Study Guide

An Enemy of the People

by Henrik Ibsen

An Enemy of the People Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

In An Enemy of the People, Dr. Thomas Stockmann is chief medical officer at The Baths, a health resort that is soon to open. Though he first conceived the idea of developing this resort, his older brother, Peter, the mayor of the town, had the business sense and political connections to put it into effect. Ibsen uses the contrast between the two brothers to establish the ideological framework of the play: Thomas is a liberal but impractical idealist; the ultraconservative Peter is motivated chiefly by self-interest and what he calls “the good of the community.” Dr. Stockmann’s home is a haven for people with liberal ideas: Billing and Hovstad, who edit the town’s liberal newspaper; Horster, an open-minded sea captain; and Thomas Stockmann’s freethinking daughter, Petra, a schoolteacher. Petra is the first character to raise what is to become the major theme in the play, the “life-lie.” When she complains that, at school, she is forced to teach children to believe in lies, Captain Horster encourages her to found a school where children will learn the truth.

The crucial issue in the play emerges when Dr. Stockmann receives a laboratory report confirming his suspicions that the water supply for The Baths is polluted. Jubilant that he has detected the contamination in time to prevent a disastrous epidemic, all the liberals offer their support and declare him a public hero. Peter Stockmann, however, intends to discredit his brother, because the enormous costs of reconstructing the water system spells financial ruin for the investors and, ultimately, for the whole town. Because he has the liberal press and the majority on his side, and, above all, because he is right, Thomas is confident of victory. The battle lines are quickly drawn, but the motives on both sides are mixed. Thomas Stockmann’s wife, Katherine, sees the impending fight as a threat to the security of her family. The mayor fears financial ruin and the erosion of his political power. Hovstad is a spineless political opportunist who will espouse any cause that promises to increase his power. Katherine’s...

(The entire section is 859 words.)

An Enemy of the People Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

All the citizens of the small Norwegian coastal town are very proud of the Baths, for the healing waters make the town famous and prosperous. Dr. Stockmann, the medical officer of the Baths, and his brother Peter, the mayor and chairman of the Baths committee, do not agree on many things, but they do agree that the Baths are the source of the town’s good fortune. Hovstad, the editor of the People’s Messenger, and his subeditor, Billing, are also loud in praise of the Baths. Business is good, and the people are beginning to enjoy prosperity.

Then Dr. Stockmann receives from the university a report stating that the waters of the Baths are contaminated. Becoming suspicious when several visitors became ill after taking the Baths, he felt it his duty to investigate. Refuse from tanneries above the town is oozing into the pipes leading to the reservoir and infecting the waters. This means that the big pipes will have to be relaid, at a tremendous cost to the owners or to the town. When Hovstad and Billing hear this news, they ask the doctor to write an article for their paper about the terrible conditions. They even speak of having the town give Dr. Stockmann a testimonial to honor him for his great discovery.

Dr. Stockmann writes up his findings and sends the manuscript to his brother so that his report can be acted upon officially. Hovstad calls on the doctor again, urging him to write articles for the People’s Messenger. It is Hovstad’s opinion that the town fell into the hands of a few officials who do not care about the people’s rights, and it is 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 claims to have the compact majority under his control, also wants to join in the fight to get the Baths purified and the corrupt officials defeated. Dr. Stockmann cannot believe that his brother refuses to accept the report, but he soon learns that he is wrong. Peter goes to the doctor and insists that he keep his knowledge to himself because the income of the town will be lost if the report is made public. He says that the repairs will be too costly, that the owners of the Baths cannot stand the cost, and that the townspeople will never allow an increase in taxes to clean up the waters. He even insists that Dr. Stockmann write another report, stating that he was mistaken in his earlier judgment. He feels this action necessary when he learns that Hovstad and Billing know of the first report. When the doctor refuses to change his report or to withhold it, Peter threatens him with the loss of his position. Even the doctor’s wife pleads with him not to cross his powerful brother; he is sustained in his determination to do right only by his daughter Petra.

Hovstad, Billing, and Aslaksen are eager to print the doctor’s article so that the town can be aware of the...

(The entire section is 1192 words.)