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Course Hero, "An Enemy of the People Study Guide," March 16, 2018, accessed April 23, 2018, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/An-Enemy-of-the-People/.

An Enemy of the People | Act 1 | Summary

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Summary

The scene takes place in the Stockmanns' house. As the curtain rises, Mrs. Stockmann is serving food to Billing, a local journalist and political firebrand. The mayor, Peter Stockmann, enters. He is evidently uncomfortable around Billing and disapproving of the Stockmanns' propensity for generous entertaining. However, the mayor waits to see his brother, Dr. Thomas Stockmann. Before the doctor arrives, Hovstad, editor of the local radical paper The People's Messenger, comes to see the doctor. The mayor's reaction to Hovstad suggests The People's Messenger may have published things the mayor did not approve of. However, the mayor and Hovstad both agree on the tremendous benefits the town will reap from their newly opened town Baths, a type of health spa and treatment facility. The town's property values are rising and unemployment is decreasing. Everyone is counting on an influx of patients to boost the town's economy. Dr. Stockmann had the idea to create the Baths, but the mayor did the practical work of actually having the facility built. Thus, he is a little resentful of people who give credit to Dr. Stockmann as the founder of the Baths. As Hovstad leaves the room, the mayor makes an insulting comment about "people from peasant families," dismissing Hovstad as being of a lower social class, although Hovstad is clearly an educated and well-spoken man.

Dr. Stockmann enters with the two younger Stockmann children and Captain Horster, a sea captain and friend of the family. Dr. Stockmann invites the mayor to join the party and brags about how they are able to afford to serve roast beef and hot toddies to their guests. Dr. Stockmann appreciates being surrounded by people, particularly young people who, he believes, will change the future. He sings the praises of "freethinking people, doers" like Hovstad, and wishes Hovstad and the mayor could get along. The mayor questions the doctor's expenditures, and the doctor admits he doesn't pay a lot of attention to money, leaving it to his wife. When the mayor mentions the Baths, however, the doctor expresses concern, although he won't be specific about why. The mayor is frustrated and warns the doctor: "You have a deep-rooted tendency to go your own way ... that's ... undesirable." The mayor leaves, angry, but Dr. Stockmann insists he cannot say anything until the time is right.

As the doctor chats with his guests, his daughter Petra arrives home with a letter for her father. He has been waiting for a letter and dashes away to read it. While he is gone, the others ask Petra about her work. She is a schoolteacher and also contributes to The People's Messenger by doing translation work. Captain Horster, Hovstad, and Billing all seem to be attracted to Petra, but she gives no sign of her preference. Billing disparages Horster, who has little interest in politics, perhaps to try to make himself look better to Petra. When one of her younger brothers says something controversial, Mrs. Stockmann tries to discourage him. Petra disagrees, saying children should learn controversial or radical things. Petra says she has to "stand up in front of the children and tell lies" when she teaches because the parents would get upset otherwise.

Dr. Stockmann bursts back into the room to announce his discovery: the Baths are "poisoned," polluted, and more likely to spread disease than to cure it. The water in the Baths has been affected by the presence of local tanneries and industrial facilities. Dr. Stockmann had suspected something and sent water samples to the university laboratory. He has just received a report saying the water "would have a disastrous effect on health, whether taken internally or externally." As they are, the Baths are unusable, but Dr. Stockmann knows how they can be fixed. The entire water supply to the Baths will have to be rerouted. He warned the town at the time of building they were putting the pipes in the wrong place, and now he has proof. Petra wonders what her uncle the mayor will say, but Dr. Stockmann is confident the mayor will be pleased they made the discovery now. Hovstad and Billing praise the doctor for having saved the town. Hovstad plans to write an article about it in The People's Messenger and Billing suggests a parade in Dr. Stockmann's honor. Dr. Stockmann dismisses the parade, but he does suggest Petra go visit her grandfather, Morton Kiil, whom he calls "The Badger," and tell him about the great discovery. The act ends with Dr. Stockmann joyously celebrating, saying, "It's a blessing to know deep down ... you've been of service to your home town."

Analysis

Ibsen puts a lot of thought into introducing Dr. Stockmann before he even makes an appearance on the stage. The doctor is largely characterized through his contrast with his disapproving brother. The mayor doesn't approve of cooked meals at night. The mayor comments his sister-in-law is not extravagant—but implies his brother is. The mayor is uncomfortable with some of the people Dr. Stockmann entertains. By the time the doctor enters, the audience is already predisposed to like him. He does nothing to diminish their affection in the first act. In fact, Ibsen gives him some comedic lines, such as his proud claim, "I'm earning nearly as much as we spend," while talking to his brother. Furthermore, the doctor is presented as an unquestioned hero on the subject of the Baths: hardworking, determined to do his best for the town and the Baths' patients.

The mayor has no opportunity to make a good impression on the audience. Through his conversations with Mrs. Stockmann, with Hovstad, and with the doctor, the mayor is characterized as cautious, penny-pinching, and eager to be praised. He is clearly troubled by Hovstad's comment the doctor created the Baths and takes a verbal swipe at Hovstad later by commenting on his "peasant" heritage. Ibsen knows what image he is creating. When the doctor and several other characters happily gather together for a casual party and the mayor refuses to be included, it reinforces the idea the mayor is antisocial, unfriendly, or not to be trusted.

The Baths are a source of tension between the brothers even before the doctor's discovery. The mayor takes offense at Hovstad's giving credit to the doctor. Hovstad and Mrs. Stockmann both try to soothe him, but it evidently rankles. The mayor is further irritated when the doctor refuses to explain his concerns about the Baths. The mayor responds by citing the need for decisions to be made "by the legally constituted authorities," saying he "cannot permit anything crooked or underhand." There has been no evidence of the doctor ever doing anything crooked or illegal, so it seems an illogical charge for the mayor to levy at his brother. It may reflect the mayor's exaggerated distrust of the doctor, or it may be a way for the mayor to remind his brother which one of them has the power in the town. Understandably, the doctor is insulted. Ibsen has laid the groundwork for the later tension between them. This sibling relationship does not feature mutual trust and good communication.

Ibsen constructs the "party" at the Stockmanns' to feature several other perspectives, all of which will become important as the play goes on. There are the tame firebrands, Hovstad and Billing. They speak fiercely—Billing in particular—but there doesn't appear to be much harm in them. The mayor finds Hovstad irritating, but since the mayor also objects to the well-intentioned doctor, the audience is not overly concerned. Hovstad's willingness to speak politely to the mayor and his intention to publish a positive article about the Baths demonstrate he is hardly the bomb-throwing antiestablishment figure he purports to be. Captain Horster, on the other hand, is clueless about local politics and happy to remain so.

In the late 19th century, Ibsen was well known as a writer with a unique perspective on women. In fact, the Norwegian Women's Rights League gave a banquet honoring him for his representations of the "new woman." The "new woman" was one who pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable in 19th-century society. Although the most important characters of An Enemy of the People are male, Ibsen does include two women: Mrs. Stockmann and the Stockmanns' daughter, Petra. Mrs. Stockmann is more conventional, but Petra serves as Ibsen's "new woman" model for this play. While the doctor is off reading his letter, Ibsen takes the opportunity to provide insight into Petra's viewpoint. She enjoys working hard, objects to the "lies" she has to tell to assuage the worried parents of her students, and is apparently ignorant of the strong admiration she provokes in Billing, Hovstad, and Captain Horster. Petra is very different from the usual ingenue (naive young woman) who would appear in 19th-century plays. The typical female character would be too weak to work hard, too docile to object to society's beliefs, and too eager to be married to ignore a sign of masculine interest.

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