The Meaning of Vermoulu in Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts

In 1881, Henrik Ibsen’s play Ghosts shocked the theatrical world by bringing to center stage the taboo topic of venereal disease. A major character in the drama, Oswald Alving, age 26, suffers from neurosyphilis. Oswald’s headaches and neck stiffness (“like a tight iron band squeezing me from my neck up”1) indicate chronic meningitis. His difficulty concentrating (“I couldn’t focus any of my thoughts”1) and inability to work suggest the meningoencephalitis of general paresis. And, in the play’s tragic climax, Oswald suffers a devastating, catastrophic neurologic deterioration on stage with altered mental status and an unresponsiveness that leaves him permanently an invalid (“Oswald appears to crumple inwardly in the chair; all his muscles loosen; the expression leaves his face; and his eyes stare blankly”1).

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