An Enemy of the People by Henrik Ibsen
Author: Henrik Ibsen
An Enemy of the People (En folkefiende) is a five-act play by the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. It was written in response to the moral outcry over his previous play, Ghosts (1881), which portrayed the effects of adultery and syphilis on a seemingly respectable family. In An Enemy of the People, a man is punished for exposing an inconvenient truth in his community.
Dr. Stockmann is the medical officer of a small town’s recently opened public baths. He discovers that the baths are polluted by local industries and plans to publish an article warning people about their health hazards. Instead of being praised, he is censured by the townspeople, who believe the baths are essential to the town’s economy. Nonetheless, he chooses to reveal the truth and is branded ‘an Enemy of the People.’
2. Story Summary
The play opens with a dinner party hosted by Dr. Thomas Stockmann and his wife, Mrs. Katherine Stockmann. Dr. Stockmann is the medical officer of a small town’s newly opened public baths. He has invited his brother, Peter Stockmann, the mayor of the town, Hovstad, the editor of the local newspaper, and Billing, a sub-editor of the newspaper. Captain Horster, a shipmaster, and friend of the doctor, arrives as a late guest.
Dr. Stockmann and Peter Stockmann discuss the baths, and both agree they will be a boon to the town’s economy. Peter asks Dr. Stockmann about a rumor that Hovstad will publish an article the doctor wrote about the spa baths.
Petra Stockmann, Dr. Stockmann’s daughter, returns from teaching her night classes. She is holding a letter Dr. Stockmann has been eagerly waiting for. The letter contains the lab results from the baths. After reading it, Dr. Stockmann reveals to the group that the baths, which are seen as the town’s savior, are polluted by the tanneries and other industries. He assures them that the town can fix the pollution by changing the water pipes. The guests praise him for his discovery, and Hovstad tells him that he will print his article about the contamination of the baths.
The following day, Morten Kiil, Dr. Stockmann’s father-in-law, stops by. Stockmann’s discovery amuses Kiil as he thinks the idea that the baths are contaminated is too ludicrous to believe. He emphasizes that the ‘tiny animals’ that Dr. Stockmann has supposedly found in the bath water are too small to be seen, and he says that the town’s leaders are stupid if they believe Stockmann.
Hovstad and the publisher Aslaksen come to assure the doctor of their support. They thank him for his discovery; the newspaper wants to confront the town leadership about their corruption, using the bath pollution as a starting point.
Peter visits to warn Dr. Stockmann against printing the article. He says changing the water pipes of the baths would be too expensive and take two years. The town’s economy would suffer. Peter tries to get Dr. Stockmann to retract the article, but the doctor refuses.
This act takes place in the office of the local newspaper. Hovstad and Billing discuss Dr. Stockmann’s article and are enthusiastic about using it to tear down the town’s leadership. Later, the mayor, Peter Stockmann, arrives and persuades Hovstad and Aslaksen not to print Dr. Stockmann’s article as the results would devastate the town’s economy. Peter assures them that the doctor’s report is pure delusion.
Eventually, Hovstad agrees to print Peter’s statement assuring the public of the baths’ safety and retract Dr. Stockmann’s article. When Dr. Stockmann realizes the local newspaper will not publish his article, he decides to hold a town meeting to expose the truth to the public. Mrs. Stockmann knows this will turn the town against her husband but chooses to support him.
The town meeting is held in a large hall at Captain Horster’s house. Dr. Stockmann is about to read his report to the public when the mayor passes a motion to stop him from speaking. Outraged, Dr. Stockmann launches a passionate speech about how the greatest enemy of the people is not the authorities but the “compact liberal majority,” who he compares to mongrels. The doctor says that stupid people are in the majority, so power should lie in the hands of the free-thinking, intelligent minority.
The crowd feels insulted by Stockmann’s remarks and jeers at him, calling him the ‘enemy of the people.’ Dr. Stockmann tells his father-in-law, Kiil, that his tannery is leaking most of the pollutants into the baths. On the way out, the townspeople threaten to break Stockmann’s windows.
The last act is set in Dr. Stockmann’s study. The windows are broken, and Stockmann is picking up stones that have been thrown through the windows. His landlord sends them a letter with an eviction notice, and his daughter, Petra, has been fired from her job for holding progressive beliefs.
Peter arrives with a letter from the board of directors of the baths terminating Dr. Stockmann’s contract. He tells Stockmann that the baths may hire him again after six months if he retracts his statement, but Stockmann refuses.
Kiil comes to the house to tell Dr. Stockmann that he bought shares in the baths using Mrs. Stockmann’s inheritance. He hopes Dr. Stockmann will retract his statement so that the value of the shares will skyrocket, ensuring the family’s financial security. Dr. Stockmann rejects Kiil’s suggestion and declares that “considerations of expediency turn morality and justice upside down.” Mrs. Stockmann expresses her worry that the townspeople will hunt down her husband. However, Dr. Stockmann assures her that he is stronger than them because he is able to stand alone.
Dr. Thomas Stockmann
Dr. Stockmann, the play’s protagonist, is a strong-willed, morally upright doctor.
Mrs. Katherine Stockmann
Dr. Stockmann’s wife is a faithful and pragmatic person who stands by her husband but urges him to be cautious.
The Stockmanns’ daughter, a teacher.
Ejlif and Morton
The Stockmanns’ sons.
Peter is the mayor of the town and Dr. Stockmann’s brother.
The editor of the local newspaper.
Kiil is Dr. Stockmann’s father-in-law and the owner of a tannery that is polluting the baths.
