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Truth Telling and the Enemy of the PeopleEssay

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¶ … characters from Ibsen's play and analyze the character's political role.

Dr. Stockmann is a doctor that takes a single-minded view of the evidence he finds that the baths of the town are contaminated. Much like many scientists today, he is focused upon facts and not the social context of how these facts will be received. Stockmann believes at the beginning of the play that the truth will indeed set him free. When he first get a conclusive report of the baths' toxic status, Stockmann says to his wife: "Do you suppose I was going to run about the town gossiping about it, before I had absolute proof? No, thank you. I am not such a fool" (I). However, he comes to learn that many of the officials of the town have priorities other than public health. Unfortunately, the events of the play do reveal Stockmann to be a kind of fool, despite his compassion and scientific brilliance. He has no appreciation for the impact of politics and money on decision-making and thinks that the report alone will be evidence enough to motivate everyone to want the baths to be closed and cleansed. Stockmann proceeds cautiously in gathering scientific evidence and substantiating his claims but logic has no impact upon politics in the play.

The title of the play An Enemy of the People is deliberately ironic and ambiguous. On one hand, it clearly refers to Stockmann, given that is how he is viewed by the townspeople. However, Stockmann wishes to protect rather than to harm people and is concerned about the health of the populace. Stockmann founded the spa to promote the health of the town. Instead, he is horrified to learn that he actually may have created a cesspool of disease. Initially, Dr. Stockmann is hailed as a hero, until it becomes clear that closing the baths will have a negative impact on tourism and cost a great deal of money to fix. Given that it is sick people who usually visit the baths, it is fairly easy and convenient to blame whatever harm comes upon their original illness rather than upon the baths themselves.

Despite the fact that Ibsen clearly sympathizes with Dr. Stockmann, however, he does not present him as an entirely blameless figure. The good doctor's single-minded righteousness ultimately does not result in saving any lives and he often strikes the viewer as hopelessly naive. Even his own wife Katherine reminds him of the fact that simply having proof does not automatically change the world. Dr. Stockmann cries "To hear him call me an enemy to our community!" in horror and claims he has "right" on his side but Mrs. Stockmann replies " ... your brother has power on his side ... What is the use of having right on your side if you have not got might?" (II). Stockmann's idealism gives him a sense of moral self-righteousness but it does not translate into a real, meaningful impact upon the world.

Q2. Choose a theme or topic salient to democracy that you find in this play. Explain the theme's relevance and presence in the play.

The theme of the need to balance environmental welfare with economic profitability in a democracy is perhaps the most striking and salient aspect of the play from a modern perspective. Even today, we see this tension. Ibsen demonstrates that both politicians and the ordinary people that elect them are more apt to focus on short-term rather than long-term results. The people of the play are interested in their immediate economic welfare and thus they and the town politicians support keeping the contaminated baths open. From a long-term perspective, this is dangerous. Similarly, there is often resistance to placing restrictions on car emissions, driving up the cost of various products, or otherwise limiting personal freedoms even though doing so may have a positive environmental impact. Dr. Stockmann would contend (and the play suggests that Ibsen agrees) that a purely democratic approach to policy results in people governing by gut instincts and pleasing the masses' desire to acquire more things rather than the long-term health of the community.

The question thus arises how to keep democracy yet also ensure the health of people and the planet. It is here that Dr. Stockmann's own immediate instincts fail, given that by the end of the play he is expressing extreme bitterness about the population's ability to change and to evaluate evidence correctly. "Do you want me to let myself be beaten off the field by public opinion and the compact majority and all that devilry...I only want to drum into the heads of these curs the fact that the liberals are the most insidious enemies of freedom" (V). Dr. Stockmann's rhetoric sounds frighteningly totalitarian, given that oppressive leaders have long used the excuse that they know what the people need better than the people know what they need themselves. Yet he is also correct not simply within the context of the play but in terms of people's behaviors. When the price of gas goes up, people buy more fuel-efficient cars. When the price of gas goes down, people are less likely to purchase hybrids and adopt conservationist behaviors like car-pooling. The risks towards the environment have not changed, of course, but the personal consequences of gas consumption have.

Ibsen's play raises real and troubling questions about the nature of democracy. Many complex issues such as environmentalism are very difficult for the average layperson to understand and people tend to vote out of their immediate self-interest. They may vote for politicians that deny global warming even exists, because that is the truth they want to believe, not the real truth, just as people in the play want to believe that the profitable baths are not harming anyone. Ibsen, for all the fiery rhetoric of Dr. Stockmann, does not offer a viable solution for how to ensure that the good of democracy can be preserved while its abuses can be curtailed.

Reference

Ibsen, H. (1882). An Enemy of the People. The Literature Network. Retrieved from:

http://www.online-literature.com/ibsen/enemy-of-the-people/2/

Q1. Choose one of the characters from Ibsen's play and analyze the character's political role

One of the most sympathetic characters in Henrik Ibsen's play An Enemy of the People is Dr. Stockman's wife Katherine Stockmann. Katherine Stockmann believes her husband and unlike the people of the town she is able to see the truth about the pollution of the baths with a clear and objective eye. However, unlike her husband she is aware about the extent to which political power will affect the people's reception of these ideas. Katherine is a strong character and Ibsen as a playwright was famous for creating strong female heroines. However, Ibsen also is cognizant of the fact that unlike her husband, Katherine has a family to protect and cannot afford to entirely ignore the consequences of simply focusing on what is the morally right thing to do.

Katherine's morality is more personal in nature than universal and objective. She focuses on the immediate strain to her family, including what it will mean for her two young boys and daughter. Ibsen could be said to create a division between traditional male morality which focuses solely on principles and universal ideals and feminine morality which focuses on emotion and caring. However, the Stockmanns' daughter Petra is more sympathetic to her father's point-of-view than her mothers, indicating that she is the voice of a younger generation. Ibsen's play does not emphasize gender divides as much as it does the different responses of people to political crises on a personal level. Stockmann's response and his focus solely upon the public good not upon his family embodies one extreme while his wife takes a more moderate position. She cries: "Do you think that is doing your duty towards those you have to provide for?" Stockmann replies "If I were to be such a miserable coward as to go on my knees to Peter and his damned crew, do you suppose I should ever know an hour's peace of mind all my life afterwards?" (II).

This exchange is very telling because for all of his moral superiority, Stockmann clearly is also thinking about his own ego, unlike Katherine. When his first revelations about the contamination of the water are articulated, he is originally praised as a hero before the real costs of the cleanup can be calculated. However, he quickly realizes that his supposedly heroic status is short-lived when people realize that heroism requires sacrifices. Katherine clearly would be willing to make financial sacrifices as a member of the community and initially wants her husband to make full disclosure of his findings but given that her priorities are her children much more so than her honor or an abstract ideal of righteousness tied to egoism like Stockmann, her view soon changes.

Q2. Choose a theme or topic salient to democracy that you find in this play. Explain the theme's relevance and presence in the play.

One theme present… [END OF PREVIEW]

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