we come to see that Osvald has slipped into madness. In the final moments of the play, Mrs. Alving is on stage. And, we are unsure (as is she) whether she will go abide by her son's final wishes.
The beauty of Ghosts rests in the new realism that Ibsen brought to the dramatic genre, and in the stark, clear nature of its thinking. In Ghosts, Ibsen attacks the old morality--specifically sexual propriety. But, he still offers human understanding to those people still tied to ideas from which they cannot or will not release themselves. These are the ghosts of which Ibsen speaks: the dead-but-not-departed morals and ideas that still hold people under their spell. These are the ghosts from which Mrs. Alving desperately tries to escape.
Brilliant, vital and enormously intelligent, Ghosts is one of the most memorable plays in modern literature. Decried when it was first written, it has grown to be one of the great classics that theatre revisits time-and-again. So vibrant--Ghosts still feels alive and valid today.