An Enemy of the People

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 518

Doctor Thomas Stockmann is the sole physician in a small Norwegian coastal town. One day he makes the surprising discovery that the local baths, which are well attended by people seeking to improve their health and which thus constitute a major economic factor in the lives of the townspeople, have been contaminated. Dr. Stockmann takes the position that the baths must be closed for the season or at least until the source of the contamination can be found and the problem corrected.

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The doctor’s view of the problem seems reasonable enough. He receives the support of the liberal town newspaper and a majority of the public but is almost immediately opposed by his own brother, Peter, the mayor of the town and the senior member of the Board of Directors at the baths. Peter Stockmann both questions the scientific accuracy of the tests used by the doctor and declares that, in any case, the doctor’s concern for the public health must be subordinated to the economic well-being of the town. The conflict in the play is thus one between pure truth and the self-serving use of what passes for truth.

Dr. Stockmann loses all public support for his position as soon as the economic consequences of his discovery become known. He is ridiculed at a public meeting, and a mob marches on his house and stones it. In the end, he is forced to consider emigrating to America. People seem to be willing to accept truth only as long as their financial and power positions are unthreatened by it.

Despite this bleak view, there is hope in Doctor Stockmann’s final position. He decides to remain in town, where he will establish a school for children of the lower classes and teach truth to those who have nothing to lose by accepting it.

Bibliography:

Gray, Ronald D. “An Enemy of the People.” In Ibsen: A Dissenting View. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1977. Gray develops in a very interesting way the widely held theory that An Enemy of the People is an allegory on the hostile reception generally given Ibsen’s previous play, Ghosts.

Hornby, Richard. “The Validity of the Ironic Life: An Enemy of the People.” In Patterns in Ibsen’s Middle Plays. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1981. An extremely thorough and convincing interpretation of the play as an ironic portrait of Dr. Stockmann, a “multifaceted” character “mixing noble and base impulses.”

Knutson, Harold C. “An Enemy of the People: Ibsen’s Reluctant Comedy.” Comparative Drama 27 (Summer, 1993): 159-176. Analyzes the comic tone of the play. In Stockmann’s inflated ego Ibsen is, to some extent, consciously parodying himself.

Shaw, George Bernard. “An Enemy of the People: 1882.” In The Quintessence of Ibsenism. 1891. Reprint. New York: Hill and Wang, 1958. Shaw’s book introduced Ibsen to England and helped make Ibsen’s works popular worldwide. It remains an indispensable guide to the plays.

Weigland, Hermann J. “An Enemy of the People.” In The Modern Ibsen: A Reconsideration. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1960. Originally published in 1925, Weigland’s essay is still one of the most thorough examinations of the play.

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