Home  »  The World’s Wit and Humor  »  Scene from ‘An Enemy of the People’

The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Henrik Ibsen (1828–1906)

Scene from ‘An Enemy of the People’

DR. STOCKMANN, Medical Officer of the Baths; MRS. STOCKMANN, his Wife; BURGOMASTER STOCKMANN, his Brother; HOVSTAD, Editor of the “People’s Messenger”; BILLING, HOVSTAD’S Assistant; ASLAKSEN, Owner of a Printing-House; Assembly of Townsfolk.

Aslak.Burgomaster Stockmann will address the meeting.

Burg.On account of my close relationship—of which you are probably aware—to the present medical officer of the baths, I should have preferred not to speak here this evening; but my position with regard to the baths, and my care for the most important interests of this town, force me to move a resolution. I may doubtless assume that not a single citizen here present thinks it desirable that untrustworthy and exaggerated statements should get abroad as to the sanitary condition of the baths, and of our town. I therefore beg to move, “That this meeting declines to hear the proposed lecture or speech on the subject by the medical officer of the baths.” But I must preface that in my statement in the People’s Messenger I have made the public acquainted with the essential facts, so that all well-disposed citizens can easily draw their own conclusions. From that statement you will see that the medical officer’s proposal, besides amounting to a vote of censure against the leading men of the town, at bottom only means saddling the ratepayers with an unnecessary expense of at least a hundred thousand crowns.


Aslak.I will now put the burgomaster’s resolution to the vote.

Dr. Stock.It’s not necessary. I sha’n’t say anything this evening of all the filth at the baths. No; you shall hear something quite different! I am about to make great revelations, fellow citizens! I am going to announce to you a far more important discovery than the trifling fact that our water-works are poisoned, and that our health-resort is built on pestilential ground.

Many Voices(shouting).Don’t speak about the baths! We won’t listen to that! No more of that!

Dr. Stock.I have said I would speak of the great discovery I have made within the last few days—the discovery that all our sources of spiritual life are poisoned, and that our whole society rests upon a pestilential basis of falsehood.

Several Voices(in astonishment, and half aloud).What’s he saying?

Burg.Such an insinuation——

Aslak.(with his hand on the bell).I must call upon the speaker to moderate his expressions.

Dr. Stock.I have loved my native town as dearly as man could love the home of his childhood. I was young when I left our town, and distance, homesickness, and memory threw, as it were, a glamor over the place and its people.(Some clapping and shouts of approval.)Then for years I was imprisoned in a horrible hole, far away in the north. As I went about among the people scattered here and there over the stony wilderness, it seemed to me, many a time, that these poor degraded creatures ought to have had a cattle-doctor to attend them, rather than a man like me.(Murmurs in the room.)

Bill.(laying down his pen).Strike me dead if I’ve ever heard——

Hov.What an insult to a worthy peasantry!

Dr. Stock.Wait a moment! I don’t think any one can reproach me with forgetting my native town up there. I sat brooding like an eider-duck, and what I hatched was—the plan of the baths.(Applause and interruptions.)And when, at last, fate ordered things so happily that I could come home again, then, fellow citizens, it seemed to me that I hadn’t another desire in the world. Yes, one desire I had: an eager, constant, burning desire to be of service to my birthplace, and to its people.

Burg.A strange method to select—hm!

Dr. Stock.So I went about reveling in my happy illusions. But yesterday morning—no, it was really two nights ago—my mind’s eyes were opened wide, and the first thing I saw was the extraordinary stupidity of the authorities——(Noise, cries, and laughter. MRS. STOCKMANN coughs emphatically.)

Burg.Mr. Chairman!

Aslak.(ringing his bell).In virtue of my position——

Dr. Stock.It’s petty to catch me up on a word, Mr. Aslaksen. I only meant that I became alive to the extraordinary muddle the leading men had been guilty of down at the baths. I detest leading men; I’ve seen enough of them in my time. They’re like goats in a young plantation: they do harm everywhere; they block the path of a free man wherever he turns, and I should be glad if we could exterminate them like other noxious animals——(Uproar in the room.)

