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An Enemy of the People.

Type of work: Drama

Author: Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906)

Type of plot: Social criticism

Time of plot: Late nineteenth century

Locale: Southern Norway

First presented: 1883

In An Enemy of the People Ibsen relates the story of a doctor who is rejected by society for upsetting the status quo and the financial security of a Norwegian coastal town when he exposes the health hazards of the local Baths, a lucrative tourist attraction. Ibsen uses Dr. Stockmann to dramatize the problem of an individual faced with personal disaster if he speaks out against majority opinion.

Principal Characters

Dr. Thomas Stockmann, the medical officer of the Municipal Baths, a conscientious man of science and the enemy of illness and deceit. Because Stockmann discovers that the healing waters, the principal source of income for the town, are polluted, causing the users to contract typhoid fever and gastric illnesses, he incurs the censure of the town and is proclaimed an "enemy of the people." Stockmann is the one honest man in public life in the town. When he realizes that all his associates would prefer concealing the fact that the Baths are polluted, he is at first amazed and then infuriated. Denied all means of spreading his information through the press or in public meeting, he at last calls a meeting in the home of a ship's captain, Captain Horster. Before Stockmann can speak, however, the group elects a chairman, Aslaksen, who permits Stockmann's brother, Peter, mayor of the town, to make a motion forbidding the doctor to speak on the matter of the Baths because unreliable and exaggerated reports might go abroad. Aslaksen seconds the motion. Stockmann then speaks on the moral corruption of the town and manages to offend everyone, including his wife's adoptive father, Morten Kiil, a tanner whose works are one of the worst sources of water pollution. Morten Kiil buys up the bath stock the next day and proposes that the doctor call off the drive because he has bought it with money which Kiil had planned to leave Mrs. Stockmann and the children. Stockmann rejects the suggestion. He thinks of leaving the town and going to America, but when Captain Horster is discharged for permitting Stockmann to speak in his house, he cannot sail on Horster's ship and decides to remain in the town, educate the street urchins, and rear his own sons to be honest men. He says that only the middle class opposes him and that the poor people will continue to call on him. In his decision, he is cheered by his young schoolteacher daughter, Petra, and by Mrs. Stockmann and one of the boys. Although Petra, and by Mrs. Stockmann and one of the boys. Although Stockmann is not an especially personable character, he is an excellent representation of the frustrations which confront the reformer.

Peter Stockmann, the mayor of the town and brother of Dr. Stockmann. Peter Stockmann is a typical willfully blind public official who would rather poison the visitors of his town than cut its income. Under the pretense of concern for the town he is able to win others to his side. He ruins his brother but suggests that he will reinstate him if he recants.

Hovstad, the editor of the People's Messenger. At first, Hovstad supports Dr. Stockmann and plans to print his article about the Baths. However, when he learns that public opinion is against Stockmann, he deserts him until he hears that Morten Kiil has bought up the bath stock. Then he offers to support Stockmann again, because he thinks that Stockmann will cash in on the Baths and he wants to be in on the deal. Because Hovstad starts off as a forthright newspaper man, he is a disappointment when he abruptly changes character and sides.

Aslaksen, a printer. Aslaksen begins as a volunteer supporter of Stockmann's proposal to clean up the Baths. As chairman of the Householders' Association, he promises the support of the majority in the town, but as soon as matters become difficult, and when Dr. Stockmann grows more emotional than Aslaksen thinks is in keeping with his idea of moderation, he turns against the doctor. He comes with Hovstad to try to cash in on the profits which they think Stockmann expects to make with Morten Kiil.

Petra, the daughter of Dr. and Mrs. Stockmann. An earnest young woman, a teacher, Petra is the first to discover Hovstad's insincerity. Petra refused to translate an English story for Hovstad to print because its theme is that a supernatural power looks after the so-called good people in the world and that everything happens for the best, while all the evil are punished; she has no such belief. When Hovstad tells her that he is giving his readers exactly the kind of story they want, Petra is distressed. When he blurts out a few minutes later that the reason he is supporting Dr. Stockmann is that he is Petra's father, Petra tells him that he has betrayed himself, that she will never trust him again. Because she supports her father, she loses her job. Her employer tells her that a former guest in the Stockmann home has revealed Petra's emancipated views. Petra is her father's true child.

Mrs. Stockmann, the doctor's wife and his loyal supporter. At first she does not want her husband to go against the wishes of his brother, but she soon gives her full approval. She is not presented as a woman of strong personality.

