An Enemy of the People | Study Guide

Henrik Ibsen

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An Enemy of the People | Act 5 | Summary

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Summary

The scene takes place the next morning in Dr. Stockmann's study. The room is in disorder, the windows broken. After the meeting the previous night, the townspeople threw rocks through the windows of the Stockmanns' house. Dr. Stockmann and his wife are cleaning up. They are utterly rejected by the town. No one will come to fix their broken windows. Their landlord tells them to move out. The doctor wants to move to America, but Mrs. Stockmann isn't sure. Their daughter, Petra, enters and announces she has been fired for being a "freethinker." Captain Horster comes to visit and explains he can no longer guarantee their passage to America because he has also been fired for helping the Stockmanns. Captain Horster's conversation with the Stockmanns is interrupted by the mayor's entrance. The mayor gives Dr. Stockmann his official papers, dismissing him from the job as medical officer of the Baths. The mayor also informs the doctor a petition has been circulated asking people to refuse to use the doctor's services for medical care. In effect Dr. Stockmann will be financially ruined. The mayor suggests Dr. Stockmann go away for a while and reconsider his ideas. He hints the doctor might be able to get his job back after some time if he is appropriately penitent. Dr. Stockmann argues, and the mayor claims he shouldn't talk so grandly because there is another explanation for the doctor's proclamations. He asks if the doctor knows how Morton Kiil has arranged his will. The doctor dismisses the suggestion, saying Kiil won't have much to leave, but the mayor disagrees. Kiil is rich, and the mayor has it "from a thoroughly reliable source" Kiil has left his fortune to the doctor's wife and children. Dr. Stockmann is relieved his family will be cared for, and the mayor interprets his relief as a sign the doctor made up all his claims to ingratiate himself with his father-in-law. The mayor says Dr. Stockmann will never get his job back now: "We have a weapon against you." The doctor is outraged. The mayor leaves.

Morton Kiil appears and informs Dr. Stockmann he has invested his entire fortune in buying up shares of the Baths. He has invested the money that should have gone to Stockmann's wife and children into the very Baths Dr. Stockmann has attacked, and he now expects Stockmann to retract his claims so the shares will regain their value, while also absolving Kiil's tanneries of causing the pollution. The doctor is tempted to go along with the plan to care for his family. Before he agrees to Kiil's plan, Hovstad and Aslaksen arrive. Kiil tells the doctor to decide soon and he leaves. Alone with Dr. Stockmann, Hovstad and Aslaksen act in a friendly manner again. It turns out they have heard about Kiil's investments in the Baths, and they now assume Dr. Stockmann was helping his father-in-law in a clumsy way. They are willing to help the doctor straighten things out—for a price. They want the doctor to use his new income to support The People's Messenger, and if he refuses, they will further blacken his name. The doctor is outraged and chases them out of the house with an umbrella.

This series of visits has changed the doctor's mind. He sends a note to Morton Kiil refusing his offer. He tells his wife they will not move away from the town. Captain Horster invites them to live in his house since he is often away from home anyway. The doctor won't leave the town now; he wants to fight for the moral conscience of the people. He acknowledges he won't make any money, but he trusts his wife will find a way to manage. The doctor plans to care for the destitute people of the town who won't reject his help because they can't afford any other type of care. In the midst of this conversation the doctor's two young sons arrive. They have been sent home from school because the other boys were attacking them. The doctor insists the boys will never go to school again. He will teach them himself, and he asks them to find some other boys—"street kids"—he can teach as well. His wife asks if he has lost his mind, but he laughs at her and says, "I'm the strongest man in the town!" Then he states, "The strongest man in the world is the man who stands most alone." His wife and family look at him admiringly as the play comes to an end.

Analysis

In this act Ibsen shows the consequences of the doctor's actions. Everyone has rejected them. They are losing their house. The doctor and Petra have lost their jobs. The young boys have been kicked out of school. Their one true friend is Captain Horster. In Act 1 he was the only one at the Stockmanns' house who expressed no interest in politics. Now he is the only one who will help them, even though it costs him his job as well. Ibsen suggests being politically aware does not guarantee a person does the right thing.

The doctor's naiveté is on full display in this act as he is visited by several other characters. The mayor hand delivers the doctor's official dismissal. He attempts to give the doctor a bit of advice, which is soundly rejected. The mayor is stung by the doctor's words and refers to another "explanation" for the doctor's behavior—the apparent "plot" between Morton Kiil and the doctor. It is doubtful the mayor really believes the doctor would scheme in such a fashion, but the accusation is certainly convenient. The mayor can now assure everyone the Baths are just fine and any rumors to the contrary are the result of Dr. Stockmann's greed.

When Morton Kiil appears earlier in the play, he serves as the target of the audience's laughter as he misunderstands the nature of pollution in the water and makes references to "invisible" animals. Kiil may be less educated than the doctor, but he is wiser in the ways of the world. He knows how to turn a profit and how to work on Dr. Stockmann by emphasizing how fixing the Baths would help Stockmann's wife and children, as well as preserving Kiil's reputation, whose tanneries are the source of pollution. Even the noble Dr. Stockmann is briefly tempted. Life would be much easier if he could both save the town and protect his family. He comes to his senses, but Ibsen allows him a moment of hesitation, which helps make the doctor a slightly more human character in the final act. Up until this point, he has been a remarkably self-sacrificing idealist. Ibsen the amateur psychologist knew even idealists may have moments when they question their choices.

Typically in an Ibsen play, several of the major characters would be transformed over the course of events. In fact, Dr. Stockmann changes very little, and many of the characters, such as the mayor and the doctor's family members, do not change at all. The greatest transformation is seen in Hovstad and Aslaksen, particularly in the last act. All pretense of believing in political ideals, the common man, or the good of the town is gone. They are out for themselves, and they think Dr. Stockmann is, too. If he has gotten rich on this scheme, as they view it, he'd better share the wealth. Like the mayor, they view this scheme as totally understandable—easier to understand and accept, in fact, than the doctor's actual choices. They also view it as a weapon they can use against the doctor.

The play's ending is complicated and can be difficult for audience members to accept. How can the doctor view himself as a victor when he has just decided to condemn his family to a miserable life and himself to a constant battle? Ibsen's answer may be in the doctor's final line: strength comes from freedom. A man who is truly free from society's constraints is "the strongest man in the world." Ibsen himself was never truly free since a playwright needs audiences to see his works. He may be idealizing the doctor's choice, or he may be deliberately inviting the audience to question the doctor's statement and ponder whether people like the doctor (and Ibsen) should be forced to be the "most alone" when they are speaking the truth to society. In either case it is a weirdly triumphant ending to the play.

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