Few playwrights have had such early success as Henrik Ibsen who, at the age of 22, had his first play published. Although the play sold poorly, in that same year, his second play was staged. Early on, Ibsen manifested the personality traits of a short-temper, sharp-tongue and sarcasm that would produce such socially engaged works as A Doll House, Pillars of Society, and An Enemy of the People.
Ibsen was born and raised in Skien, a small, backwoods timber town on the east coast of Norway. At the time, Norway was a province of Sweden, and was essentially Danish in culture and language, having previously been considered part of Denmark.
Ibsen was the son of a general storekeeper who owned a schnapps distillery. His father became bankrupt and, despite constant efforts, failed to recover. Given the isolation of the town in which he lived, Ibsen became a loner, often painting and reading the works of authors such as Dickens, Scott, and Voltaire. At the age of 16, he left his family to become an apprentice apothecary in Grimstad, another backwoods town. There he continued reading and painting. He also began writing, especially poetry. He became known as a radical, espousing the republican ideas of Voltaire and being himself atheistic or at best agnostic.
In 1850, Ibsen took a ship to Christiania (present-day Oslo) to prepare for matriculation exams, which, if successfully passed, would gain him university entrance. There, for the first time, he was in the company of youths his own age, writers who knew more about literature than he did. He even attended his first (and last) political demonstration in favor of a deported, radical editor. Ibsen became editor of the university paper, but failed his exams.
Rather than trying to pass the exams a second time, he took a job as stage manager/writer for Norway’s new national theater in Bergen. He eventually received a stipend to spend three months traveling in Europe to visit and study theater production, an evident eye-opener for him. In fact, this three-month trip turned into a period of 27 years of exile, mostly spent in Italy.
Ibsen wrote many plays, nearly one per year for quite a while. His work, always highly controversial, social and critical in nature, was at first rejected, and then gradually accepted, until finally it won worldwide acclaim. Many young people, including James Joyce, learned to speak Norwegian, just to read these plays in their original language.
After his death, Ibsen was given a state funeral. A column was erected over his grave, bearing the hammer, symbolic for striking out lies. Although Ibsen never received the Nobel Prize for literature, his work in drama is widely recognized as more influential than any dramatist’s since Shakespeare. His plays revolutionized theater. America’s own Nobel Prize Laureate for Literature, dramatist Eugene O’Neill, declared Ibsen “much nearer to me than Shakespeare” (Meyer, 815).
The Warrior’s Barrow (1850)
St. John’s Eve (1851)
Lady Inger of Ostraat (1885)
The Feast at Solhaug (1856)
Olaf Liljekrans (1857)
The Vikings in Helgeland (1858)
Love’s Comedy (1862)
The Pretenders (1863)
Peer Gynt (1867)
The League of Youth (1869)
Emperor and Galilean (1872)
Pillars of Society (1877)
A Doll House (1879)
An Enemy of the People (1882)
The Wild Duck (1884)
The Lady from the Sea (1888)
Hedda Gabler (1890)
The Master Builder (1892)
Little Eyolf (1894)
John Gabriel Borkman (1896)
When We Dead Awaken (1899)
Correspondence of Henrik Ibsen (1970)
Speeches and New Letters (1972)
An Enemy of the People
Dr. Thomas Stockmann – Staff doctor at the municipal baths
Mrs. Stockmann – Dr. Stockmann's wife
Petra – Dr. and Mrs. Stockmann's daughter, a teacher
Eilif – Dr. and Mrs. Stockmann's 12-year old son
Morten – Dr. and Mrs. Stockmann's 10-year old son
Peter Stockmann – Dr. Stockmann's older brother, mayor, police chief, and chairman of the board of the municipal baths
Morten Kiil – Mrs. Stockmann’s foster father, master tanner
Hovstad – Editor of the People’s Courier
Billing – Hovstad’s assistant
Captain Horster – Sea captain by trade
Aslaksen – Chairman of the Home Owner’s Council, representative of the Temperance Union and printer working at the People’s Courier
Diverse participants in the public meeting – men of all social ranks, several women, and a gang of schoolboys
Dr. Stockmann, the play’s protagonist, has been away practicing medicine in the northern hinterlands of Norway. He is happy to be back home. His infatuation with life seems to affect everyone around him except his brother, the mayor, whose interests remain restricted to economics and politics.
The town has become quite prosperous since the installation of new municipal baths, an idea that originated from Dr. Stockmann himself. His brother acted on the idea and is now chairman of the board of the baths.
Hovstad, the editor of People’s Courier, the town newspaper, asks Dr. Stockmann about possibly printing an article the doctor had submitted the previous winter. Stockmann declares he is not quite ready to have it published because he is waiting for additional information. When that information arrives, Stockmann has scientific proof that the baths are polluted with bacteria.
This discovery is first met with enthusiasm from the town leaders, including Hovstad, who represents the liberal press, and Aslaksen, who represents the townspeople as chairman of the Home Owner’s Council. The mayor, however, is not happy.
The situation soon begins to deteriorate as, one by one, key characters subtly, then surely, turn against Dr. Stockmann, especially when the mayor alerts everybody to the enormous cost of rendering the baths sanitary. Hovstad turns against the doctor because, in reality, the editor is a political pawn, despite his professing of liberal ideas. Aslaksen turns against the doctor when he realizes homes will be devalued and taxes will have to be collected from homeowners.
Because the People’s Courier now refuses to print the discovery, Dr. Stockmann holds a town meeting. Publicly revealing his discovery, he also indicates that the situation is about more than just the pollution at the baths when he says that “[t]he most insidious enemy of truth and freedom among us is the solid majority” (4.356).
The crowd is so incensed with his statement, or “great new discovery,” that it designates
the doctor, by near unanimous vote, “an enemy of the people.” Soon the crowd turns into a mob, attacking Dr. Stockmann’s home.
After being served eviction papers, Dr. Stockmann determines to stand his ground and find a new house rather than turn to exile. He decides to start his own school and, if
necessary, to fill it with students from non-homeowners, that is, homeless “mongrels.” The play concludes with the doctor declaring: “the strongest man in the world is the one who stands most alone.”
