The play opens outside a large modern house. On the right side of the house is the Round Room, with a balcony above it. The stage direction reads, "At the beginning of the scene the blinds of the Round Room are down. When, later, they are raised, the white marble statue of a young woman can be seen, surrounded with palms and brightly lighted by rays of sunshine." It is a Sunday morning, and the sun is shining. As the curtain rises, the Lady in Black can be seen standing on the staircase inside the house.
A stage direction tells us, "The Caretaker's Wife sweeps the doorstep, then polishes the brass on the door and waters the laurels." On the street, the Old Man sits in a wheelchair reading a newspaper.
The Student enters, unshaven and underslept, and approaches the Milkmaid, asking her to pour him some water from the water fountain. Observing this, the Old Man is confused, as he cannot see the Milkmaid. The Student tells the Milkmaid that he was up all night dressing wounds, because he was there when a house collapsed the previous evening. He then asks the Milkmaid to wipe his eyes with some water, as they are inflamed, but he is worried about his hands being dirty from the medical work he has been doing. She does so, then disappears.
The Old Man tells the Student that he was just reading about the collapsed house in the newspaper, and that the article was unable to identify the "splendid young student." He then asks the Student who he was talking to, and the Student is confused. When the Old Man asks the Student his name so that he might give it to the newspapers, the Student says he would rather not get the attention, even though he is very poor.
Suddenly, the Old Man recognizes the Student's voice and asks him if he is related to a Mr. Arkenholtz. The Student confirms that he is Mr. Arkenholtz's son, and that when he was born, his father was going bankrupt. When the Old Man says his name is Hummel, the Student recognizes him as the man who ruined his father financially. "Now these are the facts," the Old Man says, "Your father robbed me of 17,000 crowns—the whole of my savings at the time."
The Student replies, "It's queer that the same story can be told in two such different ways." The Old Man stands by his side of the story, insisting, "I saved your father from disaster, and he repaid me with all the frightful hatred that is born of an obligation to be grateful. He taught his family to speak ill of me." The Student replies, "Perhaps you made him ungrateful by poisoning your help with unnecessary humiliation," to which the Old Man replies, "All help is humiliating, sir."
The Old Man tells the Student that he needs help from him, and that this help will make him feel like he has been repaid for the money lost by the Student's father. He asks the Student to push his wheelchair so he can see what playbills are being advertised at the theater. The Student asks if he has an attendant, and the Old Man tells him that he does, but that he has gone for an errand.
When the Student tells the Old Man that he is studying languages, and does not know what he will do with his life, the Old Man offers to get him a job, if he is good at mathematics. The Old Man tells him to go to the matinee of The Valkyrie taking place at the theater, so that he can sit next to the Colonel and his daughter, who will be sitting in the 6th row. He tells the Student to get seat 82 in the 6th row, so that he can sit next to the Colonel and get a job.
As the Student goes to get a ticket, the Lady in Black comes out and talks to the Caretaker's Wife. We cannot hear their conversation, but the Old Man listens to them. When the Student returns, having procured a ticket, the Old Man tells him that he knows the house they are standing near well, and that, at 80 years old, he takes an interest in "human destiny." The curtains of the Round Room open and reveal the Colonel, who turns and stands next to the marble statue.
The Old Man points out that the Colonel is who will be attending the opera that afternoon, and tells the Student that the statue in the Round Room is of the Colonel's wife. The Old Man elaborates, saying, "We can't judge people, young man. If I were to tell you that she left him, that he beat her, that she returned to him and married him a second time, and that now she is sitting inside there like a mummy, worshipping her own statue—then you would think me crazy."
Then, the Old Man points out "the window with the hyacinths" where the Colonel's daughter lives. She's out for a ride, but will be home soon. The Student asks the Old Man who the Lady in Black is, and the Colonel says it is complicated to explain, but that she is "connected with the dead man, up there where you see the white sheets." The dead man was a Consul, the Old Man explains, and says that if the Student were a Sunday child, he would see the Consul coming out now. The Student tells him that he was born on a Sunday, and they discuss the fact that this means the Student can see ghosts.
The Student confides in the Old Man that he was drawn to "that obscure little street where later on the house collapsed." He tells him that he was drawn to the collapsing house and was able to pick up and save a child that was passing under just as the structure began to fall down. Moments later, after the house collapsed, he realized that the child he thought he had saved had evaporated into thin air. When he discusses the fact that he was just talking to a Milkmaid by the fountain, the Old Man becomes horrified.
The Fiancée sits down in one of the windows of the house, and the Old Man identifies her as his fiancée from 60 years prior, when the Old Man was 20. The Old Man then notices the Caretaker's Wife come out of the house with a basket of chopped fir branches. He tells the Student that the Lady in Black is the Caretaker's Wife's daughter by the dead Consul, explaining, "That's why her husband was given the job of caretaker. He elaborated: "...The dark lady has a suitor, who is an aristocrat with great expectations. He is in the process of getting a divorce—from his present wife, you understand. She's presenting him with a stone mansion in order to be rid of him. This aristocratic suitor is the son-in-law of the dead man, and you can see his bedclothes being aired on the balcony upstairs. It is complicated, I must say."
The play opens on a very specific visual scene, of a large and lavish house in town. Strindberg writes very specific and visual stage directions about what the stage looks like, and with particular instructions about the layout of the house. The curtain rises on a pristine image of a home, as beautiful as it is mysterious.
Strindberg constructs a world that exists somewhere between reality and the metaphysical or the symbolic. While the stage is set up much like a realistic play, the characters that people it are archetypal, nameless, and seemingly straddling the boundary between the world of the living and the dead. As the title suggests, this is a world in which ghosts walk amongst humans, and the uncanny tone and setting of the play set the scene for this reality well before the narrative gets underway.
The play presents unusual coincidences and strange apparitions very early on. When the Student enters, he interacts with the Milkmaid, who is seemingly a ghost standing at the water fountain. In the next moment, when he speaks to the Old Man, a strange and almost sinister synchronicity occurs when he learns that the Old Man is in fact the very man who sent his father into financial ruin and who determined his lifelong poverty.
The play is unusual and paints a picture of a rather grim universe, in which ghosts roam among men and battered wives live, mummified in their own homes. We experience the surreality of the play much in the way that the Student does, learning about its strange rules with curiosity and a little bit of fear. Indeed, the reader or viewer's experience of the play can be summated in the Student's statement, "I don't understand any of this, but it's like a fairy story."
Not very much happens in these early moments of the play, and yet we see the characters caught in a complicated web, connected to one another in confusing and unusual ways. The Student is the son of a man whom the Old Man once ruined financially. The various servants and wealthy people are connected in a sordid web of infidelity, illegitimacy, and abuse. Additionally, some characters are living, while others are from the spirit world.