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Personal Versus Social/Political in Enemy of the People

An analysis of the tension between the social and personal in Ibsen's 'Enemy of the People.'

There are two ostensibly conflicting values in Ibsen?s play, An Enemy of the People. Personal ideals are expedient for the benefit of an individual, whereas social/political ideals promote the agency of the whole community. Ibsen constructs a border between personal and social/political, to create tension and conflict within the drama. This essay will highlight instances of tension wrought from the interplay between personal and social/political and discuss the border that CONSTRUCTS these two values as oppositional forces.

Western ideology has long championed social/political ethics as universally preferable to codes that favour the rights of the individual. Instilling ideals that promote the sublimation of individual needs and desires helps to maintain the dominance of hegemonic groups. If individuals feel that abstaining from desires, for the benefit of others, is a virtuous act, then their conscience will police the enforcement of social/political codes. By accepting this subaltern position, as being ethically sound, they are saving economically, racially and gender based hegemonic groups from the use of blatant violence, for maintaining social dominance.

Western ethics are steeped in the theories of Greek philosophers and Aristotle?s Ethics, claims that an ?honest man,? when offered food, will take only what he needs to sustain him, no more or no less. Aristotle touts his ?golden mean? as a universal truth for gauging an honest or good person. Plato extols the virtues of social/political ethics in his book Republic, which prompted major works that have influenced contemporary states, communities, cultures and other social orders.[1] Cicero's De Republica, St. Augustine?s City of God and Sir Thomas More?s Utopia are paraphrasing and footnotes to Plato?s text and all promote denial of the self for the betterment of a higher ideal viz. God or governing bodies.

Supported by centuries of the inculcation of such social/political ethics, Peter Stockmann upbraids his brother for following ethics based on individual convictions.

[q] ?Peter Stockmann. You have an ingrained tendency to take your own way at all events; ...in a well ordered community, the individual ought undoubtedly to
acquiesce in subordinating himself to the community...to the authorities who have the care of the community's welfare.? ACT I pp 9 [/q]

The Mayor makes it obvious that he will not tolerate ethical codes that undermine the power of the hegemony, of which he is the leader, when he tells the doctor: ?...in a well ordered community, The individual ought undoubtedly to
acquiesce in subordinating himself to the community...?
He implies that a ?well ordered community? cannot exist unless ?the individual? (he refers to his brother, Dr Stockmann) is prepared to be subservient to the ?authority? of the governing body. Another connotation of the Mayor?s dialogue is that individual rights, as opposed to those of the governing body, do not have ?the care of the community's welfare? as first priority.

It is here that Ibsen, through the character of Peter Stockmann, constructs a border between the personal and social/political, to introduce conflict between the mayor and his brother. The playwright induces us to believe the ethical codes of the two brothers are universally incompatible and therefore, Dr Stockmann?s desire to publish the truth about the baths, will run in opposition to the Mayor?s wishes; thus creating a perceived borderland of conflict.

The feminist literary theorist, Gloria Anzaldua, writes about the construction of borderlands between different social, cultural, gender, racial and economic groups.

[q] ?Borders are set up to define the places that are safe and unsafe, to distinguish us from them??
Gloria Anzaldua, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza,
San Francisco: AuntLute Press, 1987. (Preface)[/q]

As Anzaldua?s quote suggests, the Mayor is constructing ?borders?, to delineate battle lines between he and his brother. It is important to realize that these are constructed borders that leave Dr Stockmann in the position of having to choose one side; political or personal. He is creating a borderland for Dr Stockmann because the doctor exists as a member of the community but he is also willing to back his personal ideals.

The interplay between the social and the personal causes tension between Thomas and Peter Stockmann and provides much of the interest in the play. The Mayor tells his brother to act in a more socially based manner, but this is why Dr Stockmann is concerned about the pollution from the baths. Dr Stockmann does not understand how the public will react to his findings. Despite his naivety and obsession with his personal ethics, the Doctor is acting as he does because of his concern for the public; he does not want them to be harmed by the pollutants in the baths. Truth is important to the Doctor because delivering an untruth will harm the public more than the loss of tourist money while the baths are under repair. Dr Stockmann is therefore acting in a manner that supports his personal beliefs while benefiting the health of the public. Dr Stockmann?s ethics exist in an overlap between personal and social/political; the ?borderlands.?

Ibsen, through Dr Stockmann?s position on the hiatus at the baths, demonstrates the false position of the Mayor and his reasons for censuring his brother?s report.
[q]?Dr. Stockmann...It was owing to your action that both the
Baths and the water conduits were built where they are; and that
is what you won't acknowledge--that damnable blunder of yours...

Peter Stockmann. ...If I perhaps guard
my reputation somewhat anxiously, it is in the interests of the
town. Without moral authority I am powerless to direct public
affairs as seems, to my judgment, to be best for the common good....? ACT II pp33[/q]
In The above quote, dr Stockmann brings his tension to a head by accusing his brother of trying to cover up his role in the ?damnable blunder? of the ?baths and water conduits.? The implication is that the Mayor?s social/political ethics are to avoid blame for the baths problem. To ?...guard my reputation? can be interpreted as an admission to deceiving the public, to keep his high social/political position and Mayoral ?moral authority.?