During Ibsen’s debut as a playwright, nearly all the actors in Norway were Danish. In fact, the Norwegian language was really a Danish dialect, and Norway was, essentially, an outpost of Danish culture. Nevertheless, a Norwegian language movement was taken up in the theater and plays started being staged in the vernacular. Ibsen was one of the first playwrights to do this.
At the time, Norwegian national theater had just been created. The most popular plays were written around the theme of romantic nationalism. Indeed, the public preferred “banal melodramas, superficial comedies, and mock rustic folk tales” (Meyer 102). Anything critical or unusual seemed doomed to failure. Ibsen, however, changed that by being one the first playwrights to avoid the use of firmly embedded traditional techniques such as “mistaken identities, intercepted letters, overheard conversations, lengthy monologues and frequent asides” (Meyer 116). Ibsen also wrote in prose rather than the more traditional verse. He consequently became well-known and won much acclaim for the excellence of the prose used in his plays.
Ibsen also broke free of tradition by writing social drama, something quite unusual, for the Norwegian public was accustomed to comedies and musicals. He was most influential in introducing this public to the philosophies of liberalism and individualism, and in using satire to freely condemn social ills. He fought dead thought and tradition, and proclaimed the importance of following one’s private conscience, free will, avoid[ing] compromise and be[ing] oneself” (Meyer 247). He also brought ordinary people on to the stage, thereby breaking social barriers of the time.
Insight and Pertinence:
1. Truth versus Loyalty and Obedience to Authority
The themes in “An Enemy of the People” are tightly linked to each other, universal and current (i.e., pertinent to most modern-day industrial societies). One of the most important ones is general citizen complacency with its ineluctable corollary, absolute obedience to authority, right or wrong, replacing the truth in importance. Loyalty is another term for that obedience. Evidently, this is not, by any means, an unusual concept, evoking politics and the military. Semper fi is the motto of the United States Marines, not Veritas. Former president George Bush evoked it in his statement: “My country right or wrong.” The very term “loyalty” seems to have replaced that of “truth” in political, and corporate, dialogue. Exploration of this theme, perhaps even comparing “An Enemy of the People” with a modern situation, is not only in order, but could evidently be quite pertinent.
2. Individualism versus Conformity
“An Enemy of the People” focuses on the narrowness of small community life, which might easily be compared with the narrowness of any group organization (e.g., school, corporation and social club) where conformity is of prime concern. Clearly, the concept of loyalty is closely linked to conformity. Ibsen underscores the seeming inability of the average citizen, harnessed by conformity, to think and act for him or herself. He stresses the inherent conflict between being and acting as an individual as opposed to conforming to the group (e.g., community). The direction of conformity is of course controlled and manipulated by authority. Conformity must by its very nature inhibit individual expression, while the latter by its very nature must come into conflict with conformity. Conformity might be compared with Freud’s concept of the “superego” or society, while individualism with his concept of the “id” or intrinsic human nature or truth. What is interesting, however, is Ibsen’s forcing conformity to come into direct conflict with the latter.
The concept of whistleblowing is of course closely linked to individualism and truth. Interestingly, it seems to have surfaced as a 1990s and new millennium term, if not phenomenon. The tobacco scientist Wiegand, who blew the whistle on corruption in the tobacco industry, certainly helped bring the concept to the forefront. Dr. Stockmann is a whistleblower, of the modern variety, and like Dr. Wiegand, his aim was not to hurt his fellow citizens but help them. Wiegand like Stockmann also ends up an enemy of the people, though, in the case of the former, the people are not the townsfolk but rather the tobacco stockholders. The similarities and parallels between the two whistleblowers are perhaps striking and would make an interesting study.
4. Truth versus Public Opinion
Public opinion is also a concept that evidently interests Ibsen. After all, he was able to observe first-hand, as novice playwright, just how fickle and, for that matter, cruel public opinion could be. He was interested in how such opinion could easily be manipulated to serve the interests of the economic and political forces in power. Although, Dr. Stockmann states that “the majority is never right” (4.356), well, sometimes it is. Indeed, sometimes majority opinion does correspond with truth, be it by chance or the interests of those in power. But what he really meant was that majority opinion must never be equated with truth for the simple reason that it is majority opinion. In “An Enemy of the People,” public opinion dances around the truth, in the beginning coinciding with it, at the end opposing it. The concept of truth is at the very crux of “An Enemy of the People.” Some might argue that there are different truths regarding a particular phenomenon, in other words, different ways of considering something. However, Ibsen’s choice of a phenomenal truth, pollution in the bath waters, is quite concrete, rendering such an argument frivolous. Indeed, by choosing something a concrete phenomenon, as opposed to an abstract one, Ibsen is able to present the truth as static. The illusion is that it changes with the addition of newer information and public opinion. Ibsen is interested in why people often refuse to accept and/or see the truth. Again, a comparison study regarding public opinion and its seeming affects upon the truth might prove interesting. How do some modern-day politicians, for example, work to sway public opinion in an effort to distort, deny or simply ignore the truth?
Evidently, for Ibsen, nothing—neither economical nor political concern—should be more important than speaking the truth. For him, this is something all citizens should strive to do, despite the inevitable conflict and hardship such may provoke. Indeed, for Ibsen, truth telling becomes the utmost in a human being’s quest for self-actualization.
Act 1: In Dr. Stockmann’s Home
Billing is seated alone at the dining table. Mrs. Stockmann passes him a plate containing a large piece of roast beef. Mayor Peter Stockmann enters. Mrs. Stockmann informs him that his brother, the doctor, is out taking a walk. Soon Hovstad enters to inquire if he might finally print an article the doctor had submitted the previous winter. The mayor remarks that indeed his brother seems to be a frequent contributor to the paper, but that is fine because he and the town are quite tolerant of those wishing to speak their minds. He mentions how the “great, new, magnificent installation, the spa” has become the “great common concern” that binds the people in the town (1.285). He remarks that because of the spa, property values are rising daily, unemployment declining, and the economic outlook is quite positive.
The mayor’s optimism changes when Hovstad reminds him that the spa was the doctor’s idea. The mayor protests, evidently jealous, that it was he who put the idea into practice, and that his brother was too irresponsible to do so.
