By Henrik Johan Ibsen (1828-1906)
A Study Guide
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2003
.........At the modest home of Thomas Stockmann, an idealistic physician, the spa and its benefits make for lively conversation between Mayor Peter Stockmann, the brother of Dr. Stockmann, and Hovstad, editor of the local newspaper, both of whom arrived for a visit just after the Stockmanns finished supper. With Hovstad is an assistant named Billing. Dr. Stockmann is out for a walk with his sons, Ejlif and Morten.
.........“Mark my words, Mr. Hovstad—the baths will become the focus of our municipal life!" the mayor says. "Think how extraordinarily the place has developed within the last year or two! Money has been flowing in, and there is some life and some business doing in the town. Houses and landed property are rising in value every day."
.........Hovstad mentions that he plans to run an article about the health resort—written by Dr. Stockmann, the medical director of the baths—in the spring, the right time to generate interest in the new community asset. The doctor, who came up with the idea for the baths, has been an untiring promoter of their potential benefits.
.........Peter Stockmann reminds Hovstad that he, as mayor, played a “modest" part (really meaning the most important part) in making the baths a reality. It was the mayor’s practicality and business sense, he hints, that were the driving forces behind the project.
.........When Dr. Stockmann returns from his walk with Captain Horster, a seafarer, he is in a cheerful mood. Everything is going right for him and his family, he says, and he now has enough money to afford a few little luxuries, like the roast beef they had for dinner. When the mayor inquires about the article his brother wrote, Dr. Stockmann says he has decided to withhold it for the time being, but does not say why. Suspecting that his brother is keeping something from him—possibly something about the spa—the mayor accuses the doctor of withholding important information, then says:
.........“You have an ingrained tendency to take your own way, at all events; and, that is almost equally inadmissible in a well ordered community, The individual ought undoubtedly to acquiesce in subordinating himself to the community—or, to speak more accurately, to the authorities who have the care of the community's welfare."
.........After Mayor Stockmann leaves, Dr. Stockmann's daughter, Petra, a schoolteacher, arrives and joins in the conversation. An idealist like her father, Petra says, "There is so much falsehood both at home and at school. At home one must not speak, and at school we have to stand and tell lies to the children." Captain Horster offers to provide a room for the school in an old house he owns.
.........Dr. Stockmann then opens a letter he received, then waves it before Hovstad and his wife, announcing a remarkable discovery: The baths are contaminated. The doctor speaks in a triumphant, jubilant tone, for he believes he has done a great service for the public welfare. He says several cases of typhoid fever and gastric fever the previous year aroused his suspicion about the spa water, so he took samples of it and sent them to a university for analysis. The letter he holds contains the results of the analysis: The spa is a cesspool of disease. It seems that tanneries in the town leached impurities into the water. Hovstad—seemingly idealistic, like Dr. Stockmann—promises to publish news of the discovery and says his printer, Aslaksen, a prominent citizen, will back the decision, as will a homeowner’s association.
.........In the days immediately following the discovery, Mayor Peter Stockmann discovers it will cost an enormous sum in tax dollars to make improvements, including laying new pipes to handle the leachate, which his brother says are necessary to eliminate the pollution. So he decides to challenge his brother’s findings as faulty and asks him to renounce them. The doctor—viewing himself as the guardian of the common weal, a savior—refuses.
.........Meanwhile, Hovstad, fearing the wrath of the taxpayers, decides not to publish Dr. Stockmann’s article. At a town meeting in a large room provided as a goodwill gesture by Captain Horster, almost everyone lines up against Dr. Stockmann—Mayor Stockmann, Hovstad, Aslaksen, the homeowners, ordinary citizens—and shout him down when he attempts to explain the problem and alert the town to the danger. One citizen wonders whether he has an alcohol problem. Another suggests insanity runs in his family. Still another thinks he is getting even for not receiving a salary increase as the spa’s medical director. All agree that he should be labeled “an enemy of the people," one bent on destroying the town. When Stockmann and his family leave the meeting, the crowd hisses and boos, then begins chanting “enemy of the people," “enemy of the people."
