An Enemy of the People Essay - Critical Essays

Henrik Ibsen

Critical Evaluation

The Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, considered by many to be one of the greatest dramatists of all time, is also called the founder of modern drama. In the mid-1870’s, he created a new tradition of realistic prose drama that dealt boldly with contemporary social problems and individual psychology, offering an alternative to the melodrama that had dominated early nineteenth century theater. In the first twenty-five years of his career, Ibsen wrote romantic and historical dramas designed to glorify Norway and to wean Norwegian audiences from popular Danish plays. With his later, major works—twelve prose dramas of increasing complexity, beginning with Samfundets støtter (1877; The Pillars of Society, 1880) and ending with Naar vi dø de vaagner(1899; When We Dead Awaken, 1900)—Ibsen set a standard for realistic theater that would be emulated throughout the Western world. Ibsen’s nineteenth century audiences were often shocked by the new and realistic subject matter of his plays. Gengangere(1881; Ghosts, 1885) openly referred to inherited venereal disease, and Et dukkehjem(1879; A Doll’s House, 1880) displayed an astonishingly liberal attitude toward the emancipation of women. Both plays were attacked as “immoral” and banned from several cities in Europe.

An Enemy of the People, though somewhat less controversial, was revolutionary in its unflinching portrayal of the greed and self-interest in small-town politics. Ibsen spares almost no one as he examines the power of self-interest to shape human attitudes toward truth and civic responsibility. The townspeople are portrayed in act 4 as little more than an unthinking mob. In fact, Ibsen at times seems so critical of the power of the “compact majority” that some scholars interpret his play as an elitist attack on democracy. The extreme vacillation of the newspapermen, Hovstad and Billing, seems marked for special scorn. They enthusiastically support but then quickly abandon Dr. Stockmann as soon as they perceive their self-interest differently. Even Stockmann himself, heroic figure that he might be, is clearly motivated by self-interest. In the first act, his excitement over the discovery of pollution in the Baths is obviously motivated, at least in part, by extreme and petty competitiveness with his brother Peter. Stockmann is so absorbed in the singularity of his discovery that he naïvely ignores its obvious ramifications, hoping instead for rewards from the town. At the end of the play, Stockmann declares that “the strongest man in the world is he who stands alone,” but he is ignoring his family, who will have to stand and suffer along with him. With nearly everyone in the...

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