In the first act, the two siblings display opposing traits. The mayor is very practical, austere, closed-minded, while his brother is idealistic, bubbly in humor, generous, and open-minded.
Dr. Stockmann returns from his walk with Captain Horster, exuberantly joining the diners. Regarding the article Hovstad wants to print, the doctor indicates that he is not quite ready to have it published. The mayor immediately suspects something is wrong and insists as chairman of the board of municipal baths that his brother reveal the reason for his hesitance. Dr. Stockmann states that he does not yet possess all the facts.
Tension between the two brothers manifests itself when the mayor suggests the doctor is behaving slyly. He makes a statement that the doctor will challenge later on in the play: “You have an inveterate tendency to go your own way, in any case. And in a well-ordered society, that’s nearly inexcusable. The individual has to learn to subordinate himself to the whole – or, I should say, to those authorities charged with the common good” (1.291). Before exiting, the mayor warns his brother that one day he will regret his passion for individualism.
Hovstad mentions he was contemplating publishing Dr. Stockmann’s article in the next day’s edition. Then Petra, the doctor’s daughter, enters with a letter for her father. When the doctor sees the letter, he immediately exclaims that this was the letter he was waiting for, excusing himself to read it in his study. Conversation then focuses first on Petra, a schoolteacher, then on her two younger siblings, Morten and Eilif. It reveals Petra as a strong, truthful, independent person, much like her father.
Through Petra, Ibsen chides public education: “Oh, there’s so much hypocrisy, both at home and in school. At home we have to keep quiet, and in school we have to stand there and lie to the children. [. . .] Yes, don’t you know, we have to teach them all kinds of things we don’t believe in ourselves?” (1.296)
Dr. Stockmann returns from his study and declares that he has made a “great discovery” (1.297). The letter, which contains conclusive laboratory analysis of spa water samples, confirms the suspicions he harbored at the very beginning of the spas project, when he wrote an unheeded protest letter. Also, a number of cases of visitors stricken with typhoid and gastritis had come to his attention. He is exuberant, though what he tells those present about the spas is anything but positive: “It’s a white sepulcher, the whole establishment – poisoned, you hear me! A health hazard in the worst way” (1.298). Hovstad, who wants to publish an article on the discovery, shares the doctor's exuberance. Billings, who also supports the doctor, wants to have a parade in his honor. He states, “So help me, Doctor, you’re the foremost citizen of this town” (1.300). The doctor is at his pinnacle, even declaring that he will honorably refuse any salary increments that the town may accord him.
Ibsen includes this lavish praise for Stockmann because it makes his eventual fall much more painful. It also presents the idea that nobody is invulnerable to such falls. In fact, Ibsen himself had his share of accented ups and downs.
Act 2: In Dr. Stockmann’s Home
It is the next day. Mrs. Stockmann hands her husband a sealed envelope from his brother, the mayor. The letter informs the doctor that his report has been rejected and that the mayor intends to visit around noon. The doctor tells his wife that he was right in believing his brother was not going to like his discovery. Morten Kiil, his father in-law, enters to inquire about the discovery, news of which has spread quickly.
Kiil appears eccentric, though he has a clear mind regarding the town’s elite, designating them “cronies” (2.304). He has his own grudge against this group: “They think they’re so much smarter than us old boys. They hounded me out of the town council” (2.304). Still focusing on his report, the doctor continues in utter naiveté: “Isn’t this a real piece of luck for the town?” (2.303) Kiil is elated with the budding conflict and what the doctor has done, thinking it purposeful deviousness and labeling it “monkeyshines.” Kiil does not believe anybody can be intrinsically good without ulterior economic motives.
Kiil leaves and Hovstad enters to talk with the doctor about the extent of the pollution. Hovstad appears staunchly interested in getting to the truth of the situation. Some of his comments are even a little radical in their original context; for instance, at one point he says that “[l]ittle by little every activity in this town has passed into the hands of a little clique of politicians [. . .] All the rich in town, and the old established names – they’re the powers that rule our lives” (2.306). Ever naïve and confident in the honesty of his fellow citizens, the doctor responds that everything will turn out fine, despite the enormous error of building the baths prior to examining the water. Hovstad, much less confident in the honesty of his fellow citizens, agrees nonetheless that things will turn out fine, but only “if the press steps in” (2.307).
Hovstad’s radical leanings are supported by the fact that he grew up poor and his belief that “a journalist is terribly remiss if he neglects the least opportunity for the liberation of the powerless, oppressed masses,” (2.308). Much of what he says has connections to Marxism. He mentions that his truth telling will probably be labeled “agitation.” Note the implication that telling the truth will negatively affect those in power.
Aslaksen arrives, inquiring about the doctor’s discovery and offering his support on behalf of the small businessmen who make up a solid majority in the town. He suggests they stage a demonstration to communicate to the authorities of the town the gravity of the situation. At the same time he indicates that it should be a moderate demonstration “because moderation is a citizen’s chief virtue – in my opinion, anyway” (2.309); he obviously does not want to offend those in power. Here a conflict arises in his discourse because he also states “But a citizen’s sober and honest opinions are not to be scorned by any man” (2.310). Ibsen here clarifies one of the fundamental conflicts of his play: What happens when “honest opinion” irritates the authorities? Which must prevail, that opinion or moderation? Here too the interesting concept of the seeming ineluctable radicalization of intrinsically honest men and women is put forth.
Aslaksen leaves. Hovstad presses for action: “Don’t you think it’s about time to stir up and air out all the stale, spineless inertia in this town?” (2.311) He can also see the real substance behind moderation. In Hovstad's opinion, the likes of Aslaksen, though kindly in appearance, are no different to the authorities. Hovstad paints a dark portrayal of the common, average citizen: “With all their scruples and second thoughts, they never dare strike out for anything” (2.311). Note the inference that more important than good intentions is “standing your ground as a strong, self-reliant man” (2.311). In any case, a turning point in Dr. Stockman’s discourse occurs here: commitment to the truth takes precedence over being kindly or good intentioned. The doctor does not hesitate to profess his agreement with Hovstad and gives him full permission to print his report. But he still remains naïve in thinking that everything will proceed smoothly.