Morten Kiil, a tanner, Mrs. Stockmann's adoptive father. Although described by other characters as an "old badger," a man of wealth whose influence and money Dr. Stockmann hates to lose because of his wife and children, Morten Kiil seems to live more by reputation than by representation in the play. He goes against Dr. Stockmann and buys up all the bath stock with money he had intended leaving to Mrs. Stockmann.

Captain Horster, a ship's captain who befriends Dr. Stockmann, the only person outside the Stockmann family who remains loyal to the doctor. He allows Stockmann to attempt his public speech about the Baths to an audience assembled in his house.

Ejlif and

Morten, the two young sons of the Stockmanns.

Billing, a sub-editor. He agrees with Aslaksen and Hovstad.

The Story

All the citizens of the small Norwegian coastal town Christiania were very proud of the Baths, for the healing waters were making the town famous and prosperous. Dr. Thomas Stockmann, the medical officer of the Baths, and his brother Peter, the mayor and chairman of the Baths committee, did not agree on many things, but they did agree that the Baths were the source of the town's good fortune. Hovstad, the editor of the People's Messenger, and Billing, his sub-editor, were also loud in praise of the Baths. Business was good and the people were beginning to enjoy prosperity.

Then Dr. Stockmann received from the university a report stating that the waters of the Baths were contaminated. Becoming suspicious when several visitors became ill after taking the Baths, he had felt it his duty to investigate. Refuse from tanneries above the town was oozing into the pipes leading to the reservoir and infecting the waters. This meant that the big pipes would have to be relaid, at a tremendous cost to the owners or to the town. When Hovstad and Billing heard this news, they asked the doctor to write an article for their paper about the terrible conditions. They even spoke of having the town give Dr. Stockmann some kind of testimonial in honor of his great discovery.

Dr. Stockmann wrote up his findings and sent the manuscript to his brother so that his report could be acted upon officially. Hovstad called on the doctor again, urging him to write some articles for the People's Messenger. It was Hovstad's opinion that the town had fallen into the hands of a few officials who did not care for the people's rights, and it was his intention to attack these men in his paper and urge the citizens to get rid of them in the next election.

Aslaksen, a printer who claimed to have the compact majority under his control, also wanted to join in the fight to get the Baths purified and the corrupt officials defeated. Dr. Stockmann could not believe that his brother would refuse to accept the report, but he soon learned that he was wrong. Peter went to the doctor and insisted that he keep his knowledge to himself because the income of the town would be lost if the report were made public. He said that the repairs would be too costly, that the owners of the Baths could not stand the cost, and that the townspeople would never allow an increase in taxes to clean up the waters. He even insisted that Dr. Stockmann write another report, stating that he had been mistaken in his earlier judgment. He felt this action necessary when he learned that Hovstad and Billing knew of the first report. When the doctor refused either to change his report or withhold it, Peter threatened him with the loss of his position. Even his wife pleaded with him not to cross his powerful brother; he was sustained in his determination to do right only by his daughter Petra.

Hovstad, Billing, and Aslaksen were anxious to print the doctor's article so that the town could know of the falseness of the mayor and his officials. They thought his words so clear and intelligible that all responsible citizens would revolt against the corrupt regime. Aslaksen did plead for moderation, but he promised to fight for what was right.

Peter Stockmann appeared at the office of the People's Messenger and cleverly told Aslaksen, Hovstad, and Billing that the tradespeople of the town would suffer if the doctor's report were made public. He said that they would have to stand the expense and that the Baths would be closed for two years while repairs were being made. The two editors and the printer then turned against Dr. Stockmann and supported Peter, since they felt that the majority would act in this way.

The doctor pleaded with them to stand by the promises they had given him, but they were the slaves of the majority opinion which they claimed to mold. When they refused to print his article, the doctor called a public meeting in the home of his friend, Captain Horster. Most of the citizens who attended were already unfriendly to him because the mayor and the newspaper editors had spread the news that he wanted to close the Baths and ruin the town. Aslaksen, nominated as chairman by the mayor, so controlled the meeting that a discussion of the Baths was ruled out of order.

Dr. Stockmann took the floor, however, and in ringing tones told the citizens that it was the unbelievable stupidity of the authorities and the great multitude of the compact majority that caused all the evil and corruption in the world. He said that the majority destroyed the freedom and truth everywhere because the majority was ignorant and stupid. The majority was really in slavery to ideas which had long outlived their truth and usefulness. He contended that ideas become outdated in eighteen or twenty years at the most, but the foolish majority continued to cling to them and deny new truths brought to them by the intelligent minority. He challenged the citizens to deny that all great ideas and truths were first raised by the persecuted minority, those few men who dared to stand out against the prevailing opinions of the many. He said that the real intellectuals could be distinguished as easily as could a thoroughbred animal from a crossbreed. Economic and social position had no bearing on the distinction. It was a man's soul and mind that separated him from the ignorant masses.

