An Enemy of the People | Study Guide

Henrik Ibsen

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An Enemy of the People | Act 4 | Summary

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Summary

The scene is a town meeting held at Captain Horster's house. Many citizens are gathered, although they don't seem to understand much of what's happening. They know the doctor will make a speech, but they assume he must be wrong because The People's Messenger said he was wrong. They aren't sure who to side with, but they plan to follow Aslaksen's lead.

The doctor and his whole family are there, as is the mayor. Aslaksen insists they need a chairman to direct the proceedings, and the townspeople elect Aslaksen as chairman. As chairman, Aslaksen allows the mayor and Hovstad to speak and incite the people to vote against even allowing Dr. Stockmann to speak. The doctor finally announces he will say nothing about the Baths if he is allowed to talk to the group, and they permit him. Instead, the doctor launches into a lengthy speech about what is wrong with their society. He insists the idea of the majority being right is "one of those social lies, which a free, intelligent man has to rebel against." He claims "the stupid are in a quite frighteningly overwhelming majority" and says, "The majority has the power ... unfortunately ...; but it doesn't make them right." He says "truths" change, and clinging to old truths can poison a society like rotting meat. The doctor challenges the "truth" the masses are the "backbone" of society and suggests the masses are more like mutts, when a "pedigree dog"—an enlightened intellectual such as himself—is the one of real value and quality.

Hovstad and Aslaksen incite the entire town against him, and the people vote Dr. Stockmann "an enemy of the people." Kiil confirms Dr. Stockmann blames his father-in-law's tanneries for creating the most "filth." The owner of Captain Horster's ship criticizes Horster for even allowing the doctor to hold the meeting, and the crowd turns violent, shouting they will break the windows of the doctor's house.

Analysis

In Act 3 Aslaksen and the mayor insisted no building in town would host the doctor's speech. Now the audience learns how he found a place: Captain Horster offered his home. In Act 1 the captain acknowledged he was largely uninterested in local politics, so presumably he has done this in support of his friend rather than for any philosophical reason. Later in the act, the captain is challenged by the man who owns his ship, suggesting Horster may suffer for his generosity.

Immediately at the start of Act 4, Ibsen makes it clear the crowd will be easy to manipulate. He introduces several townspeople who freely admit they are attending the meeting to make some noise. They have no idea what the point of the meeting is, and they plan to simply follow Aslaksen's lead. They are already convinced the doctor is wrong because the newspaper said he was. Before Dr. Stockmann even appears, the mayor arrives and unobtrusively begins to greet the people. When the meeting starts, Dr. Stockmann is maneuvered into allowing a vote on a meeting chairperson, and the crowd selects Aslaksen. Aslaksen is not interested in permitting the doctor to speak, and things deteriorate from there.

Although Ibsen is generally viewed as a very modern writer in terms of his attitudes, there is a section of Act 4 that tends to make modern audiences very uncomfortable: Dr. Stockmann's apparent views about the superiority of certain members of society. The doctor appears to be spouting eugenics-type theories. Eugenics suggests controlling human breeding could result in more desirable characteristics in people. To a modern audience that sounds distinctly genocidal, particularly since eugenics was embraced by the Nazis. However, in Ibsen's time, eugenics was not seen as a particularly discriminatory or genocidal concept.

It is surprising, in some ways, such a genial figure as Dr. Stockmann could be reduced to insulting and shouting down the majority of the people in this town he professes to love. Ibsen was a writer who understood a lot about psychology, and he intentionally brings out some of the doctor's less appealing characteristics. Dr. Stockmann and the mayor are brothers, after all, and the mayor has already demonstrated his snobbish tendencies. Perhaps the doctor and the mayor are more similar than the doctor likes to admit. The insults also reveal just how angry the doctor has become.

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