Petra and Mrs. Stockmann enter the doctor’s study after Hovstad’s departure. Petra proves to be an ardent truth teller and staunch individualist, backing her father completely.
Petra is a model of Ibsen’s ideal modern woman. Freedom fighting women during Ibsen’s time sought to raise him to icon status because of his depiction of strong female characters in his plays. (Producer: I have separated this commentary from the narrative and have identified it as a THP. Would you agree
Mayor Stockmann arrives at his brother’s home to discuss the report and again shows that he has no concern whatsoever for the truth, but only for propriety, asking: “Was it necessary to press all these investigations behind my back?” (2.313) He is concerned that his brother might bring the report to the attention of the spa’s board of directors. The doctor’s outlook changes [howso? This is unclear] when his brother informs him about the incredible cost that the proposed changes would require. Because of the cost, the mayor either refuses to comprehend, or is simply in denial about, the seriousness of the problem. When the mayor accuses his brother of “trickery,” the doctor attacks with the bare truth: “You’re the one who got the baths and the water system laid out where they are today; and it’s this – this hellish miscalculation that you won’t concede” (2.317).
[I think there’s a very important quote that you ought to address here. At one point Dr. Stockmann says that to conceal the truth about the baths would be “a fraud, a lie, an absolute crime against the public, against society as a whole” (when you look for this keep in mind that I’m working with a different translation). Again, the dramatic irony here is striking: Stockmann will be labeled the enemy of the people but of course the real enemy is ignorance and greed (as embodied by certain of the other characters).]
The mayor equates himself with the town as a reduced version of Louis XIV, who equated himself with his entire country, if not universe [this connection is extraneous]. He is the town. Hurt him and you hurt the town. Hurt the town and you hurt him. “Even if I seem a bit overanxious with my reputation, it’s all for the good of the town” (2.316). The mayor orders his brother to keep his report quiet. But the doctor argues that it is already out in the open. The mayor lashes out at his brother’s penchant for public truth-telling, characterizing the doctor as “restless, unruly, combative,” “troublesome,” claiming that he shows "no consideration at all” (2.317). Thus, for the mayor, telling the truth in public is a bad thing. However, it is the opposite in the doctor’s eyes: “But isn’t it a citizen’s duty to inform the public if he comes on a new idea?” (2.317) This concept regarding the duty of citizens conforms to the ideas of the founding fathers of America, but much less so to today 's politicians. [Again: no need for the connection here. It is an astute observation, certainly, but it doesn’t really help students engage with the text. And it makes the Note less concise than it should be.] (Producer: When you separate this commentary from the narrative, would you please clarify the last sentence? Thanks.)
The mayor reiterates his order that the doctor obey, and even publicly affirm his [unclear pronoun] confidence in, the board of directors: “as a subordinate official at the baths, you’re not entitled to express any opinions that contradict your superiors” (2.319). Dr. Stockmann proves himself courageous and is convinced that free and open expression is a necessity for a human being, proclaiming: “I want the freedom to express myself on any problem under the sun!” (2.319) The mayor threatens his brother with dismissal [from what?]. Petra is horrified that free expression can meet with such punishment and speaks out: “Uncle, this is a shameful way to treat a man like Father!” The mayor says to her disparagingly: “Ah, so we’ve already learned to voice opinions” (2.319).
Dr. Stockmann then makes a profound declaration: “We live by marketing filth and corruption. The whole affluence of this community has its roots in a lie!” Surely, Ibsen had in mind society in general here. The mayor again denigrates the doctor for speaking so bluntly, calling him “an enemy of society” (2.321). The doctor becomes infuriated and blames himself for not standing up to and fighting against the moral and intellectual corruption sooner. Again, he emphasizes the real duty of citizens, regardless of the consequences: “Then anyway, I’ll have done my duty to the people – to society. Though they call me its enemy!” (2.322)
Mrs. Stockmann warns her husband of the consequences his actions might hold for their children, reminding him of the specter of unemployment and blacklisting. “You’ll be back again where you started – no position, no assured income” (2.322). Her final plea is that corruption is omnipresent: “But my Lord, there’s so much injustice that people have to bear with in this world” (2.323). Here we see what a wonderful role model Dr. Stockmann is to his idealistic daughter, Petra. Indeed, she proclaims: “Father – he’s wonderful! He’s not giving in” (2.323). In other words, his ideals remain higher than any practical considerations. (Producer: Would you please separate the commentary from the narrative in this passage and assign it one of the four learning device symbols? Thanks.) [Also: try to be more selective in your use quotes. Include important quotes as learning devices but don’t make every other sentence of your summary a quote from the text, as in this last paragraph. Again, concision is key.]
Act 3: In the Editorial office of the People’s Courier
(Producer: From this point on, would you please separate all commentary from narrative and assign it a learning device symbol? Please use only one device per passage of commentary. Thanks.)
Billing enters Hovstad’s office with Dr. Stockmann’s manuscript in hand. They discuss how powerful a statement it is. Billing is intent on attacking the community leaders. Hovstad is also enthusiastic and says he will run the article, expressing his desire to overthrow the mayor. The doctor enters and is greeted as a hero. He declares that he has more articles planned. Hovstad comments on the doctor’s manuscript: “It’s so clear and readable; you don’t have to be a specialist at all to follow the argument. I daresay you’ll have every reasonable man on your side” (3.326). Hovstad promises to print the manuscript for the next morning’s edition. Both Hovstad and Billing express shock by the doctor’s statement that “they’ve tried to deprive me of my most fundamental of human rights” (3.327). This emphasizes Ibsen’s own point of view that free speech and expression are the most fundamental of rights. The doctor stresses he will fight vigorously. Hovstad and Billing again cheer him.
Aslaksen enters the scene and, though also enthusiastic and in favor of the doctor, warns: “But do it temperately, Doctor. War, yes – in moderation” (3.327). To wage war in moderation is a bizarre concept [is there something about the events of the play that reinforces this idea?].
