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An Enemy of the People | Study Guide

Henrik Ibsen

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An Enemy of the People | Symbols


Polluted Water

The literal pollution at the Baths is a driving force in the play, but the term also becomes symbolic. Hovstad is the first one to refer to the "pollution" in the town, as he warns Dr. Stockmann about the possibility the mayor won't act on the doctor's advice. In Act 4 Dr. Stockmann embraces a more symbolic interpretation of the word, claiming, "All our spiritual springs are poisoned." In this sense pollution represents a stifling society that suppresses the truth because it is inconvenient or embarrassing. This was a personal message for Henrik Ibsen, who felt his plays and his career had suffered because he refused to succumb to the "pollution" of societal expectations.

The Written Word

Writing has great significance in this play. Three characters—Hovstad, Billing, and Aslaksen—make their living through the printed word. Initially, Hovstad and the mayor agree on the value of a positive written testimonial by the doctor about the Baths. Although the doctor suspects the Baths are contaminated, he waits until he gets a written report. His report is viewed as a potential weapon by the ostensibly radical Hovstad and Billing. The mayor offers his own written explanation for what has happened with the Baths. The mayor, Hovstad, Aslaksen, and Billing all work together to suppress the doctor's report. Petra discovers Hovstad's true colors when she warns him not to publish an English story she thinks he will not agree with. When Dr. Stockmann holds his public meeting, Billing is there taking notes on it for the paper, giving an account of the meeting that is decidedly unfavorable to the doctor. At the end of the play, all the bad news comes in written form: written notice the family is being evicted, written notice the doctor has been fired, and a written petition proving no one will use his medical services. A written document carries legal weight mere spoken words do not, and the mayor's ability to suppress the doctor's written word seems to be what drives the doctor into a rage. The written word symbolizes power—the power to influence public opinion.

Money or Possessions

In Act 1 Dr. Stockmann is appreciative of the income his family now has, money that allows them to entertain and to purchase new things for the house. But over the course of the play, Ibsen reveals a more symbolic meaning to money or possessions. In Act 3 Aslaksen says, "If a man has something ... worth hanging on to, there's a limit to what he can believe." Possessions and money become things to protect. Possessions represent the way in which society or obligations can prevent people from doing what is right.

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