In An Enemy of the People Ibsen deals with the conflict between the various perceptions of ‘truth for the public good’ – the altruistic blinkered perception of Doctor Stockmann; the political, social and financial interest of his brother, Mayor Stockmann; the “editorial opportunism” (McFarlane/Ibsen, 1994, p. xiii) of the local paper’s editor, Hovstad; the political timidity/moderation of the printer, Aslaksen; the blatant dishonesty of the tannery-owner and foster-father, Kiil; the clear-sighted vacillation of Stockmann’s wife, Katherine; and the idealistic zeal of his daughter, Petra. These perceptions result in personal attitudes, some of which are status driven, some financially driven, some idealistically driven, and yet others driven by the need for social acceptance and political safety. Thus, as each character sees and deals with the situation from his own perspective, the personal and the social/political are interwoven within the play.
While the universal themes of pollution, official corruption, and materialism are explored within An Enemy of the People, we can’t take anything at face value in Ibsen plays. In the public sphere this play deals with public issues of health, politics, honesty, proberty in public life, and both public and personal responsibility and irresponsibility. But the polluted water of the baths stands as a metaphor for the political and ethical pollution in the Norwegian society within which the play is set. It deals with both internal and external issues, and the interplay and tensions between them.
The internal issues deal with the ramifications within the Stockmann family – the interactions between the various family members, their division, and their effects on each other. In particular, it forefronts the difference between the brothers and the tensions that causes. Doctor Stockmann is socially generous, physically vigorous, is not political, and embodies idealism, honesty, and integrity. His impetuosity, and passion for the truth proves counter-productive in the political town environment to which he is a newcomer. Fond of young people, “with initiative and minds of their own” (ibid, p. 9), he believes, ironically, that he has finally come to a community to which he can belong.
“I can’t tell you how happy I feel, surrounded by all this growing, vigorous life …. [T]hink of me, living all those years in the North, cut off from everything, hardly ever seeing a new face, never the chance of any decent conversation … for me it’s like coming to some great metropolis.” (ibid, p. 8)
However, he does not understand the machinations of its society. The Mayor is mean and frugal, with poor digestion and no apparent family, lives for politics and business, and links his fortunes with the town’s prosperity. He is “the influential representative of entrenched authority, not without courage … and horribly experienced in the manipulation of others … masks self-interest and self-preservation as ‘the common good’”. (ibid, p. xiii)
The external issues revolve around the pollution of the burgeoning tourist attraction, the public spa-baths that offer ‘cures’ and social activity to tourists and townspeople. As the Mayor remarks to Hovstad:
“Mark my words! The prosperity of the town will come to depend more and more on the … splendid new Baths. ….Just look at the quite extraordinary way things have improved in the last year or two …. with plenty of visitors, and lots of convalescents to help give the place a reputa- tion…. recommending the place generally as a very healthy spot.” (ibid, p. 5)
With the threat of closure to this lucrative attraction, the external issues broaden into a very real conflict between public health and public and private prosperity. As a nineteenth century doctor, Doctor Stockmann is a researcher, representing rationality, scientific method, rejection of superstition, and a commitment to clear sight, truth in one form or another. His discovery, that the water piped to these baths is polluted, triggers the action of the play and the revelation of the various personal perspectives of what constitutes the ‘public good’. Before learning of this discovery, the Mayor ironically and prophetically lectures his brother on following the correct procedure when dealing with public issues:
“I cannot permit any dubious or underhand methods. …. You have a chronic disposition to take things into your own hands … And in a well-ordered community, that can be equally reprehensible. The individual must be ready to subordinate himself to the community as a whole; or, more precisely, to the authorities charged with the welfare of that community. …. [T]hat’s just the thing you don’t seem to want to learn. But mark my words; one of these days you’ll pay for it …” (ibid, pp. 10-11)
As a rationalist with a scientific issue at stake, the Doctor cannot foresee the political twists and turns: the actions of Hovstad and Aslaksen, the Editor and Printer of the newspaper; the fickleness of public opinion, or even the vehemence that his discovery arouses in his brother. Based on turning Stockmann’s idea of the Baths into reality, the Mayor jealously guards his reputation as an astute and practical business man with always the public good in mind. Besides, the cost of mending the pipes and the sewerage system is prohibitive, the task will take two years, and a neighbouring town could easily entice away their tourists.
Believing in the urgency of warning the public about the health-risk of the pollution, Doctor Stockmann notifies Hovstad. Favouring an article on the findings, the editor suggests “[t]he sooner the public hears about this, the better”. (ibid, p. 20) Billings, the journalist, ironically adds: “[y]ou’ll be the leading light of the town, Dr. Stockmann,” (ibid, p. 20) and asks Hovstad to initiate the town “to organize something to show its appreciation “ (ibid, p. 20) of the Doctor. Aslaksen, agrees, putting the weight of the compact majority, comprising the Temperance Society and the Ratepayer’s Association, behind the Doctor. Initially Hovstad wants to use the information to further his:
“intention of breaking up this ring of obstinate old buffers who’d got hold of all the power …. a certain group of officials …. [their] friends and hangers on … – the wealthy ones of the town, and the well-connected …. the people in control.” (ibid, pp 27 & 26)
But upon discovering that the Mayor – the most influential – is against its release, and will use his position to their detriment, they change their minds to agree with him. Motivated by the necessity for a viable paper, reliant on the public for sales and advertising – a public, who, according to the Mayor, will be irate when they discover that their prosperous baths must close – Hovstad buckles. Aslaksen, through political timidity, and fear of the Mayor’s power, withdraws the support of his compact majority.