.........The next morning, the Stockmanns discover broken windows and rocks littering the floor. The doctor piles the rocks on a table, saying he will save them as heirlooms for his children. A letter arrives in which the landlord gives Dr. Stockmann notice of eviction. It doesn’t matter, Stockmann tells his wife, for he and his family will cross the sea and resettle in the New World. Then Captain Horster arrives and announces his employer has fired him. The mayor enters and announces that the citizens are circulating a petition pledging that they will no longer seek the medical services of Dr. Stockmann. The mayor advises his brother to leave town for a while, then return and confess his error in writing. Such a move might earn him reinstatement as medical director of the spa. Dr. Stockmann says he will never admit that he was wrong—never, never—under any circumstances.
.........After the mayor leaves, another visitor arrives. He is Morton Kiil, the father of Dr. Stockmann's wife, Katherine. Kiil is the owner of polluting tanneries. In his will, he had stipulated that a handsome sum be bequeathed to Katherine and the Stockmanns’ children. However, he tells the doctor that he invested the bequest in stock in the baths. Furthermore, he is going around town buying up all the remaining stock in the baths. Thus, if Dr. Stockmann sticks to his story—that is, if he refuses to recant—the stock will become worthless and his wife and children will inherit nothing. Kiil tells the doctor that he has until 2 p.m. to change his position.
.........When Kiil leaves, Hovstad and Aslaksen arrive. They think Dr. Stockmann is involved in a scheme to inflate the value of the stocks and want in on the scheme. But Stockmann dismisses them, raising an umbrella as if to strike them. They hurry out. Captain Horster invites the Stockmanns to board at his house during the winter. The doctor expresses his gratitude, then says he will focus his medical practice on the poor and educate his children himself. In fact, he says, he will start a school of his own to teach the town’s guttersnipes. He is feeling upbeat, cheerful as he looks ahead.
.........“I am the strongest man in this town," he says.
.........Then he announces he has made another important discovery. Gathering everyone close to him, he says “The strongest man in the world is he who stands alone."
The action takes place in the late 19th Century in a small town on the southern coast of Norway. The town expects to prosper as a health resort, thanks to its new municipal baths.
Thomas Stockmann: Medical officer of the municipal baths, which the
town plans to use to attract tourists and bolster the economy. Stockmann
discovers that the baths are contaminated with leachate from a local tannery.
.......An Enemy of the People is a realistic stage drama in five acts. It depicts ordinary life as it is, not as one would like it to be. An Enemy of the People is one of several Ibsen dramas that are sometimes referred to as problem plays because they center on social problems and controversial community issues. Examples of other problem plays by Ibsen are The Wild Duck, A Doll's House, and Ghosts. An Enemy of the People was published in 1882, when realism was just beginning to take root, and staged for the first time in Kristiania, Norway, in 1883. (Kristiania changed its named to Oslo in 1925.)
wrote An Enemy of the People in Dano-Norwegian, a mixture of the
Danish language and Norwegian dialects. Dano-Norwegian evolved from Danish
while Norway was a province of Denmark. Although Norway gained its independence
in 1814, Norwegians continued to speak and write in Dano-Norwegian, also
known as Riksmål. Beginning in the middle of the 19th Century, Norway
began developing a new Norwegian language, Landsmål (the language
of the land or country), free of Danish influence. .......Meanwhile,
Riksmål developed further and eventually became known as Bokmål,
the language of books. Today both varieties of Norwegian are written and
spoken in Norway. The Dano-Norwegian of Ibsen is simple, concise, to the
point. However, it takes a talented translator to capture the subtleties
of the language and the nuances written into the dialogue of An Enemy
of the People. Therefore, English-speaking students of Ibsen should
choose their translations carefully. One highly respected Ibsen translator
was William Archer (1856-1924), a Scottish-born London journalist, drama
critic, and playwright who translated many of Ibsen's works.
