Much of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People (1882) might be traced to the following point of origin: the hurt, the distress and disgust he felt at the hostile reception given in 1881 by the Norwegian public and critics to Ghosts. Within a year of this bitterly resented publication, the playwright had given his answer to those who had abused him: a play which traces the bewilderment and incredulity and ultimate exasperation of one who, for publishing unpalatable truths about the polluted sources of the community's economy, is subjected to insult and slander and even physical violence from his fellows. After thus venting his immediate anger, Ibsen allowed himself in An Enemy of the People a more searching look at this phenomenon of a man who makes it his mission to proclaim truth.
Summary of Each Act
An Enemy of the People opens in the evening in Dr. Thomas Stockmann's living room. Peter Stockmann, the mayor and Dr. Stockmann’s brother, enters. Soon after, Hovstad, the editor, enters. They talk about the new baths, around which the life of the town centers, and both agree that they will be very good for the town. It is mentioned in the conversation that the baths were Dr. Stockmann’s original idea, a suggestion that upsets Peter.
The mayor wants Hovstad to know that he has also played a major role in building the baths. Thomas goes out for a walk with his two sons, and returns with another late guest, Captain Horster. It is obvious that the mayor does not particularly like his brother, especially not his cheerful nature. Peter also resents Thomas’ extravagant life style. In Act II, Mrs. Stockmann gives Dr. Stockmann a sealed letter from the mayor, containing a report on the pollution of the baths that the doctor had sent off to the mayor.
The letter has been returned, with a note that Peter will come by to speak with his brother. Thomas and his wife think that Peter is perhaps jealous that his brother made the discovery. Morten Kiil, Dr. Stockmann’s father-in-law, arrives and is happy that the doctor is not playing “monkey-tricks” with Peter. Hovstad arrives and the father-in-law leaves. The editor tells Dr. Stockmann that the real pollution comes from the town’s leadership.
While Thomas agrees that conservatism is not good, he is reluctant to assail the town's leadership, which he believes is composed of qualified men, including Peter, his brother. Aslaksen, the financier of the newspaper, stops by and shows support to the doctor. However, he wants a demonstration that will not offend the parties and authorities in power. Hovstad thinks that, while Aslaksen’s intentions are good, they are lacking in strong self-assurance.
In this act, the brothers have a confrontation on the baths. Peter wants to hush up the matter of the contamination. In Act III, Hovstad and Aslaksen turn against Dr. Stockamann. Peter has an easy time convincing the newspaper to turn against his brother. It is not surprising that the lack of visible evidence and economic arguments and can be used to change the editor’s mind. In this Act, one sees that the editor is not a reliable character.
For one, his support Dr. Stockmann is to a degree motivated by his fondness for the doctor’s daughter, Petra. Hovstad and Aslaksen are even talking about how they can use Thomas for their various ends. The editor pretends to be on the side of the good of the community and the truth; what he really wants is to publish Dr. Stockmann’s articles to attract attention to the newspaper. Petra senses that Hovstad will have no conscience about withdrawing their support of her father if his views become unpopular.
Act IV is the climax of An Enemy of the People. Here, one sees the doctor at his most impassioned and the rest of the town at its most conspiratorial and conservative. The guests who were having dinner at the doctor’s house in Act I are publicly denouncing him, and vice versa. According to the newspaper, Dr. Stockmann is wrong about the baths. The citizens are eager to hear what the doctor has to say about the present condition of the baths. The mayor, on the other hand, warns the citizens against false statements and makes a motion that will not allow his brother to give lecture.
Aslaksen tries to persuade the people to support the mayor’s motion and accuses the doctor of desiring a revolution. Furthermore, Hovstad explains to the people how he was misled by the doctor’s false statements; he is now rejecting Dr. Stockmann’s proposal about the baths. In the final Act, one learns that Dr. Stockmann is isolated in the town. All the people who were previously associated with him have denounced him.
These people are afraid of standing up to the masses and are strongly influenced by public opinion. Dr. Stockmann’s landlord has given him notice to move out, and Petra has lost her job in the school. Mrs. Stockmann asks Thomas whether the idea of going abroad is a wise one. The doctor says that they are going to stay and fight. The doctor resolves to bring down the wolves that control the town. He says that he is mightier than the wolves in the town, because he is standing alone.
Dr. Stockmann is clearly the most colorful character in Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People. At times, it seems that the doctor is proud to be “an enemy of the people”. However, early in the last act, Dr. Stockmann says that the words wound him and are lodged deeply in his heart. Moreover, the doctor’s limited embrace of the title enemy of the people is full of sarcasm, as can be seen in the final act when he drives away Aslaksen and Hovstad with his cane.
Although Dr. Stockmann speaks out against the tyranny of the majority, he still sees that men such as the mayor have a lot of control; the doctor is very happy to be the enemy of Hovstad. Therefore, Dr. Stockmann enthusiastically calls himself an enemy of the people to the editor’s face, suggesting that the real enemy is the corrupt Hovstad. Peter Stockman is lusting for power and is a perfect example of a corrupt politician.
He does not want his reputation tarnished and power challenged. He is a conspirator, smartly manipulates everyone, and twists the truth for his own good. He pretends that he is for the welfare of the masses, but in reality, his motives are evil. Furthermore, Ibsen shows that Hovstad and Aslaksen are not reliable characters since they are easily influenced by opinions and have ulterior motives. Because they have many motivations they cannot come to a certain conclusion.
The editor is a leftist radical, however, he also wants to keep the newspaper running. Aslaksen, on the other hand, is in the moderate side, not wanting to offend authorities and those in power. These characters are used in An Enemy of the People to illustrate how difficult it is to have a clear opinion in modern society. People cannot afford to have a dangerous opinion; thus they are helpless when the doctor or the mayor has the upper hand.
In most of his plays Ibsen prefers to use animal similes or animal metaphors as a device of characterization. For example, in The Wild Duck (1884), Ibsen uses the imagery of poultry, pigeons, rabbits, and a duck. In An Enemy of the People, the playwright uses mysterious living beings to characterize Dr. Stockmann and the town. In the play, the doctor has been analyzing the water of the baths and finds that they are petrified by microscopic living beings, the animalculae or infusiora. These microscopic animals can be used as a symbol for the doctor bringing down the corrupt leadership of the town, the same way as to how these microorganisms pollute water.
One of the major themes in An Enemy of the People is power and how it is maintained through control. In the play, Ibsen intensely illustrates the negative aspects of politics where people are easily controlled by the self-serving, corrupt, and controlling bureaucrats. The play criticizes the people who act unwisely in rejecting the truth and in blindly supporting their leaders. Another dominant theme is backwardness. In the play, the people are rooted in their past and the leaders refuse to look to the future, afraid of new ideas.
Ibsen, H. (1984). Four Great Plays: Ghosts, An Enemy of the People, The Wild Duck, and A Doll's House. New York: Bantam Books.