The doctor departs, declaring “whatever I do will be done in the name of truth, for the sake of my conscience” (3.328). Aslaksen, ever worried about property values, remarks as a prelude to a radical change of heart on not only his part, but also on that of Hovstad and Billing, that he is fearful of the local authorities [a very awkward sentence]. Aslaksen clearly underscores his limits on wishing truth to prevail. “When a man has material assets at stake, he can’t go thinking of everything” (3.329). [Why not adress all of these recent points about Aslaksen (i.e., in both this and the preceding paragraph) in a single paragraph?]
When Aslaksen departs, Billing suggests that maybe it is time they cease their association with him, citing his dependence on “moderation.” But Hovstad evokes an economic reality (much in the way Aslaksen would), asking “You know any other printer who will extend us credit for paper and labor costs?” (3.330) Billing still suggests that Aslaksen is expendable, highlighting the fact that they have other potential sources of funding, such as the doctor’s father-in-law, Morten Kiil.
Aslaksen leaves the room [hasn’t he already departed? See the beginning of your previous paragraph]. Petra soon enters to give Hovstad back an English story he’d asked her to translate. She tells him that she refuses to translate it because “it’s totally opposed to everything you stand for” (3.331); it is a moral tale about a “supernatural being” who watches over humankind, assuring that good will always prevail. Hovstad justifies himself by saying that putting the story in the back of the paper will make people more apt to read the news in the front. Hovstad, to take the heat off himself, says it was Billing’s idea and tells Petra that Billing is seeking a job in the conservative town clerk’s office. She is outraged because Billing had always professed liberal ideas. Hovstad respond that “We journalists don’t amount to much, Miss Stockmann” (3.332). But Petra has a different view: “Oh, it’s a glorious calling you’ve chosen! To pioneer the way for embattled truths and daring new insights – or simply to stand up fearlessly for a man who’s been wronged” (3.333). Petra is indeed quite naïve, though of high intellectual integrity. [Rather than be judgmental here (though I think there is some validity to your observation), present this as a conflict (a Learning Device) for students to consider. One way of phrasing it: the difficulty of reconciling material needs with idealism.)
It appears that Hovstad is enamored with Petra; he reveals that his real reason for backing the doctor is that he is her father. This backfires and puts him on negative terms with her because, for Petra, as for Dr. Stockmann, nothing should be held higher than the truth.
[This shift in Hovstad seems important, and as you have it here, it kind of sneaks up on us. Any way to cue readers (via Learning Devices) of this change more consistently throughout the Note? I.e., your earlier remarks on Hovstad’s passion for political change now appear terribly ironic: why not point that irony out to students as they are reading?]
The mayor arrives at the newspaper to discuss his brother’s report, which worries Aslaksen and Hovstad. Hovstad declares that he’s hardly even looked at it. Here we observe how power can bring out the cowards and liars behind the fronts of honor. The mayor not only reveals the great cost of cleaning up and refurbishing the baths, but that the money will have to be raised by taxing, to the great horror of Aslaksen, who represents the common property owners. He also reveals that the baths would have to be shut down for two years, again to Aslaksen’s utter horror: “But, God Almighty, we’ll never last that out, Mr. Mayor! What’ll we homeowners live on in the meantime?” (3.337) [Explain: remind us why the homeowners are dependent on the baths]The mayor then presents his solution in the form of a brief statement on how the “deficiencies” might be “covered” without overextending the budget for the baths.
Aslaksen announces that the doctor, who wants to verify the galley proofs for his article, has arrived. The mayor scurries off into hiding. This is one of the few instances where Ibsen deploys a traditional dramatic technique [explain]. The doctor is still ebullient, suggesting that the townspeople might wish to have a parade, award or some other honor for him and asks Aslaksen to “get it quashed.” Mrs. Stockmann suddenly enters to take her husband home so that he may spend time with his family. The doctor, however, states: “Does a man with a wife and children have no right to proclaim the truth – no right to be an effective citizen – or to serve the town he lives in?” (3.340) Here we see further fetters upon the truth, those of wife and children [perhaps an overstatement: is Petra a “fetter”?]. The doctor’s wife responds with Aslaksen’s argument of moderation. She stresses that the doctor will lose his job at the baths. The doctor, ever naïve [again, avoid judging the characters; we don’t want to think for the students—again, your point is well-taken, but…], argues that he has the majority behind him, thinking the majority will always back the truth: “Oh, I can see all the liberal-minded citizens everywhere gathering into a victorious army!” (3.341) One must also wonder how the truth can be spoken in moderation. (Producer: This last sentence looks like it could be a good Theme Alert. What do you think?)
The doctor picks up the mayor’s hat, raises it, and then realizes the mayor has been to the newspaper. He puts it on as a symbol of authority and power, and parades around mocking it. The mayor enters. He is indignant and demands that the doctor remove the hat. But the doctor continues and declares that since he is wearing the hat, he is firing his brother from all his public offices. Aslaksen and Hovstad reveal a change of heart by suddenly rising in favor of the mayor. Hovstad declares, “You’ve presented your case in a false light, Doctor, and that’s why I can’t support it” (3.343). He agrees to print the mayor’s statement instead.
Dr. Stockmann declares “People think they can stifle me and choke off the truth!” (3.344) He asks Aslaksen to print his article in the form of a pamphlet and at his expense. But Aslaksen refuses. Dr. Stockmann says he’ll hold a mass meeting, where he will read the article aloud. The mayor responds that nobody will rent him a hall large enough for such a gathering. Mrs. Stockmann is surprised that Aslaksen, Billing and Hovstad have suddenly turned against her husband; the Doctor explains: “It’s because all the so-called men in this town are old women like you. They all just think of their families and never the common good” (3. 344). Mrs. Stockmann also has a change of heart and suddenly decides to back her husband all the way. The doctor declares he’ll hire a drummer and shout the truth on every street corner, then asks a pertinent question: “I’d just like to see if conniving hypocrisy can gag the mouth of a patriot who’s out to clean up society!” (3.345) Evidently, Ibsen is preparing the reader for an unsettling response to the doctor’s query. The act closes with the mayor proclaiming Mrs. Stockmann “crazy.”