.......Because Ibsen wanted to make his plays uncompromisingly realistic, he wrote the dialogue in simple, everyday, middle-class language rather than elegant, lofty, or trope-laden language characteristic of romantic plays. But in mimicking vernacular speech, he chose and arranged his words carefully; every word and every sentence counted. An Enemy of the People is not without weaknesses, however. On the one hand, the play is often transparently didactic in presenting its message, the importance of accepting the truth. In addition, Dr. Stockmann is so idealistic, so zealous, so triumphal in his campaign to proclaim the truth that he becomes a caricature rather than a real person. Ibsen's realism thus becomes less real.
.......In keeping with his realistic plots and dialogue, Ibsen's stage sets resembled the furnishings of everyday life. There were no elegant foyers or salons with exotic plants or oriental rugs; there were only ordinary rooms of ordinary middle-class folk. In his stage directions for An Enemy of the People, Ibsen describes the set for the first act this way:
.......The spa represents the town's leading citizens and their followers. Although it appears wholesome and healthful, it contains unseen contaminants. Mayor Stockmann and his followers pass themselves off as upright citizens but are really corrupt at heart. The spa water undergoes a test that reveals it polluted. In reporting the results of the test, Dr. Stockmann says, "The whole Bath establishment is a whited, poisoned sepulchre, I tell you—the gravest possible danger to the public health!" The citizens also undergo a test—the crisis precipitated by the report—that reveals them unethical and unscrupulous, just as "poisoned" as the baths.
Stockmann's daughter, Petra, a schoolteacher, foreshadows the direction
of the plot and the theme during a conversation at the dinner table in
Act 1. Dining with the Stockmanns are Hovstad, Billing, and Horster. Petra,
an idealist like her father, says, "There is so much falsehood both at
home and at school. At home one must not speak, and at school we have to
stand and tell lies to the children." The school thus is what the community
is revealed as later: false.
central conflict in the play centers on the clash between Peter Stockmann
and his younger brother, Dr. Thomas Stockman. In the Old Testament of the
Bible (Genesis 4:1-16), Cain—the first-born
son of Adam and Eve—murders his younger brother,
Abel. Cain, a farmer, was envious of Abel, a shepherd, because God had
accepted Abel's offering over Cain's. Motifs pitting one family member
against another continued to appear in literature down through the ages.
In Sophocles's Oedipus at Colonus and the Greek myth on which it
is based, brothers—Polynices and Eteocles—vie
for the kingship of Thebes and kill each other. In Shakespeare's Hamlet,
Claudius kills his brother, the king, in order to succeed him as king and
marry his wife. In the play Inherit the Wind and in films based
on it, a fundamentalist preacher, the Rev. Jeremiah Brown, condemns his
own daughter, Rachel, to hell because of her relationship with Bertram
Cates, who is on trial for teaching Darwin's Theory of Evolution in a local
school. The authors of the play, Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, based
their work on the 1925 Scopes trail in Dayton, Tenn., in which a teacher
violated the Butler Law by teaching evolution.
community's welfare." In so doing, he sets up the clash later in the play with his brother, who indeed asserts his will.
.......Supposedly, Steven Spielberg's highly successful 1975 film, Jaws, was based in part on Henrik Ibsen's An Enemy of the People. Instead of polluting the water with a toxic agent, Spielberg polluted it with a gigantic shark. In Jaws, the residents of Amity Island on the Atlantic coast, who are dependent on the tourist trade for their livelihood, keep their beaches open in spite of warnings from Police Chief Martin Brody and ichthyologist Matt Hooper that a gigantic great white shark roams the waters. In Ibsen's play, the townspeople attempt to keep the spa open in spite of warnings that a danger of another kind, disease, infests the waters.
Study Questions and Essay Topics
.......The climax of the play occurs when people of the town declare Dr. Stockmann an enemy of the people.
.......Biographies of Henrik Ibsen are available at the following web sites: