What do you think the enemy is in An Enemy of the People?

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coachingcorner eNotes educator| Certified Educator

An Enemy Of The People has an intriguing title so this work has been the subject of much debate and analysis. To find the answer we must first look at the context and plot of this piece which describes a business enterprise. Dr. Thomas Stockmann is chief medical officer at an almost completed health resort. Although these baths were his idea, it was his older brother, Peter who had the business acumen and political connections to carry it out as he was the mayor. However, there is a potential public health issue when he receives a lab report that the water is contaminated. Here the conflict deepens. The backers and townspeople can decide to demolish and rebuild the baths at enormous expense, risking bankruptcy; or they can tell the truth to the people and avoid damaging their health.

Dr. Thomas Stockmann wants to tell the truth but his brother Peter says that he could be ruined as could the entire town which depends on the success of the project. On his side he has the press and all the powerful connections which can drown out his brother's case. This is easy to do because Thomas does not have many supporters. Many townsfolk are acting out of fear and self-interest. Thomas decides to bypass the papers by calling a public meeting. Peter however, makes sure the chairman is a soft touch even though he is regarded as being very even-handed. It transpires that he is indeed very easy to manipulate to Peter's side. This has the effect of polarizing the debate. Thomas responds by "moving the goalposts" away from the traditional "enemies" such as the establishment or the politicians. His view is that:

"It is not they who are most instrumental in poisoning the sources of our moral life and infecting the ground on which we stand. It is not they who are the most dangerous enemies of the truth and freedom among us."

The audience gets excited and demands to know who the real enemy is. He promises to name them:

"I shall name them! This is precisely the great discovery I made yesterday. The most dangerous enemy of truth and freedom amongst us is the compact majority - yes, the damned compact Liberal majority."

The compact majority seem to be the "Luddites" who are not far-sighted enough to see the possibilities of new ideas and technologies and moreover, rather than just resisting change for its own sake or through fear, resist change because they have a vested interest in the status quo. However, Thomas takes his argument a bit too far for the crowd's liking as he seems to believe that "the majority" is so outdated and slow that they really should have no say in the most important decisions of the country which would be better made by the elite enlightened "few."

This is too much for the public audience who then declare Thomas to be the real "enemy of the people." The real answer lies in individual choices such as those around democracy and intellectual/educational capacity, for example when voting for a new government.