Act 4: In a large room of Captain Horster’s house
A large assemblage of townspeople from all social strata is present for Dr. Stockmann's public meeting. Most of those present are already against the doctor due to the People’s Courier. “Yes, but he’s all wrong. The Courier said so” (4.347). Ibsen paints an unflattering picture of these citizens in that they are all easily swayed by the press. Indeed, one such citizen asks another who they’re supposed to support, manifesting complete incapacity to form an individual opinion. The citizen queried simply replies: “Just watch Aslaksen and do what he does” (4.348). (Producer: This looks like a good place for a Quotable Passage. What do you think?)
Petra compliments Captain Horster for having the courage to open his home to her father, especially after the latter had been refused everywhere else. Dr. Stockmann is amazed when Aslaksen suggests they elect someone to chair the meeting. After all, the doctor was the one who called the meeting in the first place to simply present a lecture. After the mayor refuses to accept the responsibility because of his family ties with the doctor, Aslaksen is elected almost unanimously by the crowd. The latter starts uttering pleonasms, ever describing himself as moderate. “I am a man of peace and quiet who’s dedicated himself to prudent moderation and to – and to moderate prudence [. . .] I’ve learned in life’s school of experience that moderation is the most rewarding of all virtues for the citizen” (4.349). One, of course, must question moderation as a virtue. Evidently, moderation must ineluctably work contrary to the truth.
One by one, the citizens speak. First, the mayor takes the podium and demands that the citizenry keep Dr. Stockmann’s discovery top secret. He then motions that his brother not be permitted to speak in the name of the “crucial interests” of the town. When he makes it absolutely clear that those interests are wholly monetary in nature and, if affected, would “afflict” local taxpayers, cries of outrage resound. Aslaksen indicates that the doctor is seeking nothing short of a “revolution” (4.350). Indeed, the truth in such circumstances must be equated with revolution! [This word “revolution” recurs throughout the text. Any way to connect the ideas in this play, via a Learning Device (perhaps an [X]), to the political context of Europe at the time?]
Hovstad labels Stockmann’s truth-telling as “agitation” (4.351). He makes a statement about circulation vs. the truth within the press: “But an editor’s first and foremost responsibility – what is that, gentlemen? Isn’t it to work in collaboration with his readers?” (4.351) Hovstad characterizes the doctor as: “ . . . a man whose only fault, or whose greatest fault at least, is that he follows his heart more than his head” (4.351).
Finally, the doctor manages to take the podium and, to the surprise of his fellow compatriots, states that he doesn't intend to speak about the baths, but about “great disclosures” of a “vastly different dimension” (4.352). Indeed, he is able to extrapolate the corruption at the baths to the whole of society: “the discovery that all the sources of our spiritual life are polluted, and that our entire community rests on a muckheap of lies” (4.353). It appears at first that he will blame the community leaders: “Our leaders are one group that, for the life of me, I can’t stand. I’ve had enough of that breed in my days. They’re like a pack of goats in a stand of new trees – they strip off everything. They get in a free man’s way wherever he turns – and I really don’t see why we shouldn’t exterminate them like any other predator” (4.354). [The preceding is worth a [Q].] Tumult erupts in the room, which fires up the doctor even more. Dr. Stockmann fears nothing, for he feels very strongly that he has truth on his side. He again rails against the leaders: “Because I nourish a benign hope that all those mossbacks, those relics of a dying world of thought, are splendidly engaged in digging their own graves – they don’t need a doctor’s aid to speed them off the scene” (4.355).
Dr. Stockmann reveals his supreme discovery, or supreme truth: “And besides, they’re not the overwhelming menace to society; they’re not the ones active in poisoning our spiritual life and polluting the very ground we stand on; they’re not the most insidious enemies of truth and freedom in our society” (4.355). The crowd demands: “who, then!” The doctor continues: “The most insidious enemy of truth and freedom among us is the solid majority. Yes, the damned, solid, liberal majority – that’s it!” (4.355) Wild turmoil breaks out in the room.
Aslaksen demands the doctor withdraw his comment. But the doctor continues in the same vein: “The majority is never right. I say, never! That’s one of those social lies that any free man who thinks for himself has to rebel against. Who makes up the majority in any country – the intelligent, or the stupid? [. . .] The majority has the might – unhappily – but it lacks the right. The right is with me, and the other few, the solitary individuals. The minority is always right” (4.356). It appears that no one can stop the doctor now. He continues his argument, despite the chaos within the room: “All these majority-truths are like last year’s salt meat – like rancid, tainted pork. And there’s the cause of all the moral scurvy that’s raging around us”(4.357). Needless to say, it would be impossible to call neither Ibsen nor his alter ego, Dr. Stockmann, a demagogue. Indeed, Hovstad is the demagogue here [?].
The crowd is so outraged it wants to throw the doctor out of the house. But Dr. Stockmann perseveres and tries to get Hovstad to come to his senses [what is Hovstad doing?], telling the crowd Hovstad had himself claimed to be a freethinker. The crowd, shocked by this assertion, clamors in disbelief, as if there were nothing worse in the world than a freethinker: “What was that? A freethinker? Hovstad, a freethinker?” (4.358) Injecting a little comedy into this terribly profound scene, Ibsen has Hovstad trumpet: “Prove it, Dr. Stockmann! When have I said that in print?” (4.358) In a desperate attempt to obtain the crowd's understanding, the doctor relates an analogy between citizens and animals, thoroughbreds and mongrels, implying a sort of aristocracy of thinkers. He proclaims he’d rather destroy the town than see it flourish on lies. Here, the hypocrite Hovstad calls the doctor an enemy for the first time: “Any man who’d destroy a whole community must be a public enemy!” (4.361) This provokes Dr. Stockmann to become even more vigorous in his fight against deception: “Stamp them out like vermin, everyone who lives by lies! You’ll contaminate this entire nation in the end, till the land itself deserves to be destroyed” (4.361). Finally, an anonymous man in the crowd utters the term that provides the title of Ibsen’s play: “That’s talking like a real enemy of the people!” (4.361) Aslaksen pounces on the opportunity and wants to render the epithet official with a “secret ballot.”
