The curtain opens on the Editorial Office. Billing and Hovstad are there, talking about printing the doctor’s report. Billing criticizes Aslaksen, the publisher, for being too cowardly. Both men are thrilled at the possibilities of bringing a liberal administration in after the winds of change sweep away the people in charge.
Stockmann enters and tells them to print the report right away, as the mayor has declared war. Aslaksen enters and tells him to be careful and to be moderate. Stockmann smiles and says of course, and asks Aslaksen to make sure everything is printed perfectly. He is excited to finally see the truth printed in the paper.
After he leaves, Aslaksen says he feels a bit nervous and he hopes the Doctor sticks to the Springs. Billing asks why he is scared, and Aslaksen says he has to live there, and is worried that attacking a town’s administration might mean a complete collapse. This might be bad for small property owners. Billing scoffs at this, and in response Aslaksen queries Billing if it is true he has applied for a job as a secretary in the Magistrate’s office.
Embarrassed, Billing says yes, and Hovstad criticizes him. Billing defends himself and says he can do a lot of good from there. Aslaksen is skeptical, and touts the fact that at least he has never gone back on his principles. He leaves.
The men discuss whether or not Stockmann’s father-in-law has money and could maybe back the paper, but are interrupted by Petra. She enters carrying an English novel that the newspaper wanted translated for the paper, and says she was upset by the novel’s message that supernatural forces reward “good” people and punish “bad” people. She thinks the newspaper has no principles if they want this printed.
Hovstad protests and says he did not even read it, and that he highly admires Petra and “women like you” (41). She is still indignant, which causes Hovstad to protest at her extreme views, which are like her father’s. This gives her pause, and she says that he must not have any use for her father.
Aslaksen enters and Petra, frightened and upset by Hovstad’s words and ingratiating but hostile manner, leaves. Aslaksen announces that the Mayor is here. Peter comes in and remarks that the office is clean and he assumed it would be dirty. After this backhanded compliment he asks about the paper’s goal to print the report. He asks to see it, and asks if Aslaksen will really do it. Aslaksen responds that it is a signed article by the author so he has no problem printing it.
Peter wryly notes how the lower sorts are always apt to call for a sacrifice, especially on the part of the wealthy. However, he plans on taxing the people to pay for the modifications to the Springs. Aghast, Hovstad replies that it was a private corporation that built it. Peter says that the corporation built it but has no funds left and if the people want a change then they can pay for it.
He criticizes his brother’s “mad dream of a man who is trying to blow up our way of life” (44). Hovstad finally gets nervous and comments that he would never want to hurt the town like that, and he never thought there would be a tax.
Peter brings out his own statement, which he calls an assertion of the basic facts. Over time some small improvements could be made without a tax.
Suddenly Stockmann is observed coming their way, and Peter gets up and says he does not want to meet him here. Hurriedly he leaves, and the newspapermen try to cover up Stockmann’s manuscript.
Cheerily Stockmann asks about the printing but the men defer nervously. They are interrupted by Catherine and Petra who burst in. Catherine is full of ire towards Hovstad, accusing him of dragging people into disaster and that he is not her husband’s friend.
Stockmann is confused until he sees his brother’s cane lying on the table. He starts to realize Hovstad might have been talked out of printing the report. Peter reveals himself and Stockmann lashes out at him, “Poisoning the water wasn’t enough, you’re working on the press?” (46). Peter asks for his hat and cane but Stockmann taunts him by putting the hat on.
Stockmann asks Hovstad to run the piece but the editor refuses. Stockmann says he will call a meeting and if he cannot get the hall he will parade through the streets. Peter calls him mad and his brother replies that he hasn’t even seen him mad yet. Stockmann takes his family and departs.
It is a room in Captain Horster's house –a meeting has been called. People wander around outside and Billing asks Horster why he is putting this on. The captain responds that he has traveled to a lot of places where people are not allowed to say unpopular things.
Catherine and Petra enter. Hovstad peevishly tells them he is not as bad as they think, and that he did not print the report because people would not believe him. Catherine scoffs that he is a liar. Someone nearby blows a horn and Horster angrily shuts him down.
More people, including Peter, file in. he asks if Petra made a poster that was put up on the Town Hall. She boldly says yes, it was her work, and her uncle says he could have arrested her. She holds up her hands and says he could do it right now.
A drunken man starts badgering the group, yelling that he wants to vote. Horster pushes him out.
At this time Stockmann and others arrive. The drunk starts agitating again but walks out. Stockmann mounts the stage and prepares to speak, but Aslaksen calls out that a chairman should be elected. Stockmann says it is only a lecture and there does not need to be one. A man named Henrik says there must be some order. Other people heckle Stockmann.
Peter is proposed as chairman, but he suggests the neutral Aslaksen. The vote is seconded. After this, Stockmann starts his speech again, explaining that he called for this because he could not get the hall or get his report published.
