An Enemy of the People

Henrik Ibsen

An Enemy of the People

Henrik Ibsen

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An Enemy of the People Summary

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Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen wrote the classic drama An Enemy of the People (En Folkefiende) in 1882. Known as the “Father of Modern Drama,” Ibsen is widely credited with bringing realism to the theater. Using realistic dialogue, characters, and relatable situations and settings, Ibsen’s plays focus on social problems and on challenging the hypocrisy of societal conventions. Ibsen wrote An Enemy of the People directly after his play Ghosts was shunned by European theater companies because of its “scandalous” subject matter, which includes topics of adultery and syphilis. An Enemy of the People tells the story of a respected doctor who courageously tells the truth about a health hazard in his small town and is consequentially denounced and ostracized. Critics suggest that An Enemy of the People is Ibsen’s response to the “compact majority” who responded so negatively to truths he presented in Ghosts.

An Enemy of the People is set in a coastal town in southern Norway. Act I opens in the comfortable sitting room of the Stockmann home. Katherine Stockmann, the wife of Dr. Thomas Stockmann, has several guests visiting: Mr. Hovstad, the editor of The People’s Messenger, the town newspaper; Mr. Billing, his assistant; and Captain Horster, a sailor. Peter Stockmann, the Doctor’s older brother, arrives. Peter is the town’s mayor, chief constable, and chairman of the Baths’ committee. Peter praises the Municipal Baths. The new health spa is a “gold mine” for the town, attracting wealthy tourists and invalids. Dr. Stockmann has written an article for the paper about the Baths’ excellent sanitary conditions. Peter would like more credit for the Baths, for although they were his brother’s idea, as mayor, Peter had the facility built.

Dr. Stockmann arrives with his two young sons, Ejlif and Morten. He insists that the newspaper wait to publish his positive article. Petra, Dr. Stockmann’s daughter and a teacher at the local school, arrives with a letter for him. Dr. Stockmann reads it privately, then returns triumphantly to the group. He has made a startling discovery: contaminants are infecting the water in the Baths and the spa is a danger to public health. His findings explain several incidents of typhoid and gastric fever the year prior. Dr. Stockmann thinks Peter will be glad this “important truth” has been brought to light. The visitors toast the Doctor, who is overjoyed to have performed a service for his town.

In Act II, multiple people express support for Dr. Stockmann. Morton Kiil, Katherine’s adoptive father, thinks Dr. Stockmann’s report is a great joke. Hovstad sees it as an opportunity to shatter the “idol of Authority” and take power away from wealthy old families. Aslaksen, Chairman of the Householder’s Association, urges moderation but declares the tradesmen have Dr. Stockmann’s back. Peter, however, is angry with Dr. Stockmann, for investigating behind his back. Peter insists that the Baths are the town’s only future, and if people believe Stockmann’s report and follow his recommendations to fix the Baths, it would take two years of expensive repairs during which time the Baths would be closed and other towns would snap up their tourists, never to return. Peter suggests less expensive and less effective repairs, but Dr. Stockmann will have none of it, retorting that Peter just won’t acknowledge his mistake: it was Peter’s fault the Baths’ conduits were built in a bad spot. Peter explains he must guard his reputation in order to govern for the good of the town. He criticizes Dr. Stockmann’s “restless, pugnacious, rebellious disposition,” and threatens consequences against Dr. Stockmann and his family. After Peter leaves, Katherine worries about having the “right” on their side, if they don’t have the “might” to back it up. Petra stands by her father’s decision.

Act III takes place in the office of The People’s Messenger. Hovstad, Aslaksen, and Billing are excited to release Dr. Stockmann’s bombshell news about the Baths until Peter enters and informs Hovstad and Aslaksen that repair money would have to come from municipal funds. Aslaksen and Hovstad rescind their support for Dr. Stockmann and agree to print Peter’s précis about smaller fixes. Angry that the paper won’t print his exposé, Dr. Stockmann declares he will hold a town meeting and present the truth that way, then see whether a “pack of cowards can succeed in gagging a patriot.”

In Act IV, the meeting begins in a room at Captain Horster’s house. Aslaksen is elected chairman and lets Peter speak first. Peter proposes that they do not allow Stockmann to read or talk about his article. Aslaksen comments that Stockmann was inciting a revolution, and Hovstad claims Stockmann misled them. The people don’t want to hear about the baths, so Dr. Stockmann delivers a heated speech about the “colossal stupidity of the authorities” and the “compact majority”—the real enemy of truth and freedom. He bemoans the ignorance of the lower classes and of common people who inhabit elevated social positions, like Peter. The crowd is outraged, and votes Dr. Stockmann an “enemy of the people.”

Act V reveals the meeting’s repercussions. Townsfolk have thrown rocks through Dr. Stockmann’s windows. The family is evicted by the landlord. Petra is fired. The boys are beaten up at school. Even kindly Captain Horster loses his ship’s command. Peter arrives to dismiss Dr. Stockmann from his medical officer’s position. Peter suggests the family go away for a while, returning when Dr. Stockmann writes a statement admitting his mistake. Dr. Stockmann declines. Kiil announces he has bought shares in the Baths, and if Dr. Stockmann insists on the truth (implicating Kiil’s tanneries in the pollution), Katherine gets no inheritance. Dr. Stockmann refuses. He tells his family they are staying in town, on the “field of battle.” Captain Horster offers them a place in his home. Dr. Stockmann vows to homeschool his boys and start a school with a handful of street urchins, making them into “liberal-minded and high-minded men.” Dr. Stockmann feels empowered, proclaiming that the “strongest man in the world is he who stands most alone.”
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