Burg.Mr. Chairman, are such expressions permissible?

Aslak.(with his hand on the bell).Dr. Stockmann——

Dr. Stock.I can’t conceive how it is that I’ve only now seen through these gentry; for haven’t I had a magnificent example before my eyes here every day—my brother Peter—slow of understanding, tenacious in prejudice——(Laughter, noise, and whistling. MRS. STOCKMANN coughs. ASLAKSEN rings violently.)Well, fellow citizens, I’ll say no more about our leading men. If any one imagines, from what I’ve just said, that I want to make short work of these gentlemen to-night, he’s mistaken—altogether mistaken; for I cherish the comforting belief that these laggards, these relics of a decaying order of thought, are diligently cutting their own throats. They need no doctor to hasten their end. And these are not the people that constitute the most serious danger to society; it is not they who are most active in poisoning our spiritual life and making a plague-spot of the ground beneath our feet; it is not they who are the most dangerous enemies of truth and freedom in our society.

Cries from all sides.Who, then? Who is it? Name! Name!

Dr. Stock.Yes, you may be sure I’ll name them; for this is the great discovery I made yesterday!(In a louder tone.)The most dangerous foe to truth and freedom in our midst is the compact majority. Yes, it’s the confounded, compact, liberal majority! There, I’ve told you!(Immense disturbance in the room. Most of the audience are shouting, stamping, and whistling. MRS. STOCKMANN rises nervously. ASLAKSEN rings the bell and calls for order. HOVSTAD and BILLING both speak, but neither can be heard. At last quiet is restored.)

Aslak.I request the speaker to withdraw his ill-considered expressions.

Dr. Stock.Never, Mr. Aslaksen! For it’s this very majority that robs me of my freedom, and wants to forbid me to speak the truth.

Hov.Right is always on the side of the majority.

Bill.Yes, and truth, too, strike me dead!

Dr. Stock.The majority is never right! Never, I say! That’s one of the social lies a free, thinking man is bound to rebel against. Who make up the majority in any given country? Is it the wise men, or the fools? I think we must agree that the fools are in a terrible, overwhelming majority, all the wide world over. But how the deuce can it ever be right for the fools to rule over the wise men?(Noise and shouts.)Yes, yes, you can shout me down, but you cannot gainsay me. The majority has might, unhappily, but right it has not. I and the few, the individuals, are right. The minority is always right!(Renewed disturbance.)

Hov.Ha-ha! So Dr. Stockmann has turned aristocrat since the day before yesterday.

Dr. Stock.I’m going to revolt against the lie that truth resides in the majority! What sort of truths do the majority rally round? Truths that are decrepit with age. When a truth is so old as that it’s in a fair way to become a lie, gentlemen.(Laughter and jeers.)Yes, yes, you may believe me or not, as you please; but truths are by no means the wiry Methuselahs some people think them. A normally constituted truth lives, let me say, as a rule, seventeen or eighteen years; at the outside twenty—seldom longer. And truths so stricken in years are always shockingly thin; yet it’s not till then that the majority takes them up, and recommends them to society as wholesome food. I can assure you there’s not much nutriment in that sort of fare; you may take my word as a doctor for that. All these majority truths are like last year’s salt pork; they’re like rancid, moldy ham, producing all the moral scurvy that devastates society.

Aslak.It seems to me that the honorable speaker is wandering rather far from the subject.

Burg.I beg to indorse the chairman’s remark.

Dr. Stock.Why, you’re surely mad, Peter! I’m keeping as closely to my text as I possibly can, for my text is just this: that the masses, the majority, that confounded compact majority—it’s that, I say, that’s poisoning our spiritual life at its source, and making a plague-spot of the ground beneath our feet!

Hov.And you make this charge against the great, independent majority, just because they’re sensible enough to accept only certain and acknowledged truths?

Dr. Stock.Ah, my dear Mr. Hovstad, don’t talk about certain truths! The truths acknowledged by the masses, the multitude, were certain truths to the vanguard in our grandfathers’ days. We, the vanguard of to-day, don’t acknowledge them any longer; and I don’t believe there’s any other certain truth but this: that no society can live a healthy life upon such old, marrowless truths as these!

