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Analysis of An Enemy of the People Essay


The term "freethinking" is used often in the play. Almost all the characters, except for Aslaksen and the mayor, claim to be freethinkers; it is important to note which of them sticks by their claims and to see exactly what the term "freethinking" means in a closely knit democracy.

The mayor raises a number of solid complaints against Dr. Stockmann's proposal to fix the baths. It is easy to root for the doctor and to see the mayor as a corrupt politician, but it is not Ibsen's intent to create a play of good versus evil. The doctor is perhaps too surprised by the mayor's resistance. He wants complete agreement or he is ready to go to war. Furthermore, it should be remembered that the play was written in the late nineteenth century and that it is not surprising that people are skeptical when told about bacteria. The doctor also appears to have a long history of coming up with eccentric plans.

The doctor, however, clings to his idea, just as he clings to his moral obligation to publicize his findings and to save the people from the consequences of bathing in polluted water. He is an idealist, but he is also an innocent. He doesn't understand Hovstad's interest in manipulating the pollution discovery to other purposes, and he was unable to predict the many economic and political consequences of his findings. This play, in many ways, is about the extent to which individual innocence can survive in modern society.

While the mayor and the doctor remain consistent in their opinions throughout the play, the newspapermen's ideas change. The mayor and the doctor have clear motivations: The mayor wants to stay in power, whereas the doctor is concerned with morality and science but not with economics or politics. The newspapermen, on the other hand, have many motivations, and, therefore, they can't come to a clear conclusion. Hovstad is a leftist radical, but he also wants to keep the paper in business, and he is interested in Petra. Ibsen uses these characters to illustrate how difficult it is to have a clear opinion in modern society. Hovstad can't afford to have a dangerous opinion and is, therefore, helpless when the mayor or the doctor has the upper hand.

Mrs. Stockmann is committed to her husband, but she is also committed to her family. When the doctor endangers the rest of his family by throwing away his job, she doesn't know what to do. She feels that Hovstad is fooling the doctor, and when Hovstad and all the other men turn on her husband, she feels that her husband has been led into a trap. It appears to her that the doctor has consistently tried to do what is best and has been somehow led into a very dangerous position by these men.

This act represents the climax of the play. We see Dr. Stockmann at his most impassioned and the rest of the town at its most conservative and conspiratorial. The men who were having dinner at Dr. Stockmann's house in the first act are publicly denouncing him, and he is denouncing them.

The doctor's point about the tyranny of the majority is complex. It is certainly not Ibsen's invention. The English political philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote along similar lines earlier in the nineteenth century. It would be hasty to assume that Dr. Stockmann is speaking Ibsen's own ideas. However, Ibsen was certainly eager to express his frustrations with rule by majority in the wake of the liberal media's condemnation of his previous play, Ghosts.

It is ironic that the doctor chooses to speak on the tyranny of the majority in front of a crowd of townspeople. The mayor probably also believes in the rule of an intelligent minority, and he maintains it by conspiring with others that he deems part of the worthy minority. Dr. Stockmann's vision of rule by the minority is different from the mayor's. The doctor sees that although people like the mayor and Hovstad are technically in charge of the town government or the newspaper, they are still subject to the opinion of the masses. The mayor really has no choice but to oppose the doctor's proposal for the baths, because he is the tool of the masses, and Hovstad could not support the doctor if he wanted to because he is subject to the demands of his less freethinking subscribers.

When Dr. Stockmann accuses Hovstad of also being a freethinker, Hovstad defends himself on the grounds that he has never claimed to be a freethinker in print. In other words, Hovstad does not deny that he is a freethinker in private, but he merely asserts that he is never a freethinker in the public eye. He is afraid to let the majority know that he is a freethinker. By claiming never to be a freethinker in print, Hovstad proves the doctor's point: Intelligent individuals cannot act on their opinions because of fear of the majority.

