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An Enemy of the People | Study Guide

Henrik Ibsen

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An Enemy of the People | Act 3 | Summary



This scene happens in the offices of The People's Messenger, later the same day. Billing and Hovstad celebrate the "hard-hitting" and "devastating" report the doctor wrote on the Baths. They believe the report will help them tear down the mayor and the local power structure. They are frustrated by Aslaksen, whose caution limits their ability to publish their true ideas, but he is the only one who will print their newspaper on credit. Dr. Stockmann bursts in, furious from his fight with his brother, and encourages them to print his report in full. Billing and Hovstad celebrate this "revolution," but Aslaksen wants them to be careful: "As long as we forge ahead with moderation, I can't think we'll be in any danger." The doctor disagrees, saying what matters is "cleaning out and disinfecting" not only the Baths, but "the whole of society." Hovstad, Billing, and Aslaksen all praise the doctor. After Dr. Stockmann leaves, Hovstad and Billing argue with Aslaksen. Aslaksen says when a person possesses something "worth hanging on to, there's a limit to what he can believe in." Billing wonders to Hovstad whether Dr. Stockmann (using his father-in-law's fortune) might underwrite the newspaper's finances, and it is clear both of them are willing to compromise on their beliefs. Billing has applied for a job as secretary to the magistrate, suggesting he is not the revolutionary he portends to be.

Petra visits Hovstad and tells him not to print the English story he wanted her to translate because it does not express his true beliefs. The story is morally and theologically conservative. Hovstad says it's fine because it will please the readers and sell more papers, and besides, it was Billing's idea. Petra is appalled. Hovstad tells Petra he is helping the doctor because she is the doctor's daughter, and Petra rejects him. She expected him to help the doctor because it is the right thing to do. He threatens to stop helping Dr. Stockmann if Petra is mean to him, and she is shocked and offended. She leaves just as Aslaksen hurries in to announce the mayor is visiting.

The mayor flatters Hovstad and Aslaksen. He informs them the Bath shareholders refuse to spend any more money on the Baths, so repairs will have to be paid for through raising taxes. The mayor also points out the repairs will mean the Baths will be closed for two years, and he suggests all these health concerns are made up by the doctor. Hovstad and Aslaksen are shocked and immediately shift their positions on the issue. Hovstad offers to publish a piece the mayor wrote about the Baths rather than the doctor's article, but before they can make the arrangements, Aslaksen sees the doctor coming. They conceal the mayor in a separate office where Billing is working. The doctor wants to see his report in print, but they put him off, saying it's not ready yet.

Mrs. Stockmann comes in. She wants to stop the doctor from ruining his career. When Hovstad and Aslaksen hear the doctor will lose his job, they are startled. Then Dr. Stockmann finds the mayor's official hat, which he left behind. Hovstad and Aslaksen claim the mayor ran away, but the doctor doesn't believe it. He puts on the mayor's cap and begins parading around, opening the door to the office where the mayor is hiding. The mayor gets angry, but Dr. Stockmann says he doesn't care because the town will support him. Then Hovstad, Billing, and Aslaksen announce they will not support him. They refuse to publish his report. The doctor says he will hold a public meeting and read it aloud, but they tell him no building in town will host his meeting. Seeing everyone turn against her husband, Mrs. Stockmann now supports him. She tells him their two young sons will march around with him, banging a drum while he reads his report aloud. They leave together. The mayor shakes his head, saying the doctor has driven his wife insane, too.


While the audience may have expected the mayor to reject Dr. Stockmann's report, this act sees him abandoned by those who had seemed ready to support him, including Hovstad and Billing. They are pleased with the doctor's report, eager to start their "revolution"—at first. Aslaksen, meanwhile, sounds a note of caution.

Aslaksen is a semi-comic character, with his refrain of "moderation in all things." He carefully explains to Billing and Hovstad how he is a revolutionary against the national government ("If you attack the government ... they don't ... notice; ... they just carry on"). However, he says he wants to preserve the local government because inexperienced local governance "could cause irreparable damage to property-owners." Aslaksen is happy to revolt when it won't matter, but he's afraid to do anything that might really work.

Aslaksen voices one of the more disturbing themes of the play: the idea people may give up their beliefs if the price is right. He claims if someone "has something in his hands that's worth hanging on to," the person has "a limit to what he can believe in." Although Hovstad and Billing immediately repudiate the idea, the truth of it is evident for both of them. Aslaksen reveals Billing has applied for a governmental post, despite Billing's vehement verbal attacks on the local administration. Just a few minutes later, Hovstad reassures Petra, saying it's fine to print a story that violates his beliefs because it's "exactly what people want." Petra rejects his excuse and him as well, saying, "You're not the man you pretended to be."

Ibsen wrote strong, modern-sounding female characters in plays such as A Doll's House, Ghosts, and later Hedda Gabler. Petra Stockmann, although not a central figure of this play, is similar to some of Ibsen's other female roles. She stands in stark contrast to Mrs. Stockmann, who until the end of this act appears to try to dissuade her husband from standing up for his beliefs. Petra interrupts her father's showdown with the mayor to insist he continue to spread the word about his findings on the Baths.

In this act the audience sees, for the first time, why the mayor is a successful politician. The mayor's manipulation of Aslaksen, Hovstad, and Billing is masterful. The mayor compliments Hovstad and Aslaksen. He assures Aslaksen he is impressed by the "admirable spirit of self-sacrifice" in the town. They are, the mayor claims, agreeing to higher taxes and lower town income as a result of the Baths. Ibsen makes no effort to conceal the mayor's intentions. The audience witnesses the rapid abandonment of the doctor and his principles. Ibsen wants the audience to be horrified by this, although his revelation has put the mayor and the town in a particularly painful situation.

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