Morten Kiil repeats his characterization of the doctor’s truth-seeking activities as “monkeyshines” and wants to know if the doctor’s discovery is in fact real. Interestingly, it turns out that Kiil’s own tannery is the worst polluter of all. Kiil leaves Stockmann with the subtle suggestion that the latter’s inheritance will be in jeopardy if the doctor ever publicly reveals that fact: “That could cost you plenty Stockmann” (4.363) [are they having a private conversation?].
Captain Horster steadfastly supports the doctor, even when a gentleman asks of him: “Well, captain, so you lend out your house to enemies of the people?” (4.363) Petra remarks to the captain after the man leaves that he is the owner of the captain’s ship. The “gentleman” had implied to the captain that he too could do whatever he wanted with his property, suggesting that backing the doctor might carry a steep price. Here we see the intricate web of economics ever tightening around the neck of the truth.
All but one man, a drunkard, votes against the doctor. With those results, Aslaksen ecstatically adjourns the meeting. Dr. Stockmann, realizing that he has hopelessly failed to sway his fellow citizens, considers exile and asks the captain: “. . . have you room for several passengers to the new world?” (4.364) The captain replies affirmatively. Mrs. Stockmann suggests the doctor leave by the back way, but the doctor refuses, defiantly embracing his new title by referring to himself as the “enemy of the people.” The crowd becomes a mob, proclaiming the doctor has threatened it and blasphemed by quoting Jesus. Dr. Stockmann and Jesus might easily be compared here. The mob hollers: “Enemy! Enemy of the People!" (4.365)
Act 5: Dr. Stockmann’s study
It is morning and several windows have been broken by the mob. The doctor's study is a mess and he is cleaning up. Dr. Stockmann has collected a pile of stones that were thrown by the mob and declares he’s going to save them as “holy relics” (5.366). Mrs. Stockmann hands the doctor a letter. The landlord has issued an eviction notice – reluctantly, but the pressure of the people and powerful men oblige.
The doctor reminds his wife of his decision to emigrate, then notices the mob has torn his best trousers: “One should never wear his best trousers when he goes out fighting for truth and freedom.” (Producer: Reference?)
The doctor generalizes his observations: “Don’t you think the common herd is just as arrogant in other towns as well? Why, of course – it’s all one and the same [. . .] it’s probably no better than in the free United States; I’m sure they have a plague of solid majorities and liberal public opinions and all the other bedevilments. But the scale there is so immense, you see. They might kill you but they don’t go in for slow torture; they don’t lock a free soul in the jaws of a vise the way they do here at home” (5.368).
Despite overwhelming evidence of a less than honest local populace, labeled “muttonheads” by her husband, Mrs. Stockmann still appears to want to remain in town. She seems to pardon the townspeople, arguing that it was the vitriolic or “intemperate nature” of her husband’s speech that is to blame for their behavior.
Petra arrives home and announces they’ve fired her from her position as schoolteacher, noting three anonymous letters that were received by her superior, Mrs. Busk. Two of the letter-writers mentioned that another man, a frequent visitor to the Stockmann household, had declared at the club that Petra had expressed “free ideas on various matters” (5.369).
Ibsen stresses throughout “An Enemy of the People” that simply having ideas and talking about them behind closed doors is not an effective agent of social change. What is important is having the courage to express them openly. Here, Petra notes, as an example, that Mrs. Busk has proven herself to have “some pretty liberal ideas herself," but only when talking alone with Petra. Dr. Stockmann tells his wife they should start packing immediately. Evidently, he is disgusted with the mob, and perhaps even slightly fearful of what they might do next. But when Captain Horster arrives at the house to ask how things are, Dr. Stockmann agrees with him that those people in the mob are “mostly a lot of hot air” and adds that when they were throwing stones at the house “ . . . they swore they’d hammer me to a pulp. But action – action – no, you don’t see much of that in this town!” (5.370)
The captain says that he’s been fired, but doesn’t seem worried. He is sure he will find a job with some other shipping company. Mr. Vik, the shipping merchant, did not really want to fire the captain, but he did not dare go against the majority, declaring it difficult “when you belong to a party” (5. 371). Dr. Stockmann jumps at the word 'party' and states “A political party – it’s like a sausage grinder; it grinds all the heads up together into one mash, and then it turns them out, link by link, into fathead and meatheads!” (5.371)
The mayor arrives at his brother’s house to hand the latter a notice of dismissal. Here the mayor, ever hypocritical, implies that he and the board of directors really didn’t want to effect the dismissal but “we didn’t dare not to, in view of public opinion” (5.373). He reveals that the doctor’s medical practice is finished because the Home Owner's Council is soliciting “all responsible citizens” to dispense with his services. The mayor suggests that his brother leaves the area for a while and if, upon his eventual return, a public apology were made, he might be able to get his job back. The “devil” is now poking his evil head around all corners, nooks and crannies, trying to make a Faustian deal with the doctor, but the latter refuses each and every temptation [can you phrase this last point of analysis as a Learning Device, perhaps? And I think it would be clearer if you were less metaphorical with it].
The mayor illustrates how persons of his ilk cannot possibly comprehend a person like Dr. Stockmann. To the very end, he believes his brother harbors an economic motive. Now, he accuses the doctor of thinking about the inheritance he might obtain from Morten Kiil. But the doctor has assumed Kiil’s money was destined for a home for destitute craftsmen and that Kiil has not said anything about leaving a lot of money to his children, as was revealed by the mayor [awkward]. Dr. Stockmann shouts to his wife to tell her of the good news, but the mayor interrupts, mentioning that the will can be altered at any time. The doctor still thinks Kiil is happy with the way he pursued the mayor and other town leaders. Upon hearing this, the mayor immediately jumps to the conclusion: “So this whole business has been a collusion. These reckless, violent assaults you’ve aimed, in the name of truth, at our leading citizens were [. . .] nothing more than a calculated payment for a piece of that vindictive old man’s estate” (5.375). Here, the mayor adds yet another epithet, “reckless, violent assaults,” for truth telling. The doctor calls him “the cheapest trash.” The mayor leaves, declaring that “Between us, everything is through” (5.375).
Morten Kiil arrives at the doctor’s home. He shows him the shares in the baths he just purchased due to the stock price plummeting. He expresses his desire, though evidently not sincere, to clear his good name, which was tarnished by the discovery that his tannery was the biggest polluter of the baths. Dr. Stockmann becomes angered when Kiil tells him the money he had planned to leave the doctor’s wife and children was used to buy the shares.