Believing in her husband’s integrity, and his need to prevent an epidemic, Katherine Stockmann can, however, see the inherent dangers to her family’s prospects by opposing the Mayor. More practical than her husband, she acts as a reality check – her common-sense responses indicate how little Stockmann understands the situation, politically. She is prepared to compromise – not to preserve political power like the Mayor, or to stay inside of authority like Hovstad, but to maintain the status quo and possible safety of her family. Wary of the fickle support of the compact majority, she correctly gages the Mayor’s reaction to the news, even suggesting that her husband “share the credit with [the Mayor, and]…. drop a hint that it was he who first put you on the track…” (ibid, p. 22)
As an independent woman with a reputable teaching job, Petra, with more commonsense than her father, has a social conscience that aligns her with his cause. When he is threatened with dismissal from his Baths employment, Petra berates the Mayor: “Uncle, this is a disgraceful way to treat a man like Father!” (ibid, p. 40) With her mother’s sensitivity, and knowledge of society’s fickleness, she supports both parents alternately. However, at the end of the play, Petra, for having “extremely advanced ideas about all sorts of things” (ibid, p. 89), and being her father’s daughter, is given her notice by Mrs Busk, who ”didn’t like doing it. But she daren’t do anything else.” (ibid, p. 88)
A form of blackmail to force Stockmann to withdraw his claim that the tannery has polluted the Baths, Kiil locks the inheritance funds of his foster-daughter, Katherine, and her children, into shares in the Baths. Bought while low, he intends to profit when they rise again. To his family’s detriment, Stockmann refuses to be bought off, putting his naive social interests for the good health of the town before the vested financial interests of the townspeople, Kiil, and the ruthless Mayor. Ironically, as a man standing up against corruption, Stockmann stands alone – except for the unusual support of Captain Horster, in whose house the meeting is held, and who suffers ostracism from the community for his alliance with the Doctor.
But if we see Stockmann as a lone embattled admirable figure with the courage of his convictions against all society, we’re overlooking his political naiveté, his misreading of the signs. An erratic character, Stockmann gets carried away, zealously rushing into publication of his findings, and when thwarted sees only the political ramifications in terms of corruption and vested financial interests of his brother and foster-father-in-law. Finally disillusioned by them and all they stand for, Stockmann states: “[w]e live by peddling filth and corruption! The whole of the town’s prosperity is rooted in a lie!” (ibid, p. 41) As with his narrow-focuss when discovering the pollution, he still does not see the complete or personal picture of financial ruin.
Towards the end of play, Stockmann’s character becomes more complex and ambivalent. His sense of intellectual superiority erupts with his anger at his impotence at the public meeting which he called but could not control. In fact, Stockmann internalises the external issues – takes personally the social/political perspectives – when he castigates those he wants to sway to his side of the debate. Instead of talking about the “petty business about the water-supply being polluted and the Baths standing over a cesspool” (ibid, p. 73), he belittles the “so-called leaders … [as] a lot of goats in a young forest – there’s damage everywhere they go” (ibid, p. 75), then attacks the compact majority, which he says is “[t]he worst enemy of truth and freedom in [the] society …. trying to prevent [him] from speaking the truth.” (ibid, p. 76)
His speech develops into a dangerously elitist, anti-humanist (with his analogies to mongrels and poodles) diatribe which alienates both the audience on stage at the meeting and the one in the theatre watching the play. The latter still believe he is right to publicize the water-pollution, but are appalled at the politically Fascist nature of his speech. As an intelligent man, he believes he has a right to judge his audience. They, in turn, form into a mob, jump to conclusions driven by the emotive speeches given by the Mayor and Hovstad, and very quickly turn to violence. Thus Stockmann and the fickle mob are manipulated by the tensions created by those in power to behave outrageously.
In contrast with their opulence at the beginning of the play, where they show their enjoyment in their new-found wealth, and their generosity in sharing it with others, at the end of the play the Stockmann family have no jobs, no money, no house of their own. Their home is barren, with broken windows in stark contrast with the warmth of the house in the opening scene. Taken in by Captain Horster they plan a future based on impracticality and idealism, of which Katherine is skeptical but which Petra embraces with her father. After the curtain goes down the audience is aware that more action is to follow. The play, with its interplay and tensions, an interweaving of the personal, social and political issues, ironically highlights the idea that possession of the truth, “its establishment and its promotion” (ibid, p. xxiii) does not equal or entail the public benefit.
(C) Jud House 26/04/1998 & 30/10/2012
McFarlane, J. (trans. & ed.) (1994) Henrik Ibsen – An Enemy of the People, The Wild Duck, Rosmersholm. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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