The Alienated Moralist in an Enemy of the People

Article excerpt

AN INDIVIDUAL WHO DEFIES society because of his moral convictions, and consequently suffers for his independent and unbending stand, is not an unfamiliar phenomenon, whether in the annals of human history or in the experience of contemporary societies. The prophet who proclaims an unpopular message, the religious reformer who turns into a critic of an established church, the whistle-blower who exposes government abuse come to mind. This perennial issue was dramatized with great ingenuity and clarity by Henrik Ibsen in his drama, An Enemy of the People.

Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) published this play in 1882, and it was performed in Scandinavia and subsequently in other European countries. The Norwegian original was translated into various languages. The play, as virtually any dramatic presentation, takes place in a certain place and time--though the place is not identified geographically but merely described as a coastal town in southern Norway, and the time is simply assumed to be coeval with the publication of the drama or its imminent presentation. Yet this fairly concrete framework in no way binds and limits the drama and its message to a passing moment of history in a Scandinavian setting. The message is universal in scope and it is as relevant today as it may have been at the end of the nineteenth century.

The central character of the drama is Dr. Thomas Stockmann, Medical Officer of the Municipal Baths of the town. He lives with his wife, Katherine, their daughter, Petra, who is a teacher, and two young sons. Peter Stockmann, the Doctor's elder brother, is a prominent citizen of the town--its Mayor and Chief Constable, and the Chairman of the Baths' Committee. He represents the Establishment, the Authority in the community. Then there are two journalists, Hovstad and Billing, editors of the People's Messenger, a liberal paper, at odds with the conservative Peter Stockmann and the class of wealthy people he represents. Aslaksen, the printer of the paper, heads the town's Householders' Association, which comprises the majority of the townfolk. Unlike the newspaper editors, he is not a radical but, as he insists on presenting himself, a man of moderation. He does not want to offend the people in power, though he has the interests of the modest majority at heart. (There are a couple of additional characters, who will be mentioned later.)

The plot revolves round the Municipal Baths. They have been established on the initiative of Dr. Stockmann, with the support of his brother, who claims for himself greater contribution to the achievement than is his due. The Baths promise to be a great asset to the development of the town, as they are expected to attract visitors and invalids, who will come to the place during the summers to improve their health. Peter Stockmann, the good citizen and savvy businessman, points to the great benefits of the Baths for each and all:

  Taking one thing with another, there is an excellent spirit of
  toleration in the town--an admirable municipal spirit. And it all
  springs from the fact of our having a great common interest to unite
  us--an interest that is in an equally high degree the concern of every
  right-minded citizen ....

  Think how extraordinarily the place has developed within the last year
  or two! Money has been flowing in .... Houses and landed property are
  rising in value every day.

Hovstad, the liberal journalist, who is the Mayor's collocutor, adds that unemployment is also diminishing, to which the Mayor responds that this lightens the taxation burden of the propertied classes. In short, everybody benefits from the Baths economically, and the "spirit of toleration," social harmony, is an additional blessing. (1) The Baths are the rock on which the bliss of the town is being erected.

This perfect edifice suddenly faces a dramatic change. Indeed, its foundations are challenged. The threat is the result of an objective scientific discovery. …