Hov.But instead of all this vague talk, suppose you were to give us some specimens of these old marrowless truths that we’re living upon.(Approval from several quarters.)

Dr. Stock.Oh, I can’t go over the whole rubbish-heap; so, for the present, I’ll keep to one acknowledged truth, which is a hideous lie at bottom, but which Mr. Hovstad, and the Messenger, and all adherents of the Messenger, live on nevertheless.

Hov.And that is——

Dr. Stock.That is the doctrine you’ve inherited from our forefathers, and go on heedlessly proclaiming far and wide: the doctrine that the multitude, the vulgar herd, the masses, are the pith of the people; that they are the people; that the common man, the ignorant, undeveloped member of society, has the same right to condemn and to sanction, to counsel and to govern, as the intellectually distinguished few.

Bill.Well, now, strike me dead——

Hov.(shouting at the same time).Citizens, please note that!

Angry Voices.Ho-ho! Aren’t we the people? Is it only the grand folks that are to govern?

A Working Man.Turn out the fellow that talks like that!

Others.Turn him out!

A Citizen(shouting).Now for your horn, Evensen.(The deep notes of a horn are heard; whistling, and terrific noise in the room.)

Dr. Stock.(when the noise has somewhat subsided).Now do be reasonable! Can’t you bear to hear the voice of truth for once? I don’t ask you all to agree with me straight away. But I certainly should have thought that Mr. Hovstad would have backed me up, when he’d collected himself a bit. Mr. Hovstad calls himself a freethinker——

Several Voices(subdued and wondering).Freethinker, did he say? What, Mr. Hovstad a freethinker?

Hov.(shouting).Prove it, Dr. Stockmann! When have I said so in print?

Dr. Stock.(reflecting).No, on my soul you’re right there; you’ve never had the frankness to do that. Well, I won’t get you into a scrape, Mr. Hovstad. Let me be the freethinker, then. And now I’ll make it clear to you all, and on scientific grounds, that the Messenger is leading you shamefully by the nose, when it tells you that you, the masses, the crowd, are the true pith of the people. You see that’s only a newspaper lie. The masses are nothing but the raw material that must be fashioned into the people.(Murmurs, laughter, and disturbance in the room.)Is it not so with all other living creatures? What a difference between a cultivated and an uncultivated breed of animals! Only look at a common barn-door hen. What meat do you get from such a skinny carcass? Not much, I can tell you. And what sort of eggs does she lay? A decent crow or raven can lay nearly as good. Then take a cultivated Spanish or Japanese hen, or take a fine pheasant or turkey—ah, then you’ll see the difference! And now look at the dog, our near relation. Think first of an ordinary vulgar cur—I mean one of those wretched, ragged, low mongrels that haunt the gutters and soil the foot-walks. Then place such a mongrel by the side of a poodle-dog, descended through many generations from an aristocratic strain, who has lived on delicate food, and has heard harmonious voices and music. Do you think the brain of the poodle hasn’t developed quite differently from that of the mongrel? Yes, you may be sure it has. It’s well-bred poodle-pups like this that jugglers train to perform the most extraordinary tricks. A common peasant cur could never learn anything of the sort—not if he tried till doomsday.(Noise and laughter are heard all round.)

A Citizen(shouting).Do you want to make dogs of us now?

Another Man.We’re not animals, doctor.

Dr. Stock.Yes, on my soul, but we are animals, my good sir! We’re one and all of us animals, whether we like it or not. But truly there aren’t many aristocratic animals among us. Ah, there’s a terrible difference between men-poodles and men-mongrels! And the ridiculous part of it is, that Mr. Hovstad quite agrees with me so long as it’s four-legged animals we’re talking of——

Hov.Oh, let them alone!

Dr. Stock.All right; but so soon as I apply the law to two-legged animals, Mr. Hovstad stops short; then he daren’t hold his own opinions or think out his own thoughts; then he turns all his knowledge topsy-turvy, and proclaims in the People’s Messenger that barn-door hens and gutter mongrels are precisely the finest specimens in the menagerie. But that’s always the way, so long as you haven’t worked the commonness out of your system, and fought your way up to spiritual distinction.

