Study Guide

An Enemy of the People Themes

By Henrik Ibsen

  • Society and Class

    An Enemy of the People presents a complex analysis of society and class. The play doesn't seem to champion one class over another. It doesn't present the woes of the upper class as they try to rule the land, nor does it show middle-class malaise, or even the struggles of the hardworking poor. Instead, the play takes all levels of society to task. In the end, it's not economic inequality that is highlighted in the play, it's intellectual inequality. The play proposes that the main problem with society is that it's run by the majority, a group made up of unintelligent people.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. How does Hovstad's standing in society shape his political beliefs?
    2. Does Doctor Stockmann exhibit any signs of class bias? If so, what are they?
    3. By the end of the play, what does the Doctor decide will cure society's corruption? How does he plan to achieve this ideal?
    4. How do issues of class affect each character's actions in the play?

    Chew on This

    Hovstad is more concerned with personal power than truly helping the lower class.

    In this play, the lower and middle classes are manipulated in order to secure the power of the upper class.

  • Principles

    An Enemy of the People tells the story of one man's quest to stick to his principles no matter what the cost. The protagonist, Dr. Stockmann, sacrifices everything for his beliefs. The Doctor's fierce dedication stands out in sharp contrast to many of the play's secondary characters, who seem to compromise their supposed beliefs without a second thought. In the end, the play reveals itself as a sharp examination of the terrible price that society often demands of an individuals who stay true to their principles.

    Questions About Principles

    1. What do you think are Dr. Stockmann's most valued principles? Explain why you think so.
    2. What new principle does the Doctor profess to believe at the end of the play?
    3. What principles do you think the Mayor lives by?
    4. Is Aslaksen's principle of moderation wise or cowardly? Why do you think so?

    Chew on This

    The Doctor is one of the few characters in the play that stays committed to his principles.

    Dr. Stockmann's ideals are flawed, naïve, and destructive.

  • Wealth

    Money and the pursuit of wealth is a major theme in An Enemy of the People. Ibsen's play highlights the incredible power that monetary concerns have in society. All of the characters in the play are controlled or influenced by wealth or the lack of it. Some compromise their beliefs out of need of for money, others use it as a weapon, while one man forsakes it altogether in the name of his principles. As in many of Ibsen's other plays, the power of money is felt in every corner of An Enemy of the People.

    Questions About Wealth

    1. Should the Doctor be more sympathetic to his brother for giving him the well-paying job at the Baths? Why or why not?
    2. In terms of wealth, what makes Hovstad's position in the city unique?
    3. Explain why and how money is an incentive to keep the Doctor's article from being published.

    Chew on This

    The Mayor is forsaking moral obligations in order for the town to grow richer.

    The actions of the Mayor are justified because he is only fulfilling his duty to make his town prosperous.

  • Rules and Order

    The established rules and order of society are a constant topic of conversation in the play. Some characters thrive on the current system and fight to maintain it. Others deeply desire its destruction, but are too caught up in the system to fight it. And then there's our protagonist, Dr. Stockmann, who makes it his quest to rewrite all the rules from the ground up. An Enemy of the People is a thorough examination of the rules that society is built around and a blueprint for the construction of a new order altogether.

    Questions About Rules and Order

    1. Does the Doctor seem to be an agent of chaos or order? Why?
    2. The golden rule is "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Do any of the characters follow this rule? If so, which? If not, explain why.
    3. Do you believe the Mayor makes decisions based on ideals of order or self-interest?
    4. Does the Doctor's wife seem to agree with her husband's call for progressive reform? Why might she be reluctant?

    Chew on This

    The Doctor's challenge to his town's status quo causes disorder in a society that has become settled in corrupt ways.

    The Doctor's attempts to break the accepted order of his town were ineffective because of their aggressive and threatening delivery.

  • Politics

    The conflict of An Enemy of the People is a tense political battle. The tug and pull of political turf wars help drive the action of the play. Though all the politics we see represented in the play exist strictly on a local level, national issues are addressed as well. Also, the patterns of local politics often echo the larger patterns that exist of the national level. An Enemy of the People is an unblinking portrayal of the cutthroat world of political maneuverings.

    Questions About Politics

    1. Describe the interplay between conservative and progressive ideas in this play. Does it relate to today's political climate? If so, how? If not, why not?
    2. Do political pressures seem to influence what the media (the newspaper) decides to report? If so, why is this important? If not, what is influencing what is reported?
    3. Is the Doctor's decision to stand up to the political world of his town selfish or selfless?
    4. What might Ibsen be saying about democracy in the scene where the Doctor is voted an "enemy of the people"?

    Chew on This

    The play displays politics as something both corrupt and petty.

    Politics, though flawed, are a powerful force whose favor one's success often depends upon.

  • Pride

    Many of the play's characters seem to be guilty of pride. They tend think very highly of themselves and are concerned about maintaining face in public. Often in literature, pride is shown as a destructive force. This is certainly true to a certain extent in An Enemy of the People; it causes no end of trouble. In the end, however, we see how one person's pride and resolute self-confidence could just be the saving grace of all of society.

    Questions About Pride

    1. Does the doctor's pride in his own morality make him a sympathetic character? Why or why not?
    2. What aspects of his life does the Mayor take pride in? What do these things tell you about his character?
    3. How do position in society and pride intertwine throughout the play? Give specific examples.

    Chew on This

    The Doctor's pride in standing up for what is right allows the play to end with hope.

    Pride makes each character act brashly and inconsiderately, causing only chaos.

  • Hypocrisy

    Hypocrisy runs rampant throughout An Enemy of the People. We see characters compromise themselves for a host of reasons. Power, money, and public image all play a part. Dr. Stockmann, the play's protagonist, refuses to compromise his beliefs no matter what. His dedication to his personal principles stands in sharp contrast to many of the other characters. It's important to note that the play goes beyond any simple definition of hypocrisy, however. Many of the characters have sound reasons for compromising themselves. When reading the play, we often find ourselves wondering what constitutes hypocrisy is in the first place. Where does it begin and end?

    Questions About Hypocrisy

    1. Do Hovstad's political beliefs and actions towards the Doctor contradict each other?
    2. Does the Mayor's downplaying of the Baths' danger pit his pride against the duties of his job? Why or why not?
    3. Are the reasons Aslaksen withdraws his support from the Doctor's cause hypocritical?

    Chew on This

    The Doctor and his immediate family are the only characters whose beliefs and ideals are not compromised during the play.

    While worrying about the consequences of lies for the town, the Doctor forgets the harm his outspokenly progressive politics are causing for his family.

  • Power

    An Enemy of the People is one long power struggle. Whether it's the intense sibling rivalry at the core of the play, or the petty maneuverings of the play's secondary characters, everybody is constantly battling for turf. Many of the characters spend their time in efforts to gain control over other people. Interestingly, by the end the play's protagonist, Dr. Stockmann, comes to the conclusion that a person has the most strength when his power is contained wholly within himself. He declares, "the strongest man in the world is the man who stands alone" (5.310).

    Questions About Power

    1. Did Hovstad make a reasonable decision in not publishing the Doctor's article? Why or why not?
    2. Does the Mayor abuses his power in shaming his brother? Explain your position.
    3. What comment about majority rule could Ibsen be making by mentioning the lone drunk man as the only person who did not vote the Doctor as an "enemy of the people"?

    Chew on This

    Those in power control public opinion.

    The Doctor's actions show the power of one man in a corrupt society.