An Enemy Of The People Essay Topics

The Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, considered by many to be one of the greatest dramatists of all time, is also called the founder of modern drama. In the mid-1870’s, he created a new tradition of realistic prose drama that dealt boldly with contemporary social problems and individual psychology, offering an alternative to the melodrama that had dominated early nineteenth century theater. In the first twenty-five years of his career, Ibsen wrote romantic and historical dramas designed to glorify Norway and to wean Norwegian audiences from popular Danish plays. With his later, major works—twelve prose dramas of increasing complexity, beginning with Samfundets støtter (1877; The Pillars of Society, 1880) and ending with Naar vi dø de vaagner(1899; When We Dead Awaken, 1900)—Ibsen set a standard for realistic theater that would be emulated throughout the Western world. Ibsen’s nineteenth century audiences were often shocked by the new and realistic subject matter of his plays. Gengangere(1881; Ghosts, 1885) openly referred to inherited venereal disease, and Et dukkehjem(1879; A Doll’s House, 1880) displayed an astonishingly liberal attitude toward the emancipation of women. Both plays were attacked as “immoral” and banned from several cities in Europe.

An Enemy of the People, though somewhat less controversial, was revolutionary in its unflinching portrayal of the greed and self-interest in small-town politics. Ibsen spares almost no one as he examines the power of self-interest to shape human attitudes toward truth and civic responsibility. The townspeople are portrayed in act 4 as little more than an unthinking mob. In fact, Ibsen at times seems so critical of the power of the “compact majority” that some scholars interpret his play as an elitist attack on democracy. The extreme vacillation of the newspapermen, Hovstad and Billing, seems marked for special scorn. They enthusiastically support but then quickly abandon Dr. Stockmann as soon as they perceive their self-interest differently. Even Stockmann himself, heroic figure that he might be, is clearly motivated by self-interest. In the first act, his excitement over the discovery of pollution in the Baths is obviously motivated, at least in part, by extreme and petty competitiveness with his brother Peter. Stockmann is so absorbed in the singularity of his discovery that he naïvely ignores its obvious ramifications, hoping instead for rewards from the town. At the end of the play, Stockmann declares that “the strongest man in the world is he who stands alone,” but he is ignoring his family, who will have to stand and suffer along with him. With nearly everyone in the...

(The entire section is 1119 words.)

  • 1

    What are the structure and tone of the play?

    The structure of the play is very straightforward. The issue –that of the Springs being toxic and Stockmann's possession of that knowledge –is established right away. Only a few "events" happen afterwards; the play is mostly conversations. The plot is flimsy. Ibsen's tone, established through the characters, is polemical and ironic, with a touch of satire.  


  • 2

    What role does Petra play?

    Petra is an interesting character because she is perhaps the only character who is as radical as Stockmann and thus supports his perspectives and views, but she also has a lot less at stake and is thus not exactly the best example of self-sacrifice. Even Peter notes that she is young and radicalism is the provenance of the young; he seems apt to dismiss her views and not become offended by them in the same way that Stockmann’s views offend him. She does not have a family to support and will not feel the pressure of her other duties bearing down on her. Her commitment to the town is not as deeply engrained as her father’s. This is not to say we should not admire her efforts and her vociferous support of her father, but Stockmann is still the main hero of the text, as he loses so much to stand up to the town’s ignorance and hysteria. Finally, Petra also is part of the Ibsen tradition of strong female characters who deviate from norms regarding behavior and expectations.

  • 3

    What is Ibsen's message in this play?

    Ibsen wants to impart to his readers that standing up for truth and justice can be very difficult and one may even lose most of the things they treasure. He reveals how little glory there is in remaining true to one’s principles, and that one will face an array of obstacles. Those obstacles may even include family, friends, and former connections. Ibsen favors Stockmann and suggests he is right, but does so almost grudgingly, as a keen reading of his text reveals that heroes are not blameless (Stockmann has character traits that limit his likeability), and the issue of where duty lies is more complex than usually assumed (Stockman very well could decide to focus on his family, and would not be wholly off base for doing that). Finally, his message includes the reality that the majority is more dangerous than the minority when they are ignorant and propelled by self-interest.  

