(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.)