An Enemy of the People by Arthur Miller: Summary, Characters, Theme & Analysis

Instructor: Jennifer Mallett Smith

Jennifer has taught high school English for eight years and has a master's degree in curriculum and assessment.

In this lesson you will learn about Dr. Stockmann and Peter Stockmann, and their story in ''An Enemy of the People'', a Henrik Ibsen play rewritten by Arthur Miller. You will also learn about two themes, or underlying messages, from this play.

Truth and Morality in An Enemy of the People

Would you still tell the truth if the information put your family in danger? What if the information could affect the safety of your neighbors and friends, too? It is impossible to say what the 'right' thing to do in that situation would be, but the reader is able to explore this in An Enemy of the People. In the play, the audience follows Dr. Stockmann, a man who finds that the water supply of the town is contaminated. Through his efforts to share this information, his family, his reputation, and his safety are put in jeopardy.

Should one always tell the truth, or is it sometimes okay to allow lies?
Tell the Truth or Allow Lies?

Arthur Miller and Play History

Arthur Miller was born on October 17, 1915 in Harlem, New York. During his lifetime, he was responsible for writing several plays. Among those are two well-known plays, The Crucible, and Death of a Salesman. Many of his plays had themes, or underlying messages, that commented on the government or politics of the time.

An Enemy of the People was first written by Henrik Ibsen in the nineteenth century. It was set in a Norwegian village. Miller requested the rights to write an adaptation of the play in 1950. He kept much of the original text and translated it to the English language. What is remarkable is that the theme is universal in that it applies to several different countries during various periods of time. We will explore these themes later in this lesson.

Arthur Miller
Arthur Miller

Characters

Dr. Stockmann is the protagonist, or main character, of the play. He is motivated by the truth, and wishes to provide it to his fellow townspeople, regardless of the cost. He could represent science, or any other profession that has found an issue with products or places that the government has deemed safe for its people.

Peter Stockmann is Dr. Stockmann's brother and the mayor of the town and is motivated by money and control. He seems to represent the government and the lengths it will go to to keep the people ignorant of wrongdoings. He would be the antagonist, or the opposing force to the protagonist.

Hovstad and Billing are two contributors to the local paper, The People's Daily Messenger. They seem to be motivated by controversy. When they agree to publish the doctor's findings, Hovstad says that it is only the beginning, implying that they want to publish several articles that would bring down the government.

Aslaksen is the publisher of The People's Daily Messenger. He is motivated by money and acts in a way that will most likely sell the most papers and keep the peace with the townspeople.

Plot Summary

The play begins at Dr. Stockmann's home. The audience learns that Dr. Stockmann has written an article about Kirsten Springs, the town's water source, though the contents of the article are not provided to us. Dr. Stockmann reads a letter that confirms Kirsten Springs is contaminated. He suspected this after having several patients fall ill last year, and so he had sent the water to be tested. He shares this information with Havstad and Billing.

The following morning, Dr. Stockmann and Peter have an argument about the information. Peter Stockmann states that it will be too costly for the town to remedy the situation and that he is not convinced that the threat is as dangerous as Dr. Stockmann has made it sound. He warns him not to share the information.

Dr. Stockmann brings the information to the local paper, The People's Daily Messenger, despite the warnings of his brother. Hovstad and Billing are excited about the information that exposes the mismanagement of the springs by the government. Peter Stockmann arrives and tells them that the springs will take two years to repair, and the cost will be paid by the townspeople through taxes. He warns that the paper will not make as much money if this were to happen. Aslaksen states that he will not print the information because the town will not support it.

Dr. Stockmann holds a small town meeting. Before he can speak, Peter Stockmann warns the town that the doctor is trying to destroy the springs only because it will harm the goverment officials. There is an uproar, and the townspeople yell to have him run out of town. They refuse to hear his side of things.

After the town meeting, the Stockmanns receive an eviction letter, the doctor is fired, and their home is missing windows where the people have thrown rocks at them. When Dr. Stockmann insists to his brother that something must be done about the water, the mayor threatens prosecution if he goes through with it. The play ends with Dr. Stockmann stating that he plans to stay and fight.

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