An Enemy of the People | Study Guide

Henrik Ibsen

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An Enemy of the People | Themes


Speaking the Truth

One of the central themes of the play is the importance of speaking the truth. Early on, several references are made to not speaking the truth in small ways. Petra says she has to "tell lies" to her students, which she defines as telling students "a good many things we don't believe ourselves." Later, in Act 3, she challenges Hovstad when he wants to include a story in the paper she knows he doesn't believe.

Everything happens to the doctor because he speaks the truth. He wants to do what is right for the town and the patients who will use the Baths. When he is forbidden to do so, he gets angry and speaks a different kind of truth—his frustration with a social system that values comfort and financial security over health and facts. He also raises an interesting question: Do truths change? The doctor seems to think so. He talks about "established truths" that are old and need to be replaced.

Power and Strength

In the play power often comes in the form of financial power. The mayor wields financial power in the form of levying taxes. Aslaksen has power over Hovstad and Billing because he allows them to print their newspaper on credit. Morten Kiil is an ignorant and unpleasant man, but he is treated with respect because he is wealthy.

This understanding of power is refuted by Dr. Stockmann. He appreciates money but is careless about the use of it. When his livelihood is threatened, he is offended but undeterred. Even the doctor has his moment of temptation, though. In Act 5, when Morten Kiil tells the doctor his family's financial security is now tied to the Baths, the doctor has a moment when he wonders if he couldn't save the Baths somehow. However, he quickly comes to his senses. He sees how people who had turned against him, like Hovstad and Aslaksen, now curry favor with him because they believe he will be wealthy. When offered that kind of power, Dr. Stockmann refuses. At the end of the play, he declares himself "one of the strongest men in the world" because he has separated himself from the roles of power governing society.

Social Class and Superiority

In Act 1, after a brief, uncomfortable discussion with Hovstad, the mayor makes an interesting comment about how "people from peasant families" do not have tact. This statement indicates how the mayor's family members (including Dr. Stockmann) view themselves as superior to others in the town. There is little indication Dr. Stockmann shares these beliefs ... until he becomes angry in Act 4. Then Dr. Stockmann unleashes a torrent of critical commentary on the "common" people, referring to them as "mongrels" and calling them "stupid." On the other hand, he argues the intellectual and independent elite are the real defenders of "truth and freedom" and should determine the fate of the community.

Dr. Stockmann's insistence on the inferiority of the lower classes is uncomfortable for a modern audience to hear, but it likely reflects Henrik Ibsen's own frustration with the ordinary people who made up a theatrical audience in the 19th century. These audience members were horrified by some of Ibsen's earlier plays, to the extent that Ghosts, which he wrote immediately before Enemy, was not given a premiere in Europe because no theater would accept it. After the bad reception of A Doll's House and Ghosts, Ibsen was more than a little suspicious of the "majority" and ready to insult them as being lesser than the "pedigree" audience members who were capable of hearing Ibsen's controversial point of view.

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