His challenge fell on deaf ears. As he knew from the beginning, the majority could not understand the meaning of his words. By vote they named him an enemy of the people. The next day they stoned his house and sent him threatening letters. His landlord ordered him to move. He lost his position as medical director of the Baths, and his daughter Petra was dismissed from her teaching position. In each case the person responsible for the move against him stated that it was only public opinion that forced the move. No one had anything against him or his family, but no one would fight the opinion of the majority. Even Captain Horster, a friend who had promised to take the Stockmanns to America on his next voyage, lost his ship because the owner was afraid to give a ship to the man, the only man, who had stood by the radical Dr. Stockmann.

Then the doctor learned that his father-in-law had bought up most of the now undesirable Bath stock with the money which would have gone to Mrs. Stockmann and the children. The townspeople accused the doctor of attacking the Baths so that his family could buy the stock and make a profit, and his father-in-law accused him of ruining his wife's inheritance if he persisted in his stories about the uncleanliness of the Baths. Reviled and ridiculed on all sides, Dr. Stockmann determined to fight back. He could open a school. Starting only with any urchins he could find on the streets, he would teach the town and the world that he was stronger than the majority, that he was strong because he had the courage to stand alone.

Critical Evaluation

Sometimes called "the father of realism" in modern drama, Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen unleashes in An Enemy of the People a savage attack on majoritarian democracy and its tendency to sacrifice truth on the altar of financial success or power. Widely praised--and at times disparaged--as a "provincial dramatist," Ibsen was frequently led by his social conscience into open controversy in his homeland, and often engendered undisguised public outrage toward the themes and the moral conflicts with which he imbued his plays. His reputation as a social dramatist is in some ways overshadowed by his equally electrifying stage technique, a technique born of his iconoclastic view of the theater and his rejection of the classical model of dramaturgy. Because Ibsen's innovative staging techniques became so conventional in the twentieth century, it is difficult to realize just how revolutionary they were in turn-of-the-century stage direction. His strong realism--exemplified in An Enemy of the People in the minutiae of everyday detail, the precision of dialogue, the painfully honest portrayal of the psychological makeup of his characters--requires of his actors and his readers their utmost energy and resilience.

It appears that Ibsen completed An Enemy of the People as a response to the savagely negative critical response to his earlier play, Ghosts (1881), though both plays were begun at roughly the same time. Hearing a news item regarding a Hungarian scientist who had discovered and exposed the poisoned water in the town's water supply and was then unceremoniously pilloried for his discovery, Ibsen adapted its essential core for his drama. In An Enemy of the People, Ibsen probes the tensions between the individual and society, specifically between majority rule and minority dissent, and the stage becomes a window through which the audience may witness a living dialectic. Artfully using G.W.F.Hegel's thesis-antithesis-synthesis formula, Ibsen posits the individual-as-thesis in conflict with society's antithetical opposition, the clash eventually yielding a synthesis that in some sense resolves the dramatic plot conflicts without relieving the tension or friction between the dissenter and his social context.

Ibsen's keen sense of everydayness, the vivid capturing of the details of the then-emergent "modern age," gives An Enemy of the People its stability and moral force. Christiania, ostensibly the town in which the story takes place, is on the verge of renown and legendary status as a healing oasis whose soothing waters symbolize the humanitarianism of its people. On the surface, Dr. Stockmann, a rather self-effacing personality, is an ebullient, community-minded scientist. He lives in the best of all worlds--a town whose income is built almost entirely on the Baths, which supply life-giving nurture to tourists who travel there for health reasons-enjoying a quality of life he himself has had a part in discovering and now oversees. He basks in the success of his township's "natural" benevolence. Yet, the same scientific rigor that certifies Dr. Stockmann's judgment and accredits him as an authority also brings him grief when the contamination of the same Baths is revealed to him. When Dr. Stockmann blithely reports the findings to his brother Peter and to fellow citizens, always assuming their equal concern for the "health" of the tourist trade, he discovers a different kind of concern, and the play's fundamental theme emerges: his animated opposition to his brother Peter's credo, "The individual must subordinate himself to Society as a whole or more precisely to those authorities responsible for the well-being of that society."