By staging the speech in a very public setting, Ibsen takes an opportunity to illustrate how the conventions of democracy can be manipulated by those in power. The doctor has convened this public meeting to read his report, but by electing a chairman and conducting the meeting according to vague parliamentary rules, the mayor and the newspapermen are able to shut the doctor up. This shows that the tyranny of the majority is not absolute.

By the end of An Enemy of the People, Dr. Stockmann's position has changed several times. Sometimes he seems to be proud that he is "an enemy of the people," but early in Act V he says that the words wound him and are lodged in his heart. What is consistent is a sense of honor and a short temper. His partial embrace of the title enemy of the people is full of sarcasm, as seen when he turns on Hovstad and Aslaksen with his cane. He spoke out against the tyranny of the majority, but he still sees that men like Hovstad have a lot of control, and he is sincerely happy to be Hovstad's enemy. Thus, he eagerly calls himself an enemy of the people to Hovstad's face, implying that corrupt Hovstad is the real enemy.

As righteous as Dr. Stockmann may be, we should note that he certainly makes things hard for himself. This is best captured in his decision to remain in town. He decides to stay because he is incredibly angry, and he wants to keep fighting. In Act II, we see the mayor accuse Dr. Stockmann of being forever resentful of authority, implying that the doctor has a history of attacking authority. Thus, Dr. Stockmann's position at the end of the play is as much a result of his morals as of his naturally defiant personality.

The end of the play provides an interesting contrast between Mrs. Stockmann and Petra. Mrs. Stockmann accepts her husband's eccentric behavior. Petra, on the other hand, eagerly supports him. When he remarks that he doesn't know who will carry on after he dies, Petra says that problem will be solved in time. Clearly, Petra can follow him--only she isn't a man. Ibsen is highly conscious of gender issues. In a play otherwise about the extent to which a free democracy is not free, Ibsen finds room to speak up for women. He also shows that the doctor's ideas, too, can be old-fashioned.

Dr. Stockmann makes a discovery that he thinks will help the town. He presses for changes to be made to the baths, but the town turns on him. Not only have his scientific experiments been a waste of time, and not only will the townspeople suffer, but his freedom of speech and self-respect are being attacked. He then decides that the only reason that the leaders have turned on him is that they are afraid of the people. He, thus, lashes out at the people. He is motivated both by his anger and by true realizations about the corruption of the town.

It can be concluded that An Enemy of the People has two key messages. First, it is a criticism of democracy. Second, it is the story of how one man's bravery and self-respect can survive overwhelming odds.

Ibsen's critique of democracy is twofold. First, he shows the tyranny of the majority. The majority is a tyrant insofar as the leaders of society are afraid to do what is right because they are at the people's mercy. Even though Hovstad wanted to print the doctor's report on the baths, he was afraid to do so because his subscribers would be upset. The mayor cannot propose any changes to the baths because the public might find out that the mayor had made a mistake in the original plans and, thus, oust him. The majority is afraid of risk and, according to the doctor, it is not intelligent enough to do what is right.

While Ibsen illustrates the tyranny of the majority, he also shows how leaders can manipulate the majority. When Aslaksen and the mayor take control of the town meeting, they are manipulating the majority, using the majority to their ends. It could be that Hovstad merely cited his subscribers' possible wrath as an excuse because he himself did not want to print the article. More likely, both he and his subscribers would have been against the doctor. Those who are in power, like Hovstad and the mayor, automatically guess what the majority will want, and they always try to please the majority. While Aslaksen and the mayor manipulated the audience at the town meeting, they influenced them in the only way possible. In other words, it would have been almost impossible for the mayor to convince the crowd that they should support the doctor's comments about the stupidity of the masses. Ibsen's idea is that the majority does not rule directly; instead, the idea and threat of the majority keeps leaders from acting honestly.

The personal story of Dr. Stockmann is secondary. The key thing to remember is that he is extremely idealistic and maybe even a little naive and foolish. His wife, after all, feels compelled to remind him of practicalities.

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