4.1. The Flaws of Democracy
An Enemy of the People suggests that a democracy is only as strong as its people. Although the town the play takes place in is ostensibly a democracy, the townspeople lack free-thinking and do not dare to hold influential people to account.
When Dr. Stockmann reveals that the public baths are contaminated, the townspeople vote to prevent him from speaking before they have even read his report. Since having to repair the baths would be inconvenient for them, they choose to ignore the evidence and believe what suits their self-interest. Their lack of regard for evidence and emotion-driven decisions characterize them as blind followers of their leaders.
The town’s leaders also manipulate the people into making decisions that allow them to remain in power. Peter Stockmann, the mayor, tells the crowd that they are free to vote for the motion to prevent Dr. Stockmann from speaking. However, he hides the health effects of the bath pollution and only mentions that the townspeople will be taxed for any repairs to the baths’ water system. This half-truth turns the people against Dr. Stockmann as they look to protect their economic interests. After all, it is easier for them to attack Dr. Stockmann than demand that the wealthy owners of the bath pay for the repairs.
During his speech, Dr. Stockmann says that the biggest enemy of the people is the people themselves. This point alludes to the tyranny of the majority, where people make decisions based on what is popular rather than correct. When most people are easily manipulated and self-interested, what is popular is often morally objectionable. However, it is not easy for people to acknowledge their flaws, so they look for a scapegoat, which they find in Dr. Stockmann. By encouraging the people to attack an imagined ‘enemy,’ the town’s selfish and incompetent leaders can stay in power.
4.2. Media As Government Watchdog
In An Enemy of the People, the media’s ability to act as a government watchdog is limited by self-interest.
The town’s newspaper, The People’s Messenger, is initially excited to publish Dr. Stockmann’s article about the contamination of the baths. Hovstad, the editor, tells Dr. Stockmann, “It is very desirable that the public should be informed of it without delay.”
It seems that the newspaper will first fulfill its role as a government watchdog by exposing the truth and holding powerful leaders accountable. However, it soon becomes clear that Hovstad is not interested in protecting public health. He only wishes to print the article so he can undermine the town’s leadership and promote his political interests.
When Hovstad learns that the mayor plans to pay for the repairs by taxing the townspeople, he realizes that publishing Dr. Stockmann’s article will make the newspaper unpopular. Hovstad decides to print the mayor’s version of events to protect the newspaper’s economic interests.
4.3. Social Class
In An Enemy of the People, the town’s upper-class leaders are portrayed as corrupt and manipulative, using the ignorance of the majority to hold on to power. The mayor, Peter Stockmann, hides the truth from the people and uses their self-interest against them so that he and the other leaders will not need to pay for repairs to the baths.
On the other hand, the lower class is portrayed as coarse, unintelligent, and unable to govern themselves. Several people bring whistles and cow horns during the town meeting to disrupt Dr. Stockmann. They believe he is wrong just because the newspaper said so.
In his speech, Dr. Stockmann envisions a new type of government ruled not by the upper or lower class but by freethinking intellectuals like himself. He compares the masses to ‘mongrels’ and the intellectual minority to ‘pure-breds,’ which angers the crowd. His emphasis on breeding implies that intelligence is inborn and that more intelligent people have the right to rule over others.
However, Dr. Stockmann’s beliefs come with troubling implications. The belief that intelligence is inborn and can thus be bred was the basis of unethical racist eugenics programs in the 20th century. Moreover, more intelligent people may also have faults that undermine their competence as rulers. Dr. Stockmann is intelligent but unrealistic.
When Peter Stockmann tells Dr. Stockmann that repairing the baths will bankrupt the town, he offers no solutions. He assumes everyone will support him in publishing the article, and when this turns out to be untrue, he is overcome by rage. Instead of rallying the crowd’s support at the town meeting, Dr. Stockmann insults them, thus turning them against him and making it impossible for his aims to be achieved.
5. Quotes from An Enemy of the People
“A normally constituted truth lives, let us say, as a rule seventeen or eighteen, or at most twenty years—seldom longer.”
“You see, the point is that the strongest man in the world is he who stands most alone.”
“Public opinion is an extremely mutable thing”
“What sort of truths are they that the majority usually supports? They are truths that are of such advanced age that they are beginning to break up. And if a truth is as old as that, it is also in a fair way to become a lie, gentlemen.”
“You should never wear your best trousers when you go out to fight for freedom and truth.”
6. Frequently Asked Questions About An Enemy of the People
Why does Aslaksen have power over the newspaper?
In An Enemy of the People, Aslaksen is a publisher who allows The People’s Messenger to print on credit. Hence, Hovstad and Billing need to please him and conform to his political opinions.
Why are the baths so important in An Enemy of the People?
The baths were built at great expense to attract visitors and invalids, which would help the town’s economy. At the time, people thought thermal baths could cure various illnesses.
The baths are also an important symbol in An Enemy of the People. While baths commonly represent cleanliness and health, the baths in this town are polluted and end up giving the users illnesses instead of improving their health. Moreover, the contaminated baths represent the corruption in the town, where leaders hide the truth to retain their wealth and power.
Is Dr. Stockmann a hero?
In An Enemy of the People, Dr. Stockmann exposes the truth behind the pollution of the town baths at great cost to his reputation and financial security. He stands by his position even when others try to dissuade and threaten him, showing his courage and integrity. However, Dr. Stockmann is ultimately unable to solve the pollution problem because he lacks the skills to influence others and is unrealistic. He insults the townspeople instead of persuading them and does not address their fears of higher taxes.