An Enemy of the People

An Enemy of the People Summary and Analysis of Act I

Scene I  

It is Mr. Stockman's living room. Kiil is eating and gets up to leave. He tells Billing to let his daughter know, but Catherine comes in and tells him not to go, and he ought to wait for Tom. Kiil says he has a lot to do, but Catherine urges him to stay and asks if he might want to move in with them.  

The door sounds and Peter comes in. Kiil says rather facetiously, "Your Honor," and leaves. Catherine welcomes her brother-in-law inside and tells him Tom went out for a walk with the boys and should be back soon. The door sounds again and it is Hovstad, the newspaper editor of The People's Daily Messenger.  

Peter is cheerily dismissive of the paper, but says that he admires the spirit of toleration in the town. After all, when everyone believes in the same thing, it brings people together. That thing is the Kirsten Springs, which is becoming an attraction for miles around. Peter tells everyone about all the new reservations, and is pleased to hear when Hovstad says Tom, the doctor, had written a piece about it awhile ago that will now be published.  

There is a slight bit of awkwardness when Catherine says Tom created the Springs, and Peter feels as if he was the one that promoted them. Catherine wonders why they cannot share the honor.  

Stockmann (how Tom is referred to in the play) enters with his two sons, Morten and Ejlif. Peter stiffly says he ought to go now, but is prevailed upon to take a seat. Stockmann is expansive, talking about young people and the clarity he received when he spent five years up north away from everything. He calls out that one must have things to work and fight for, and that his motto is to live to the hilt.  

Hovstad joins them brings up the article, but Stockmann says he does not want it published. He hints at abnormal conditions but says he will say no more right now even though Peter questions him. Peter reminds him that he is the mayor and chairman of the board for the Springs, and warns his brother that the individual must subordinate himself to society.  

The mood is acrimonious and Peter excuses himself. When Catherine comes back in the room, she is surprised Peter is gone, and Stockmann says he does not have to account for himself to his brother. To Hovstad he says his brother has a bad stomach and is used to his solitary existence.  

Stockmann now focuses on Captain Horster and Billing, and Catherine serves them drinks. They smoke and talk. It seems the Captain will be sailing soon and not home for the election, and talk turns to voting and citizens' duties.  

Petra, the daughter of Stockmann and Catherine, enters. She embraces her parents, says hello to the others, and tells her father she picked up the mail and has a letter for him. He seems quite anxious and excited, and goes to his study to read it. Catherine says she noticed that he has been asking for the mailman quite often lately.   Hovstad chats with Petra about how busy she is; she is a teacher and loves it. The boys come in and chatter childishly, and Catherine sends them away.  

Stockmann comes back in, glowing. He says he has made a fantastic discovery , and chortles about all the "baboons" in the town who will be proven wrong. He asks his family and friends if they think the Springs are healthy. They say yes, and then he announces that they are a pesthole. Everyone is aghast, and he explains that the filth at Windmill Valley, where the tannery is, runs down into the Springs.  

Stockmann explains that he had a suspicion based on the disease counts last year, and started to investigate the water. He found that it had "infectious organic matter" (18) in it and now the whole water system has to be changed, even though it was very expensive to put in.  

His family remembers that he warned them, and Stockmann says he did, but that politicians do not like to be told things by scientists. Now, though, they will have to listen. They are all thrilled, and Stockmann looks forward to telling Peter and knows he will be grateful to him. They lift their glasses and cheer, all pleased with Stockmann's tremendous news.  

Scene II  

The next morning Stockmann waits for his brother, who has read and the report and wants to come over and talk to him. He is certain his brother will try to take credit for the discovery , but says he does not mind as long as everybody is happy.  

Kiil enters and asks about the story and if it is true. It seems he heard about it from Petra, who stopped by that morning. Catherine says it is lucky for the town and Kiil begins to laugh. He starts talking about the "bacteria" as if it is a joke and Stockmann is trying to pull his brother's leg. Catherine tries to reason with her father but he cannot be swayed. Laughing, he prepares to depart, telling Stockmann he hopes Peter and his cronies will accept this bait, and if they do, he will donate money to charity. 

