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 (β€œlike a tight iron band squeezing me from my neck up”1) indicate chronic meningitis. His difficulty concentrating (β€œI 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 (β€œOswald 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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