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An Enemy of the People | Study Guide

Henrik Ibsen

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An Enemy of the People | Act 2 | Summary



It is the next morning. Dr. Stockmann receives a letter from his brother the mayor, who says he has read Dr. Stockmann's report and will come to the house to discuss it. While Dr. Stockmann and his wife wait for the mayor, the doctor's father-in-law, Morton Kiil, also known as "the Badger," comes to see them. Kiil says Petra told him about Dr. Stockmann's discovery. Kiil can't understand how "enormous numbers" of "animals" that can't be seen could spoil the water supply, and he believes it's a trick Dr. Stockmann is playing on his brother. Nevertheless, Kiil is amused as he believes the ruse will "teach them [the town council] a lesson." As the Badger is leaving, Hovstad enters. He tells Dr. Stockmann the problem with the Baths is emblematic of a larger problem: how a small group of "bureaucrats" and their rich friends control everything. Hovstad describes this control as another form of pollution or poison in the town. He is convinced the mayor won't do anything to fix the water supply unless he is pressured by the press. While they talk, Aslaksen, a local tradesman and printer, comes to see the doctor. He emphasizes "moderation," but he wants to set up a demonstration by local tradespeople—the "compact majority"—to encourage the local government to fix the Baths. Dr. Stockmann is perplexed by the suggestion the government could fail to act. Aslaksen and Hovstad both agree the government needs to be pushed, but Aslaksen wants to do it in a moderate fashion, while Hovstad thinks a more radical effort is needed. Dr. Stockmann thanks them both. He is confident the mayor will act, but he allows Hovstad to take his report on the water supply to the newspaper office to read it over.

When the mayor arrives, he attacks the doctor, querying whether it was necessary "to carry out all these investigations." The mayor informs Dr. Stockmann the necessary repairs will be extremely expensive and will take two years. Closing the Baths for two years will financially devastate the town, and the mayor won't consider it. The mayor, who clearly feels competitive with his brother, is convinced the doctor is exaggerating the health risks. The mayor suggests the doctor do what he can to minimize the health problems and eventually—when it's financially feasible—the mayor will suggest the needed repairs. Dr. Stockmann is enraged and argues the mayor is the one who chose the current site for the Baths and the water supply. He tells the mayor Hovstad has the report and will publish it. The mayor warns Dr. Stockmann he and his family will suffer as a result of these "rash" actions, calling the doctor a "troublemaker." As an employee of the Baths, the mayor claims, Dr. Stockmann will be required to publicly deny the results of his research. If he does not, he will be fired from his position as medical officer for the Baths. Stockmann's daughter Petra bursts in to support her father. The mayor calls the doctor "an enemy of society" and leaves. Although Mrs. Stockmann supports the doctor's position, she worries about how the family will survive if he loses his job. Petra encourages her father, who doesn't need much encouragement. He announces he will fight back to "earn the right to look [his] boys in the eye."


At the end of the previous act, Dr. Stockmann broke the news of his discovery about the Baths. He informed the people visiting his home, who had already been identified as younger and more "freethinking" individuals, and they all accepted his discovery and praised him for it. Now, at the start of Act 2, the audience sees not everyone in town will believe or understand the doctor's findings.

Morton Kiil is the doctor's father-in-law and a man of some power in town. He refers to having been forced off the town council, and he is evidently a wealthy man, even though he is reluctant to spend any money. Still, Kiil's interpretation of the doctor's findings is humorous, but also sounds a note of foreshadowing. Dr. Stockmann's research discovered bacteria in the water, but in the late 19th century, even some scientists weren't sure how bacteria functioned. Therefore, Kiil's questioning about invisible animals is quite plausible. It also serves as a reminder to the audience: Dr. Stockmann's praise-filled reception in Act 1 came from his family and friends, many of whom are highly educated by the standards of the era. Kiil's reaction may be more typical of the average townsperson.

Hovstad introduces Ibsen's greatest use of symbolism in this act: the "poison" or "pollution" of societal ideas by conservative or traditional thinkers. Hovstad says he must "puncture the myth of the infallibility of the authorities ... like any other superstition." This is really where Ibsen's message lies. Polluted water is an entry point to the conversation he really wants to have: What happens when a person dares to challenge the accepted beliefs of a society? It was a personal question for Ibsen, whose career had suffered after his two previous plays, A Doll's House and Ghosts, had been attacked for their controversial ideas. So far, at least, Dr. Stockmann has faced a better reception than Ibsen did.

This changes when the mayor arrives. The audience is prepared for the mayor to disagree with the doctor. Act 1 made it clear they are very different and are inclined to disagree on general principle. In Act 2 Ibsen brings on Kiil, Hovstad, and Aslaksen to lay the groundwork. So the mayor's general disappointment with the doctor is unsurprising. To a modern audience, which may be cynical about elected leaders, the mayor's refusal to fix the Baths may also be unsurprising. An Enemy of the People continues to be produced all over the world, in part because questions of political ethics and polluted water still arise in communities everywhere. The real-life events of Flint, Michigan, led to a reimagined production in 2017 because of the significance of these issues.

The mayor begins to shock the audience when he announces the doctor has lost his right to speak: "As an employee, you have no right to hold an independent opinion." The doctor is outraged, but in fact some modern-day employers would have a similar reaction. In the 21st-century United States, there are "whistleblower" protections to encourage employees to report dangerous or illegal work practices, but nothing of the kind existed in the 1880s. The mayor says Dr. Stockmann will be fired if he does not obey the mayor's command. Ibsen has already made it clear this is the first time in years the doctor's family has been financially comfortable, so for Dr. Stockmann, the stakes are high personally as well as professionally.

Ibsen intends the mayor to be Dr. Stockmann's foil in every way. Their temperaments, relationships, and thought processes are totally opposed. Yet Ibsen, as a clever dramatist, does not leave the mayor as a cardboard cutout of a character. The mayor raises some valid points the doctor seems to have never considered. For example, even if the Baths' stockholders would pay for the repairs, how could the town absorb the financial loss of having the Baths closed for two years? The audience already knows—thanks to Ibsen's careful dialogue—the doctor has no sense of money. In Act 1 he proudly brags about earning almost as much as they spend. One can perhaps understand some of the mayor's frustration. At the same time, though, the mayor is being derelict in his duty to suggest the Baths could be allowed to open with polluted water. In a modern American city, this would probably leave the mayor open to criminal prosecution.

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