Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Thursday, April 12, 2007

IBSEN: An Enemy of the People

Imagine there’s a dying little town somewhere. Someone comes up with the idea of building healthy spa baths to revive the town’s economy. Everything goes smoothly and the town’s doing well again. Then a few folks find out that the spa waters are contaminated. What to do? That’s the basic plot of Ibsen’s play An Enemy of the People.

What to do about the contaminated spa water? That depends on who you talk to. The baths are the great common interest of the town. The baths provide income for the strong economic comeback of the whole community. They’re doing quite well thanks to Dr. Stockmann. Dr. Stockmann originally came up with the idea of the baths but it was his brother, Mayor Stockmann, who converted the idea into a reality. Dr. Stockmann has an orderly, scientific mind and believes the contamination of the water should immediately be brought to public attention. The Mayor, on the other hand, has been schooled in political pragmatism and wants to take a more cautious approach. What the Mayor knows, and the Doctor doesn’t, is that there are powerful economic and political interests lurking out there. They have their own agendas concerning the baths. This isn’t a problem to be taken lightly or one to be pursued without considering the possible outcomes. One newspaperman wants to use the issue to hammer away at official incompetence. He wants to bring down the current administration and replace it with a new one. The problems with the baths are just a journalistic tool he wants to use for political leverage. Dr. Stockmann unwittingly gets caught up in these power struggles. As one character in the play sums it up “In all his talk about the baths, it is really a revolution he is aiming at; he wants to effect a redistribution of power.”

As the play goes on it becomes clear that one of the problems Ibsen is exploring is that of individual needs versus the needs of society. It’s easy for Dr. Stockmann to say that the baths should be shut down. But it would be two years before they would be up and running again and one of the townspeople asks: “What are we homeowners to live on in the meantime?” Even though Dr. Stockmann has a family of his own he becomes determined to close the baths and chides those who are reluctant to go along with his plan to shut them down. As far as he’s concerned those who are reluctant are being anti-democratic: “They all think of nothing but their families, not of the general good.” Dr. Stockmann is convinced that he’s right because he has Truth on his side.

It’s at this point that Dr. Stockmann transforms from an idealistic and sympathetic character into a real threat to the stability and well-being of the community. He starts out believing that “Truth and the People must win the day.” But he soon changes his mind about “the People” of his community. After his ordeal at a political meeting he comes to the conclusion that “all our sources of spiritual life are poisoned, and that our whole society rests upon a pestilential basis of falsehood.” Now he claims that it’s not just the baths that are contaminated but the whole community. At this point Dr. Stockmann’s fanaticism takes over and he really does become “an enemy of the people” - if we define “the people” as the majority. For him the real disease is “the people” he lives amongst. Dr. Stockmann comes to believe that “The most dangerous foe to truth and freedom in our midst is the majority.” The moral of Ibsen’s play seems to be: democracy is a lousy form of government, but with all its flaws it’s still the best one we’ve found so far capable of looking after the common good for most of “the people.”

-- RDP


Blogger SMJ said...

Although, Ibsen's Enemy of the People portrays Dr. Stockmann as moving from a rational protest of public policy to a radical revolt against his community, this isn't really a case of "individual needs versus the needs of society." There is a sharp disagreement between Dr. Thomas Stockmann, who is the town physician and medical officer of the baths, and his brother, Peter Stockmann, the mayor of the town, concerning what to do about the town's spa baths. Samples of the water have been tested and the results are clear. The waters of the spa baths are polluted. How they became so is not exactly clear, perhaps with toxic runoffs from an adjacent mine. Of the pollution there would appear to be no dispute. Yet, when Dr. Stockmann brings the matter to the mayor's attention, he resists the idea of closing the baths. Moreover, Mayor Stockmann wants to keep the entire affair secret. The problem is that cleaning the spa baths will require a lot of time and money, which threatens the economy of the town. Of course, if people become sick from toxic water, the reputation of the spa baths (and of the town) will be ruined, thus destroying the economy just as surely as closing the baths will.

Mayor Stockmann, being a politician, is concerned, as he should be, with the economic welfare of the town. His brother, Dr. Stockmann, is concerned only with the biological health of the community and of the tourists who vacation at the spa. Both individuals are doing what they believe is in the best interest of the community. Yet, one of them is willing to hide the truth from the public rather than deal with the matter openly. Instead of having a public discussion at the town meeting, the mayor uses the power of his office to prevent Dr. Stockmann from speaking about the danger to the baths. It is at that moment when he is prevented from speaking to the people that Dr. Stockmann assumes a more radical voice. He soon discovers that mob behavior is completely irrational, and is easily manipulated by anyone willing to lie convincingly. Incited by Mayor Stockmann, the people turn violently against Dr. Stockmann and behave as if he truly were an "enemy of the people."

Both brothers have personal issues which go beyond anything having to do with the spa baths. They are ambitious and jealous of one another's achievements, and as usually happens with sibling rivalry, matters that should have been settled peacefully turn ugly and violent. Is the mayor really concerned with the welfare of the town or with his own legacy? After all, it was the mayor's decision to build the baths where they are located, even though he was warned not to do so by his brother.

Dr. Stockmann, on the other hand, seems strangely obsessed with proving that he is correct, instead of looking at the larger picture. What will become of his family if he loses his position as medical officer of the baths? What of his wife's inheritance? The future of his children? If the baths close, as the mayor warns, how will the town survive? The tourists may never return even if the water is purified. What then?

But in this struggle between brothers for power and influence, Mayor Stockmann has the upper hand. He presents himself as the real pragmatist, who is trying to save the town's economy, whereas Dr. Stockmann sounds like a political zealot, willing to burn the town to the ground rather than compromise. Who is right? They both are, and yet neither one can be. At the end of the play, Dr. Stockmann and family are completely ostracized from the rest of the town. In their idealism, they have become social outcasts, living like lepers apart from the very people they grew up with. Mayor Stockmann has won, but at what cost to the community. If visitors to the spa become sick and die, what happens then? Will Mayor Stockmann go to his brother and apologize? It doesn't seem likely. If the town is ruined by an outbreak of typhus caused by polluted water, then who is the real enemy of the people? Should the bringer of bad news be blamed for the message? Is the fatal weakness of democratic regimes that we cannot accept unpopular ideas? Is truth expendable whenever it becomes inconvenient?

The real tragedy is that this whole situation could have been avoided with a little discretion and quiet negotiation between the two brothers. Perhaps the cost of fixing the baths would not have been as exorbitant as Mayor Stockmann believed, or the dire threat of pollution not quite as urgent as Dr. Stockmann claimed. In the end, the voice of moderation has been drowned out by the unmovable rock of pride colliding with the irresistible force of reason. Truth is whatever remains after the explosion subsides.

4/12/2007 10:13 AM  

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