Kiil leaves and Hovstad comes in. He wants to talk to Stockmann about how he sees that the Springs story ties into many other things. For him, the truly poisonous spring is all the bureaucrats who run the town –the rich, reputable men who have the town in their hands. He starts talking about this "scandal", and Stockmann tries to calm him down a bit.  

Hovstad starts talking abut his own lowly background and how he likes rooting for the underdog, and he doesn't care if some circles call it "agitation." As they are talking, Aslaksen enters and asks to speak to the doctor.  

He asks Stockmann if he intends to campaign for a better water system. Stockmann says yes, but it is not a campaign. He thinks it is a straightforward matter, but Aslaksen interrupts him and says that, as Chairman of the Property Owners' Association, he cares about businessmen and is active for prohibition and thus knows many people and could arrange a demonstration.  

Stockmann is a bit confused, but Aslaksen says it would be a demonstration to compliment the Doctor for bringing the matter to light. It would be peaceable and not radical.  

Stockmann is pleased with this news and shakes the man's hand and offers him a drink, but as he is for prohibition, Aslaksen cannot take one.  

After he leaves, Hovstad says these men are essentially still in awe of authority and need to be amped up a bit more. He wants to print Stockmann's report, but the latter says not until he talks to his brother. He promises the newspaper man it will happen, and Hovstad leaves.  

Stockmann marvels to Catherine how he has the majority behind him and that he feels at home in the town again, something he hasn't felt since he was a boy.  

Peter enters the room and the family cheerily greets him. Peter is quiet and says he read the report. Catherine takes Petra to another room.  

Peter asks his brother why he felt he had to go behind his back. Shocked, Stockmann says he wanted to be sure. Peter asks if he intends to present the report and Stockmann says yes. Peter then says he walked around the site with the City Engineer and asked about the cost of a new site, and the Engineer said it would be expensive –three hundred thousand crowns. It would take two years as well, but the main thing that Peter points out is that there would be no visitors at all left. Stockmann, then, is ruining the town.  

Stockmann is frustrated and says that the report is actually underestimated because once warmer weather comes, it will be worse. Peter says maybe if he is correct, the Directors of the Institute could look into ways to reasonably and "without financial sacrifices" (29) try and improve things.  

Stockmann calls this a fraud and treason against the town. He thinks Peter and his administration simply don't want to admit their blunder since they were the ones that insisted the water supply be built there.  

Peter says it does not matter even if that is true, for "without moral authority there can be no government" (30). He warns his brother that not a word should meet the ears of the public.  

Stockmann replies that people already know and the free press will disseminate the story. Angry, Peter tells Stockmann he is irresponsible and that there will be consequences. He had hoped that improving his finances he would be better, which angers Stockmann because he sees how that was self-interested. Peter criticizes his brother as a man who gets an idea into his head and just runs with it –the public doesn't need any of his new ideas, and they're better off than the old ideas. In fact, he orders Stockmann to deny all rumors publicly. As an official, Peter knows that one has to keep one's convictions to oneself.  

Stockmann claims that as a scientist he has a right to speak out, but Peter warns him that he might even find himself dismissed from the Institute.  

Petra comes in and yells that she cannot believe her uncle would do this. Catherine asks her to be quiet. Peter continues, saying that Stockmann can't love his town if he is cutting off its most important industry and that he is a traitor for his insinuations.  

Peter finally leaves and the family is left alone. Catherine is worried, noting that Peter has all the power on his side. Stockmann replies that he has the truth. This is not comforting to Catherine, as she thinks about his duty to their family. Petra tells her mother not to worry about the family but Catherine can't help it; she does not want to be without money again, as it was horrible.  

The boys come in, and Stockmann tells them he will teach them how to be men. Catherine cries.  


