An Enemy of the People

An Enemy of the People Themes

The tyranny of the majority

Most of the time in conflicts over power and free expression, the majority is opposed to a minority of powerful men who control government/society. The majority clamor for their rights and occasionally rebel or revolt. However, as Ibsen trenchantly points out, the majority can also be a swelling mass of ignorant, easily moldable, and irrational people who will eagerly embrace anything that makes their lives easy and comfortable. In this play Stockmann’s report threatens their material comfort, and they are easily swayed by Peter’s persuasive appeal to their baser instincts. There is no room in the town for an iconoclast or a rebel; conformity is required and promoted. The masses are depicted in the play as dangerous and ridiculous, and the individual is the persecuted hero.


It is unambiguous that Stockmann is the hero of the play –he sticks to the truth no matter what, upholds the values of free speech and public health and safety, and loses almost everything he cherishes in the process. However, Stockmann is still very, very prideful, as is his brother Peter. An early indicator of this is the brothers’ subtle battle over who created the Springs (when they were unknown to carry pathogens). When he finds out about the bacteria, Stockmann is pleased with his discovery and not-so-secretly hopes for a bit of fame. He is incensed that Peter and everyone else deny the validity of his work. He also makes no effort to understand where Peter and the others are coming from, although, to be fair, Stockmann is in the right. Like his brother, Peter is extremely prideful. He fears damage to his reputation and authority, and does not yield at all. He denies his brother any ability to make people aware of his findings. Through Peter especially, Ibsen demonstrates that pride is dangerous and shortsighted –that summer when the Springs make people sicker, he will rue his hubris.

Power and authority

Peter is the best representation in the play of how entrenched power and authority are influential but very dangerous. Through the power of his office and his own savviness, Peter manages to, in one conversation, cast doubt in the minds of the newspapermen and turn them to his side. He is imposing enough to mold others in his opinion, as well as use his connections to make Stockmann’s life a mess. Ibsen depicts men of authority as dangerous because they want to hold on to their position and its rewards, and not have to bear any criticism, debate, or changes to their agenda. Peter expresses outright how he does not want his reputation to suffer, and altering the Springs would cast doubt on his authority. The reader/audience is meant to assume that most of his subsequent decisions stem from his fear that he will lose his standing.


There are multiple understandings of what one’s duty is in this play, with characters often finding it difficult to negotiate this terrain. Stockmann is the best example of a man who has multiple duties pulling at him –his duty to the truth and to science, his duty to his family, and his duty to his town. He ultimately chooses to adhere to the first choice, but Ibsen does not seem to censure him for that; his standing up for the truth is seen as the noble thing to do. Catherine wavers between her duty to her family and her duty to Stockmann, who is supporting his claims, and although she is concerned about her family’s safety and material comfort, she sticks by Stockmann at the end of the play. As for Peter, he almost gives no thought to his duty as a brother, and seem to ignore his duty to the townspeople in regards to their future health. His allegiance is paid to authority and to government, and he never wavers. Ironically, he feels the least ambiguity about where his duty lies, but he also seems to be the most off the mark.


Catherine and Petra are the only females in the play, and offer interesting contrasts. Catherine is a traditional wife and mother, concerned with her family’s safety and material comfort. She is hesitant about Stockmann’s conflict with authority and evinces more timidity. However, once she sees her husband scorned, she is unafraid of confronting men and making her concerns known. This makes her similar to Petra, who is, as female characters in the late 19th century go, quite modern. She is an unmarried teacher who is passionate, intellectual, and hotheaded. She takes on a public persona and campaigns vociferously for the truth, which are not things women would ordinarily do during this time. Both of these women, Petra more so than Catherine, are rather atypical for women of their era and thus fit in comfortably with the other iconoclastic women of Ibsen’s oeuvre.

Freedom of expression

This is one of the major ideas of the text -that freedom of expression should be cherished and upheld. The audience has the benefit of knowing Stockmann is in the right, but even if he were not, his right to express himself should be honored by the town. He should get to print his report, speak at the lecture, and talk to whomever he wants about his findings. He should not be evicted, fired, harassed, or censured. Instead, the town, led by Peter, suppresses everything he wants to say. This is dangerous both in terms of precedent of a deprivation of civil liberties (what will happen when someone else has an unpopular idea?) as well as dangerous because the town has little knowledge of what could happen to them because of the Springs. Arthur Miller saw just how resonant Ibsen's text was during his own time of anti-communist hysteria of the 1950s.


Ibsen seeks to demonstrate how easy it is for people to become hysterical about things which they know very little of. The people barely heard anything of what Stockmann had to say, and turned against him en masse. They switched their political allegiance as soon as things became slightly complicated. Hysteria also escalates extremely quickly; the people move from yelling at Stockmann to throwing rocks at his home and trying to destroy all aspects of his life. Ibsen suggests that reason and rationality must be used in confusing situations, or it is all too easy to run amok. A democracy must be based on reasoned discussion and freedom of expression, or it will descend into chaos.