Aslaksen comes to the stage and tells the crowd that moderation is expected. The drunk starts in again, yelling that Peter should not electioneer the results. Quiet is called for, and Peter comes to the stage. He claims that his brother wants to destroy Kirsten Springs because he is only happy when he is "badgering authority, ridiculing authority, destroying authority" (53). He concedes that freedom of speech is important but not during perilous times, and these are such times.
The Doctor stands up in protest and says Peter should not be standing on the stage criticizing him. There is a bit of a ruckus but things calm down again. Peter continues, and paints a picture of the town as it was before the Springs –poor, ignored. Now everyone knows it, and the town will become prosperous and admired. It makes sense that the people should be able to say that there is a line a man cannot cross, and that they will enforce that line if the town is in danger. He moves that Stockmann not be able to read his report.
There is a bit of a commotion and Stockmann protests for a bit, but then says that he will not speak of the Springs. He is tentatively allowed to proceed.
Stockmann begins by talking about how the people have no right to call themselves that just because they have the human shape. His words garner anger, but he persists. He talks about his noble vision he originally had for the Springs and how this situation proves the majority is not always right. When he asks if the majority of the people were right when they crucified Jesus, the crowd is stunned.
Hovstad stands and says he cuts himself off from Stockmann. Stockmann begs everyone to reconsider even though the cost is great.
The crowd is becoming violent and hostile. Peter tries to calm them. When asked to go home, Stockmann proclaims he will take his story to out-of-town newspapers if he has to. This leads him to be labeled a traitor, and, as Aslaksen yells out, an enemy of the people.
Aslaksen asks if anyone is against the motion to declare Stockmann an enemy of the people, and amid the din only Horster and the drunk man, who is still there, raise their hands.
Stockmann asks Horster if he has room for him and his family on his trip to America. Horster says yes.
Stockmann and his family leave the crowd, jeering and spitting.
Ibsen’s tale does not come out of the blue; in fact, there are precedents for this realistic drama in Europe. “Social problem” comedy-dramas, with their focus on one character and one or two main problems, use of satire and comedy, and straightforward structure, were fashionable during the day; writers included Ibsen, Dumas I[fils], Augier, and Bjornson. Ibsen already experimented with this genre in I[Ghosts], but I[An Enemy of the People] is the best example. Critic Thomas F. Van Laan writes that none of the works by the other authors can measure up to the standards set in the last two acts of the play, and “the sheer abundance of unfailingly brilliant inventions almost makes up for the lack of typical Ibsen density.”
Ibsen was not just adhering to conventions of the day, though; he also infused the characters, particularly Stockmann, with his own views. He wrote to his publisher, “Dr. Stockmann and I get along so splendidly with one another; we are so much in agreement on many things.” He conceded his protagonist might be “more muddleheaded than I am,” however, and also, upon seeing a performance of the play, commented that the character was a “hothead.”
This is amusingly evidenced in several places in Act II, when Stockmann enters the newspaper office and says the town is “liable to start making a saint out of me or something” (45) and that he “simply will not attend a dinner in my honor” (45). Later, in Scene II, Stockmann replaces his self-aggrandizing thoughts with condemnatory rhetoric in regards to the people of the town –“a mass of organisms with the human shape…[who] do not automatically become a People” (57). He is justifiably angry in the aftermath of Peter’s hijacking of his truth-telling lecture, but his words are obviously inflammatory. Arthur Miller chose to cut out some of the even more intense rhetoric, but there is enough left to be a bit weary with Stockmann’s strategy.
On the other hand, there seems little left to do. He has been foiled at every turn, and the abuse is only worsening. Only his immediate family, Captain Horster, and an amusing drunk are on his side. He is not allowed to read from the report. He knows that he is right and that things will worsen if the Springs are not revamped. He believes that his motivations are sound, that he worked on the Springs “so we might cure the sick, so that we might meet people from all over the world and learn from them, and become broader and more civilized –in other words, more like Men, more like A People” (57). Stockmann might be bombastic, but he seems to truly believe in his words. He does not possess the pragmatic, savvy, and manipulative mindset of his brother; he does indeed think he is engaged in noble pursuits. As Terrance McConnell writes, "If the Baths remain open, the patrons are being harmed; if the Baths are temporarily closed, the townspeople are being denied a benefit. The losses of the two parties are on a different moral plane. The obligation not to harm takes priority over the obligation to provide benefits."
The contrast between majority and minority is further heightened here. Although the reader might be skeptical about Stockmann's choice to lambast the people, the fact is, they seem to deserve it. At the lecture they are practically frothing at the mouth; they are hostile, combative, and, of course, ignorant. In Act III they even resort to violence. They do not want Stockmann to speak so they can listen to both sides and make a decision. They do not want to put in that effort –they want it to be done for them. Stockmann, then, is a model and an articulator of the idea that "the minority, the small handful who are in tune with the newest truths, that is always in the right and must be listened to," (as stated by Van Laan). Stockmann is a Galileo figure –one who would sacrifice himself for truth and science. It is no surprise Arthur Miller was attracted to this play in light of the blind obedience to anti-communist cant in the 1950s.