  • 4

    What did Arthur Miller's changes to the play entail?

    Arthur Miller was attracted to the play because he felt that it resonated with his own time; it spoke to the same tyranny of the majority that America faced in the 1950s when hysterical anti-communism ruled the day. Thus, he adapted the play and staged it, but with a few crucial change. He modernized the language a bit through the help of his translator, he condensed five acts to three, and he rid of some of Stockmann's more controversial language in which he has more critical things to say about the masses. He wanted the play to stay true to the idea that Stockmann was an obvious hero/martyr, and did not want to complicate his character for his readers.

  • 5

    What is Ibsen's message about family?

    On the one hand, family is celebrated for remaining true to each other and supporting each other during hard times; Catherine and Petra both stick by Stockmann regardless of how bad it gets for them. On the other hand, family does not always translate to loyalty. Kiil and Peter are both happy to throw their son-in-law and brother, respectively, under the bus. They do not care that they are related by blood or marriage; their own reputations are far more important to them. Ibsen keenly notes that family is no guarantee of camaraderie, especially in light of reputation and power. 

  • 6

    What are the problems with democracy found in the play?

    It is not correct to claim that Ibsen does not like democracy, but it would be fair to note the shortcomings democracy may possess. In this play the people are given the power, but they are people who are ignorant and quick to hysteria and condemnation. They are easily manipulated by authority figures who capitalize on that ignorance and sway the people to support something they perhaps wouldn't naturally support. Thus, everything that happens to Stockmann happens in an above-board manner because the people are making the decisions, but it is clear that this democracy is very, very flawed.

  • 7

    Is Stockmann a hero or a fool?

    The answer to this question can vary, of course, depending on one's interpretation. There are some who would claim he is a fool, as he stubbornly adheres to his truth, refuses to compromise, and loses almost everything he cherishes as a result. His family will suffer, as will others around him. However, Stockmann could also be perceived as a hero because he is strong and courageous enough to stick to what he knows is right even amidst this adversity. He gives up worldly trappings to uphold truth. He may not be living an ideal life right now, but it is implied that one day he will be vindicated for his actions. Thus, there are elements of both the hero and the fool in Stockmann.

  • 8

    What are the conflicting duties of the characters?

    It is not always clear what the characters should do, and their various duties often contradict each other. Stockmann is the best exemplar of a character whose various duties are in conflict with one another. He feels the strongest sense of duty to telling and upholding the truth, especially as it relates to his progression as a doctor. However, he also has his family, and Catherine notes that he has a duty to keep them from falling back into poverty. Finally, as Peter informs him, he also has a duty to his town; he should consider the financial straits that the people would experience. Stockmann adheres to the first duty and largely ignores the second two, but clearly the character's situation is far from ideal.

  • 9

    What is the significance of Stockmann's speech at the lecture?

    Stockmann's speech at the lecture is the closest he comes to speaking the truth about how he feels about the people and what is happening to him. He certainly does not shy away from being honest and angry with Peter and the newspapermen, but his tone becomes derisive and hostile with the people. He criticizes them, in some words, for being ignorant and useless and failing to live up to the promise of the species. He is not content to let them off the hook for their behavior. Part of his speech, especially the tone, is indicative of his frustration, but his actual words are not too far off from the truth.

  • 10

    What do the allusions to Stockmann's past mean for the contemporary events of the story?

    There is very little actually known about Stockmann's past, but it appears he was in the North for a time and experienced poverty. Catherine alludes to the difficulty of those years, and Peter talks about how he helped Stockmann out. Stockmann, though, refers to this time with pleasure and nostalgia, touting it as a time of purity and resolve. His interpretation of events is a manifestation of his innate tendency to only see things from a certain light -usually a more positive light -and ignore some of the actual duress of the situation. It is telling that Stockmann thinks of the time fondly and Catherine does not, for the contemporary events are quite similiar.

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