Might vs. Right in An Enemy of the People

Henrik Ibsen’s play An Enemy of the People is brimming with different and, at times, conflicting ideals. I believe that Ibsen wrote in this way with purpose: every audience member is to leave the theatre with a different experience from everyone else. There is not to be one universal truth to the play; to have an entire group of people agreed on one point would defeat the entire purpose.  Of course, by my stating such an opinion would probably be contradicting someone else’s! The theme that spoke to me most in Enemy, however, is that of “might vs. right.” The play implies that might is not always right, nor indeed does right have might to support it.

In the first two acts, Dr. Stockmann repeatedly states that he has a “compact majority” and the “liberal-minded independent press” (Ibsen 191) behind him, those two being his “might.” The doctor assumes that his might will follow him because he is right.  He does not even consider the townspeople and the government not bowing to his study about the Baths. Peter Stockmann assumes the opposite: he knows he has power and assumes that every decision made by him and his might is necessarily the best decision. Once both men are faced with opposition from each other, they are immediately on the defensive instead of hearing other ideas. Dr. Stockmann in fact speaks fairly violently as he describes that he “shall smite them to the ground – I shall crush them – I shall break down all their defences, before the eyes of the honest public!” (224). As the play continues, we see the evolution of Dr. Stockmann as he goes from a self-assured man with some supporters to a screaming, slightly unstable man who has only one person on his side. He certainly does not do any favors for himself by calling his fellow townspeople “curs” and lame animal (259) when faced with opposition. He may still be right to close the Baths, but he certainly is not right in his classism. The townspeople, despite appearing unified against the doctor, prove that they are not in the final act of the play, as people only act against the family because they “dare risk not.” (269) The people of the town only have might when they are together; when separated, it is apparent that their right and unification are only thin veils for their uncertainty.

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One response to “Might vs. Right in An Enemy of the People

  1. Sophi

    I agree with your first statement about the different perspectives of those reading/watching the play after understanding the whole story. Seeing the perspectives of others about this play has shown me that there isn’t just one interpretation and that, surprisingly enough, there aren’t many common ones either. They are all different.
    My interpretation of the play was that higher authority figures have almost all the control over the citizens of the town, but your thesis is a bit broader, encompassing many more occurrences in the play. For example, not only only does Peter have more might than Thomas (who is, arguably, more “right” than Peter), but the people have more might than Thomas when they are united against him. At the beginning of the play, Thomas was the one with more “might” and “right” when he had a very large/influential support system standing by his opinion.
    However, when they separated from him, it was as if their opposition to him took away not only his “might”, but his being “right”. Even though in our modern age Thomas’s research would have held strong against this sort of public opinion, the peoples’ opposition against Thomas disqualified his evidence and turned his “right” to “wrong”. Which makes me wonder: is it really a battle of might versus right? Couldn’t more “might” that stands in the opposite stance of what is “right” disqualify it’s truth?

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