Upon reading Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, it is good to note first whether or not you are reading Ibsen’s original, five-act work, or Arthur Miller’s more famous three-act adaptation. This ClassicNote works off of Miller’s version, as it is the most commonly available in bookstores and performed on the stage.   Act I, the longest of the three, establishes the main characters and central conflict of the play. Dr. Thomas Stockmann, a physician in a small Norwegian town, discovers that the town’s famed Springs are being polluted by a local tannery and urges his brother Peter, the mayor and chairman of the board for the Springs, to consider redoing them. Stockmann’s initial jubilation quickly fades when his brother evinces a disdain for the plan owing not just to its immense cost but to the impact such a revelation would have upon his reputation, as he gave the okay for the Springs and constantly touts their health benefits.  

The brothers’ personalities are clearly contrasted in this first act: Stockmann is overly enthusiastic and a tad naïve. He does not consider at all the possible ramifications of his report, demonstrating little nuance in considering the way entrenched power works, even in a small town. He possesses the truth and is, as Ibsen makes entirely clear, in the right, but still behaves in an almost rashly idealistic fashion. He claims his motto is, “Live to the hilt!” (11), but, as his wife Catherine gently scolds him, he has a family and responsibilities and “living to the hilt” may very well –and indeed it does –endanger them. The play also alludes to the vicissitudes in the family fortune, which Stockmann seems to look upon fondly as a sort of adventure but Catherine remembers as less than ideal, imploring her husband, “If you go this way, God help us, we’ll have no money again. Is it so long since the North that you have forgotten what it was like to live like we lived?” (24).  

Peter plays on Stockmann’s character traits (obviously knowing him so well) by claiming that Stockmann is “blindly, spitefully, stubbornly” (33) trying to destroy the town. While he may be hitting some of Stockmann’s characteristics, what makes this different, of course, is that Stockmann is right, is not trying to ruin the town but to save it, and that Peter himself is privy to several negative characteristics. He certainly is more austere and sterner than his brother is, but he is also inordinately conservative and hostile to change. He says without batting an eye that “without moral authority there can be no government” (30) and that as “an official, you keep your convictions to yourself!” (31). He deems Peter a “traitor to society” (33) and promises to secure his downfall. Ibsen depicts him clearly as a man who relishes power and authority, and cannot broker any resistance or threat to institutions.  

Interestingly, Peter’s victory is secured by the majority, not by an entrenched elite. There are two ways to perceive the majority: one, as composed of common people who are wary of the elite making decisions for them and nobly and idealistically clamor for democracy and participation; and two, as an ill-educated and easily-misled mass who blindly follow the currents of the day as established by the elite. In this play, Ibsen utilizes the latter interpretation, depicting the majority of the town as malleable and ignorant.  

These malleable and ignorant men are represented by Aslaksen and Hovstad, who are initially supportive of Stockmann. This is no doubt because supporting Stockmann before Peter intervenes is not difficult; it’s easy to stick to one’s principles when they are not threatened. Aslaksen and Hovstad seem like men of convictions, but in Act II they are revealed as weak and enthralled by the systems of power they claim to want to combat. Aslaksen is slightly less hypocritical, as he from the beginning calls for moderation, but his move to Peter is still a betrayal.  

Finally, Catherine bears some analysis. Her character evolves throughout the short timeframe represented by the play. As evinced by her earlier quote, she offers a counterpart to Stockmann’s rigid adherence to his obligation to the town. She feels that his first obligation is to his family, and that everyone must put up with injustices in their lives and cannot fight every battle. Terrance McConnell writes, “as [she] has already argued, Thomas is not going to prevail against Peter. So, in terms of making a positive impact on the world, Thomas should give up his fight and devote himself to causes that are more feasible. If he agrees to this, that will enable him and [Catherine] to do what is best for their children.” The later acts show how she changes this perspective (see the other analyses).  

Both Catherine and Peter prevail upon Stockmann to understand his role and its obligations. While Catherine wants Stockmann to embody his role and responsibilities as a father, Peter wants Stockmann to embody his role and responsibilities as a citizen. He argues that Stockmann has a duty to the town, and that a tax would ruin it. Of course, Stockmann does believe he is doing his duty by the town in ensuring that its residents as well as tourists do not become sick; he may be stubborn and idealistic, but he wants to help the town. He knows that when summer comes it will only get worse, and it violates his code as a physician to allow such illness to proceed.