Tag Archives: Henrik Ibsen

Greed and Economy: The True Enemies of the People

One of the main aims in Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People is to illustrate the great lengths an individual or a group will go to in order to preserve their public image or their finances. Although mentioned briefly in Act III, Petra’s refusal to translate the article is what lies at the center of this play. Devoid of outside forces, the intention of the article which revolved around a “higher power” inspiring the actions and goals of others is what is omnipresent in this play.

Throughout the play, Peter Stockman is intent upon nullifying Thomas Stockman’s facts, opinions, and ideals. Knowing that Thomas is a naive and idealistic individual, Peter caters to these personal characteristics in order to declare Thomas an “enemy of the people”. The mayor is able to hide behind the importance of the revenue that the baths would bring in in order to contradict Thomas’s findings.  By eliciting the argument of commerce and the prosperity of the town, Peter is able to sway public opinion by denouncing Thomas’s findings as fantastical fallacies. Peter’s personal vendetta to remain in power and to make the town that he runs economically prosperous blinds him to the findings of Thomas. With the evidence of the contamination of the water not palpable and only present in Thomas’s data, it is easy for Peter to place his interests above what is morally “right”. By turning the numbers against Thomas, which were originally partisan to Thomas, Peter is able to declare Thomas’s argument to be insufficient proof and additionally bereft of common sense. As Thomas laments in Act IV, “The most dangerous enemy of truth and freedom amongst us in the compact majority, yes, the damned compact Liberal majority– that is it!”.

Interestingly enough, it is not the compact majority which originated as the enemy, but rather the greed of Peter Stockman and the economical status of the town which orchestrated the demise of a man and the implied ultimate collapse of a town .

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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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A Conflict of Interests

An Enemy of the People is complex in that it deals with many issues. For me, one of the major issues is the question of the good of the people versus the good of the individual. The townspeople look at the water quality problem throughout the book through the perspective of how it could help or harm them. In the beginning, many people, such as Alaskan and Hovstad, are supportive of the doctor because they know only that he wishes to improve the water supply of what is a major source of their income, not that it would cost them anything. Others, like Morten Kil and Billing, believe he is attacking the system of government, “the aristocracy” (Ibsen 33), and support his “revolution” (Ibsen 33) on those grounds. Billing and Hovstad, in particular, hope to use the article as a chance to “enlighten the public on the Mayor’s incapability on one point and another, and make clear that all the positions of trust in the town, the whole control of municipal affairs, ought to be put in the hands of the Liberals” (Ibsen 34). Yet everyone, once they realize that this venture would cost them dearly, that they would have to scrimp and save to pay for the repairs and get by for the two years it would take to improve the water, lose all interest in a revolution, in improving what they have, as the cost, in their mind, is too high. Dr. Stockman is the only one of them who even considers the well-being of the travelers that come to the town, who are infected by the contaminated water. It is no small sickness, either, but rather results in death for some, already suffering from prior ailments. Yet none of the townspeople stop to consider this grave affair, that they themselves are murderers, worse still for knowing their water is deadly and doing nothing either to change it nor warn anyone. In this play, Ibsen is thus presenting such a problem to the reader, who is not intimately involved in the fictional town’s affairs, and thus cannot feel much sympathy for them, with the expectation that the reader will be horrified – and rightly so – at the town’s decisions. It is a lesson, teaching in a stage where nothing is truly at risk, so that when it is, the lessons may carry over.

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Minority is Right

There is so much in this play, and I think there are many ideas that Ibsen was expressing when he wrote this play.  One of these things government in general, specifically with the “minority” being right.

I find it interesting that Dr. Stockmann did not really think through how his accusations of the baths would come across to the other members of the town.  He thought that by presenting the truth about what was going on, everyone would be in complete shock and would be in support of the doctor.  This obviously did not happen, the townspeople thought he was insane!

When the town meeting was held and Dr. Stockmann addressed the townspeople about what was going on with the baths, he did more than just talk about the baths.  He talked a lot about the government and how corrupt it is.  All through this scene, Dr. Stockmann is cut off and not able to completely say what he wants to about the matters at hand.  At one point, he puts it rather simply:  “The majority has might on its side- unfortunately; but right it has not. I am in the right- I and a few other scattered individuals.  The minority is always in the right.”  (Ibsen, 59)

This quote shows how Dr. Stockmann views the government of his town:  that they may be a powerful force going against him, but they might not necessarily be correct.  He is confident that the minority will always be morally sound and correct, no matter how powerful the majority is.

In ACT V, we see how difficult it is for Dr. Stockmann and his family while they are nearly removed from the community.  Dr. Stockmann has lost his job, the town is going to refuse getting and treatment from him so he would not be able to practice medicine, Petra was also dismissed from her school, and Ejlif and Morten were told to take a break from their school for a few days.  Seeing this, Dr. Stockmann resolves to move his family to the “new world,” for he thinks they need to completely move out of their country and start fresh.

After having numerous visitors visit Dr. Stockmann at his home, he learns the reason for the pollution of the baths is from Morton Kiils tannery.  After this, he gets an idea that comes with sudden confidence that the Stockmann’s are not going to move.    “No,  I’ll be hanged if we are going away!…”  (Ibsen, 80)

Dr. Stockmann intends for his family to stay in their town, and he is going to start a school and teach his sons and some “street urchins” how to become “liberal-minded and high-minded men.”  (Ibsen, 82)

Since Dr. Stockmann is up against the entire town with the matter of the baths and politics, he is going to use to his benefit the impressionable boys of the town so that they might one day have a very great impact in the town and be able to make some big changes.  At the end of the play, Dr. Stockmann seems to be not as ostracized and defeated as he was even earlier in the same scene.  He is using the resources he has to one day make sure that right prevails in his town.

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