Kiil then makes it known that he is blackmailing the doctor, because any time the latter badmouths the baths, the shares will go down in price and directly affect his family’s inheritance. But Dr. Stockmann remains steadfast. He declares himself a “madman,” using Kiil’s words, thus adding another epithet to truth teller [perhaps you should address all of these different terms for truth-telling in one location, like a Learning Device, or perhaps even under the InstantInsight section]. Exasperated, Kiil then says that if the doctor refuses to give up his fight by two o’clock, he will leave the shares to a charity. As he departs, both Hovstad and Aslaksen arrive.
The two newspapermen have now come to believe that Dr. Stockmann has been collaborating with his father-in-law from the very beginning to make the stock price drop, so they could purchase shares in the baths cheaply. The doctor is dumbfounded at hearing this. Hovstad and Aslaksen, scheming to capitalize on this “discovery,” declare the Courier open to the doctor’s article submissions [I don’t follow: how will this enable them to capitalize on their discovery?]. Hovstad thinks that the doctor wants to gain ownership of the baths for scientific purposes. Dr. Stockmann plays along with these two symbols of the press and the people, but only to see how far they’ll go in their corruption. He asks how much money they will want as a payoff to help him corner the market. Hovstad wants the doctor to bail out the Courier, which is short of funds. Then Dr. Stockmann loses his cool, grabs his umbrella, and tries forcing the two “devil’s envoys" out the window into the gutter, but the latter manage to escape and run out through the door.
Dr. Stockmann remains steadfast. He tells his wife and daughter they are not going to leave town but will hold their ground and look for a house. “This is the battleground: here is where the fighting will be; and here’s where I’m going to win!” (5.383) The captain offers to share his home in a great gesture of kindness. The doctor says he’ll continue treating the poor, who can’t pay, but will “preach to them in season and out of season” (5.384). He sums up his and Ibsen’s purpose in life: “Should I let myself be whipped from the field by public opinion and the solid majority and other such barbarities? No, thank you! Besides, what I want is so simple and clear and basic. I just want to hammer into the heads of these mongrels that the so-called liberals are the most insidious enemies of free men – that party programs have a way of smothering every new, germinal truth – that acting out of expediency turns morality and justice into a hollow mockery, until finally it becomes monstrous to go on living” (5.384).
Finally, the doctor’s two boys reveal that the other children at school had fought them and, because of that, the headmaster suggested they stay home for a few days. The doctor declares that the children will not set foot in that school again, that he will teach them "… in the room where they assailed me as enemy of the people” (5.385). Furthermore the doctor decides to start a school there with the help of Petra, and asks his two sons if they know any “mongrel” children because evidently he’d never get children of the Home Owner's Council to attend. “I want to experiment with mongrels for a change. There might be some fantastic minds out there” (5.386). This statement implies that amongst the bourgeois he had found no interesting minds that perhaps he might find some amongst the proletariat.
The play concludes with Dr. Stockmann announcing a final “great discovery”: “And the essence of it, you see, is that the strongest man in the world is the one who stands most alone” (5.386).
(Producer: KnowledgeNotes are aiming for 10 books/articles for further research in this section. Would you please add to this list? Thanks.)
Meyer, Michael. Ibsen. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1971
Jeffers, Robinson. The Double Axe. New York: Liveright Publishing Corp., 1977.
(Producer: Would you please reference the web sources according to MLA style? Thanks.)
***The Ibsen Center helps coordinate national and international research in Ibsen. 23 June 2000.
***Reviews on Royal National Theatre production of An Enemy of the People with Ian McKellen as Dr. Tomas Stockmann. 23 June 2000.
****Radical activist Emma Goldman’s The Social Significance of the Modern Drama with a detailed analysis of An Enemy of the People. 23 June 2000.
***Great Books Index. Three complete Ibsen plays with accompanying analysis on line. 23 June 2000.
An Enemy of the People. Apparently several film versions exist in VHS, one made in 1977 with Steve McQueen starring in the role of Dr. Stockmann, while the other was made in 1990 for PBS television. The author of this note has not seen either.
Hello Mr. Slone:
Overall, this is a good Note. Some of my editorial changes appear within the work itself, and I have left some of the previous editor’s remarks in place as well (mine are in red). Here are some other things to keep in mind:
1. The themes in the Instant Insight section need to be developed a bit further. Currently, you've got several good ideas highly compressed within a single paragraph. It would be easier for students to absorb this information if you separated each theme out as a separate cluster of sentences.
2. In the Instant Highlighter section, the learning devices belong with a separate commentary, not intermingled with the narrative. In other words, students should be able to distinguish visually where the narrative ends and where the learning device begins. I have provided some examples of this for your perusal.
3. Be careful with your style. For instance, while terms like "gung-ho," "sledge-hammering," "kahoots," and "kaput" make your Note a fun read, they also render your tone more conversational than academic. This is a tough issue, because I like the idea of making the Notes as accessible as possible; at the same time, however, InstantKnowledge.com currently asks that we make sure all the Notes have a more distanced, objective (while still engaging) tone.
4. Be sure that your references to pop culture and / or current events, when you include them, are really necessary (even vital) to your Note; i.e., don't include them just because you can. Some of the connections you made to Robinson Jeffers, and to movies such as American Beauty and The Insider were, I think, somewhat extraneous. So was the link in this sentence: "The doctor, in an evident premonition of the modern-day surge of home schooling, declares that the children will not set foot in that school again, that he will teach them '...in the room where they assailed me as enemy of the people'" (5.385). Does the reference to home schooling really help students understand this text? (Don't get me wrong: I'm all for using pop culture or current events to illuminate your Notes. But given the fact that we're trying to produce documents that are succinct, those connections have to be earth-shattering. I like the above connections, but I don't know if they are earth-shattering.)
5. The InstantPlot is too long. It was over 600 words when I got it and I have pared it down to a little under 500. Ideally it should be around 300 words (or less). Please continue revising it.
Please look carefully over the quotations you have used and determine whether they need to be cited (see the end of the plot summary, for instance).