[q]?...being different, being other and therefore lesser, therefore sub-human, inhuman, non-human.?
Borderlands/La Frontera...Gloria Anzaldua pp 890
(Rivkin & Ryan) [/q]

The Mayor reinforces the notion that his political ?judgment,? as opposed to the doctor's personal ideals, are for the ?common good.? The objective is to suggest only one set of ideas viz. social/political, can be for the good of the people. The construction of this border between personal and social/political, as suggested by Anzaldua, is to create ?us and them,? which is tantamount to identifying the ?other.? Identifying Dr Stockmann?s ideals as ?other,? is to correlate them to ?lesser,? and therefore Peter Stockmann is constructing a superior position for his perceived social/political ideals. The border between the motives of the brothers implies that if the Mayor?s concerns are for ?the interests of the town,? then the perceived other, dr Stockmann, may be understood as ?an enemy of the people.?

In ACT II, Ibsen brings the tension, through the interplay between personal and social/political,into the drama.

[q]?Dr. Stockmann. ...I intend to be free to
Express my opinion on any subject under the sun.

Peter Stockmann. As you please--but not on any subject concerning
the Baths. That we forbid.

Dr, Stockmann (shouting). You forbid--! You! A pack of--

Peter Stockmann. I forbid it--I, your chief; and if I forbid
it, you have to obey.?ACT II pp 37[/q]

The above quote shows the tension between Dr Stockmann and his brother, manifest in the anally retentive demands of the mayor. The use of the word ?forbid? implies that the Mayor has the authority to veto any expression by the doctor that he has not sanctioned. Declaring himself as ?your chief? also constructs a false position of superiority for the Mayor and ?have to obey? infers that the doctor?s position is untenable and obeying his brother?s decree is the universally correct way to act. This interplay again creates more tension because Dr Stockmann refuses to kowtow to the politically based wishes of his brother. The tension affects the doctor when he is shouting at the Mayor in rage: ?You forbid--! You! A pack of?.? In context, this is a dramatic outburst by Dr Stockmann because prior to this scene, Ibsen has portrayed the doctor as a man of moderate disposition. It is the doctor?s belief in personal rights or free-thinking, as opposed to his brother?s dissembling, that causes the doctor to appeal to the masses and for his brother to plan a way of thwarting or censoring any attempt to reveal the condition of the baths.

The personal and the social/political is also the cause for another source of tension within the play. Hovstad is introduced early inn the play as a free-thinking character who expresses an ethical code which initially, appears compliant with that of Dr Stockmann.

[q]?Hovstad?s ...and try if I cannot manage to put a little virility into these well-
intentioned people for once. The idol of Authority must be
shattered in this town. This gross and inexcusable blunder about
the water supply must be brought home to the mind of every
municipal voter.? ACT II pp 29[/q]

Hovstad?s reference to the ?idol of authority? is directed at the social/political interests in ?town? viz. the Mayor and his political crones. Hovstad infers that his priorities favour the ?municipal voter,? which means the people or the ?common good.? In this scene he is clearly siding with the doctor?s idea of publishing the ?gross and inexcusable blunder about the water supply.?

Ibsen, again uses the tension created by the interplay between personal and social/political, to expose the inconsistency of a character. The fickleness of Hovstad?s ethics is exposed when he discusses the merits of a political philosophy propounded in Petra?s book.

[q]?Petra. And would you supply the public with such stuff? Why, you don't believe one word of it yourself. You know well enough that things don't really happen like that.
Hovstad. You're right there; but an editor can't always do as he likes. He often has to yield to public opinion in small matters. After all, politics is the chief thing in life...? ACT III pp 48[/q]

Hovstad?s reversal can only be attributed to the interplay between personal and social/political when he and Aslaksen and the newspaper are faced with pecuniary embarrassment if the baths are to be closed. He is told by the Mayor that if he publishes the doctor?s article the baths will be closed for repairs which will cripple the finances of the town and if they are seen to defend the story, they may lose financial backing for the People?s Messenger. Hovstad does not have the dedication for the truth as does Dr Stockmann, therefore he abandons his personal beliefs for those that coincide with the town?s social hegemony viz.the Mayor and officials. Aslaksen sums up the newspaper?s alliance with social/political motives rather than their personal beliefs.

[q]?Aslaksen. ..., My heart is still with the people; but I don't
deny that my reason has a certain bias towards the authorities...?
ACT III pp 46[/q]

Aslaksen?s sentiments reflect the majority of the town and its officials. Everybody claims to have their ?heart,? or personal ethics, ?with the people? but ?reason seems to have a ?bias towards the authorities.?
Ibsen does not resolve the tension between personal and social/political and there is no clear indication as to who comes out ahead at the end of the play. An Enemy of the People is an exposition rather than a conveyance for promoting ideological codes and although Ibsen obviously favours the doctor?s ethical stand in the text, he is not rewarded with any personal or social victory. The reader is left undecided and caught up in the tension created by the interplay between personal and social/political.

[!1] From introduction to Republic by Plato 360BC
Translated by Benjamin Jowett
Kurtzweiler Classic Literature 1999

Gloria Anzaldua, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, San Francisco: AuntLute Press, 1987.

Translators: Emily Kent, Lola Sachs and Pearl Waskow
Originally Published: St Petersburg, 1908
Source: Ibsen ed. Angel Flores, Critics Group, New York, 1937
Transcribed: Sally Ryan
for marxists.org, October 2000.

Plato...?The Republic? 360 BC
Kurtzwheiler Classic Literature 1999
Translated by Benjamin Jowett

Invitation to the Theatre?
by George and Portia Kernodle ?1991

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