An Enemy of the People is thus Ibsen's cynical answer to the question, "What happens when the truth conflicts with the will of the majority?" In his response, Dr. Stockmann is at once both an aristocrat and an anarchist; when the majority is right, to be one of the establishment has honor and dignity--he may protect, within certain boundaries, the welfare of his people and his clients. When he becomes an outsider, however, he is quick to become uncooperative and obstinate in his stand for the truth. His willingness to start over after his defeat--to begin a school that will reeducate the young in ethical behavior--marks him as one willing to subvert the social order at any cost, even if it means isolation and alienation from the public at large. His family, initially and understandably cautious, takes up his cause with fervor. Yet, he is not completely admirable; Ibsen himself referred to Stockmann as a muddlehead, an innocent, absent-minded professor type, uncomfortable and shy in public yet lavishly hospitable and extravagant with his own resources. Consequently, while Stockmann appears to be a classical hero who invites the spectator's identification at the play's start, later he reveals that he is not. He is, in fact, impetuous and uninhibited. Stockmann is not a savvy and brooding clinical observer of human life and its folly but a common, compassionate man genuinely shocked by what has transpired among people he thought he knew well. Thus he remains a prototypical nineteenth century hero: His defiant confidence at the end of the play, while in some ways not foreshadowed, marks him essentially as a gullible optimist who is incredulous (as a truly good man would be) at the turn of events which displaces his sudden heroism with equally sudden villainy in the public eye. This newfound boldness and stubborn insistence on standing alone may be seen simply as the other side of the charm and naivete he displays at the beginning of the play.

Another key theme is the failure of each of the town's major institutions--the press, the Householders' Association, and the town council itself--to stand with integrity on the side of honor. Each betrays its selfishness when the town's livelihood is threatened. Petra, Dr. Stockmann's daughter, uncovers the jadedness of the newspaper she works for early in the play, when she refuses to translate a short story whose message she finds patronizing: "It's all about a supernatural power that's supposed to watch over all the so-called good people, and how everything is for the best and how the wicked people get punished in the end." Her editor Hovstad's reply, "You're absolutely right, of course. But an editor cannot always do what he wants. After all, politics is the most important thing in life--at least, for a newspaper it is," manifests his shallow concern for veracity. With one eye on the truth and the other on subscriptions, Hovstad's priorities are clear, and it is no surprise that he later must fire Petra for her insubordination. Despite his tabloid-like response to Dr. Stockmann's alarming report and his initial desire to expose to the populace its unscrupulous politicians, Hovstad's reluctance to buck the tide and thus print all the news fit to print demonstrates that even in a democracy the media can be coopted. When the mayor, Dr. Stockmann's own brother, and businessman extraordinaire Aslaksen conspire against them, the family's illusions of the goodness and mercy they thought to be characteristic of their friends and colleagues is shattered beyond repair. Built into their culture's hitherto disguised authoritarian community is an ethical malaise wherein outworn conventions strangle the life of the individual--compelling choices without a moral basis, thereby corrupting and stultifying the society in which they live.

While An Enemy of the People is rightly considered Ibsen's most militant play, it is technically, in an odd way, also a species of comedy: a play designed to bring, with humor as well as pathos, a stumbling protagonist to a fitting end. There are no tragic deaths in the play, save that of the principle of minority rights and altruistic concern for the welfare of all in a democracy. Yet it is just this juxtaposition of dramatic form with dramatic irony that gives the play its ideological impact. Declaring that to be a poet is most of all to "see," and thus deliberately conflating the role of the poet ("to make") with that of the biblical prophet ("to see") into one office, Ibsen peered into the fading Lutheran culture of fin de siecle Norway and, gazing bleakly heavenward, discovered only an empty sky bereft of divine comfort or direction. Fast closing industrialization had brought to his country a more ruthless sense of profit and production, a fact mirrored in the malice and errant democracy depicted in the town of Christiania in An Enemy of the People. As American playwright Arthur Miller, who adapted his work for the American stage, has suggested, every Ibsen play in effect begins with the words, "Now listen here." This preaching, even pontificating posture would seem to border on propaganda, and would do so in the hands of a less skillful dramatist. The quality that prevents An Enemy of the People from devolving into a political tract is Ibsen's dialectical narrative, a strategy that forces his characters to discover the truth about themselves and others onstage in the course of the action, and not in exposition or soliloquy. The audience learns of Dr. Stockmann's stalwart character, and the weaknesses of his brother's, through a temporal confrontation that unfolds before the audience's (and the characters') eyes as it happens. As neither brother is a classical hero or villain--one whose fate is fixed by the gods or by fatal flaws neither can transcend--their destinies rest, rather, in the moral choices they make when they are confronted with life's challenges and then called to stand alone for the truth against the majority. This single dramatized fact is perhaps Ibsen's main legacy both to the theater and to twentieth century democracy.
COPYRIGHT 1989 COPYRIGHT 1989 Frank N. Magill
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Masterpieces of World Literature
Article Type:Reference Source
Date:Jan 1, 1989
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