Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1119

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.

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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 play motivated and blinded by self-interest, Ibsen seems to imply that this distorting power dominates nearly all human minds and thus all aspects of human life.

Only a minor character, Captain Horster, seems free from the motivations of self-interest. Horster offers his house for Stockmann’s speech in act 4 when no one else in the town dares support him, and at the end of the play Horster offers his house to the Stockmanns permanently, even though he has been dismissed from his ship’s command as a result of his support of Stockmann. Horster has nothing to gain from helping Stockmann and no particular interest in the political issues involved. He helps Stockmann simply because Stockmann is a friend in need.

Horster functions in this play as a kind of raisonneur, a type of character who usually appears as a minor figure somewhat detached from the action and who represents a calm, levelheaded, rational standard against which the usually more irrational behavior of other characters is contrasted and measured. Ibsen’s use of this traditional kind of dramatic character is unusually subtle. Horster is almost a shadowy figure in the play, appearing infrequently and saying little, though his presence can be very powerful in a sensitive reading or state production of the play. In his entrance with Stockmann in the first scene, Horster’s reluctance to take advantage of Stockmann’s somewhat extravagant largess is very subtly contrasted with the gluttony of Billing, who greedily gobbles up Stockmann’s roast beef. Though he says little, Horster’s words are powerfully indicative of the rational standard that underlies the play. When Billing loudly asserts that “a community is like a ship; every one ought to be prepared to take the helm,” Captain Horster responds to this easy platitude with one line of hard, common sense: “Maybe that is all very well on shore; but on board ship it wouldn’t work.”

Ibsen’s realistic style inaugurated a new style of drama because the settings, characters, and issues of his plays comment directly and forcefully on the life of his audiences. Ibsen is also called the father of modern drama because his plays possess a rich, thematic complexity typical of twentieth century literature. In his later plays, an increasing use of symbolism generates an even more complex, dense, and poetic drama. Ibsen’s technical brilliance in the service of thematic complexity is already clear in An Enemy of the People. In Stockmann’s discovery of the polluted Baths, Ibsen presents a very modern situation—the genuine dilemma with no satisfactory solution. The Baths are obviously dangerous and must be closed, but the closing of the Baths will also destroy the town, and it is the unresolvable nature of this dilemma between social responsibility and business interests that dominates the play. The accumulation of incidents in the play makes that dilemma clearer until the audience must accept a dramatic situation with no satisfactory resolution. In the play’s first two acts, all “right-thinking” people appear to agree that the Baths must be closed. In act 3, when Peter specifically outlines the economic devastation that will result from the closing of the Baths, nearly everyone in town shifts to Peter’s point of view. Now Dr. Stockmann stands alone. In act 5, Ibsen adds a final twist to the situation. Stockmann’s father-in-law, Morten Kiil, has used Mrs. Stockmann’s inheritance to purchase the remaining stock in the Baths. Stockmann’s persistence in closing the Baths now financially endangers his entire family and could destroy them as well as him. The price of idealism has been raised to an uncomfortable level. Thus, at the end of the play, Ibsen makes it impossible for the audience to choose sides comfortably. Stockmann can easily appear supercilious, even unbalanced, as he announces in the last scene that he will remain in town and start his own school, recruit “street urchins—regular ragamuffins,” and “experiment with curs.” Is Stockmann a hero, a fool, or both? The audience is unable to resolve their ambiguous attitudes toward Stockmann and the town that turned against him. They thus experience through Ibsen’s play the radical uncertainty that typifies much of twentieth century literature and thought.

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An Enemy of the People