Hov.I make no pretensions to any sort of distinction. I come of simple peasant stock, and I’m proud that my root lies deep down among the common people, who are now being jeered at.

Several Workmen.Hurrah for Hovstad! Hurrah! Hurrah!

Dr. Stock.The sort of common people I’m speaking of are not found among the lower classes alone; they crawl and swarm all around us—up to the very summits of society. Just look at your own smug, respectable burgomaster! Why, my brother Peter belongs as clearly to the common people as any man that walks on two legs——(Laughter and hisses.)

Burg.I protest against such personalities.

Dr. Stock.——and that not because, like myself, he’s descended from a good-for-nothing old pirate from Pomerania, or thereabout—for that’s our ancestry——

Burg.An absurd tradition! Utterly groundless!

Dr. Stock.——but he is so because he thinks the thoughts and holds the opinions of his official superiors. Men who do that belong, intellectually speaking, to the mob; and that’s why my distinguished brother Peter is at bottom so undistinguished—and consequently so illiberal.

Burg.Mr. Chairman——

Hov.So the distinguished people in this country are the liberals? That’s quite a new light on the subject.(Laughter.)

Dr. Stock.Yes, that’s part of my new discovery. And this, too, follows, that liberality of thought is almost precisely the same thing as morality. Therefore I say it’s altogether unpardonable of the Messenger to proclaim day after day the false doctrine that it’s the masses, the multitude, the compact majority, that monopolize liberality and morality; and that vice and corruption and all sorts of spiritual uncleanness ooze out of culture, as all that filth oozes down to the baths from the Mill Dale tan-works!(Noise and interruptions. DR. STOCKMANN goes on imperturbably, smiling in his eagerness.)And yet this same Messenger can preach about raising the masses and the multitude to a higher level of life! Why, deuce take it, if the Messenger’s own doctrine holds good, the elevation of the masses would simply mean hurling them into destruction. But, happily, it’s only an old traditional lie that culture demoralizes. No, it’s stupidity, poverty, the ugliness of life, that do the devil’s work! In a house that isn’t aired and swept every day—my wife Katrine maintains that the floors ought to be scrubbed too, but we can’t discuss that now—well, in such a house, I say, within two or three years people lose the power of thinking or acting morally. Lack of oxygen enervates the conscience. And there seems to be precious little oxygen in many and many a house in this town, since the whole compact majority is unscrupulous enough to want to found its future upon a quagmire of lies and fraud.

Aslak.I cannot allow so gross an insult to be leveled against the whole body of citizens.

A Gentleman.I move that the chairman order the speaker to sit down.

Eager Voices.Yes, yes, that’s right! Sit down! Sit down!

Dr. Stock.Then I’ll proclaim the truth at every street corner! I’ll write to newspapers in other towns! The whole land shall know how things go on here!

Hov.It would almost seem as if the doctor wanted to ruin the town.

Dr. Stock.Yes, I love my native town so well, I would rather ruin it than see it flourishing upon a lie.

Aslak.That’s putting it strongly.(Noise and whistling. MRS. STOCKMANN coughs in vain; the DOCTOR does not heed her.)

Hov.(shouting amid the tumult).The man who would ruin a whole community must be an enemy to his fellow citizens!

Dr. Stock.(with growing excitement).What does it matter if a lying community is ruined? It should be leveled to the ground, I say! All men who live upon lies should be exterminated like vermin! You’ll poison the whole country in time; you’ll bring it to such a pass that the whole country will deserve to perish. And if it ever comes to that, I shall say, from the bottom of my heart: Perish the country! Perish all its people!

A Man(in the crowd).Why, he talks like a regular enemy of the people!

Bill.Strike me dead, but there spoke the people’s voice!

The Whole Assembly(shouting).Yes! Yes! Yes! He’s an enemy of the people! He hates his country! He hates the people!

Aslak.Both as a citizen of this town and as a man, I am deeply shocked at what I have here had to listen to. Dr. Stockmann has unmasked himself in a manner I should never have dreamed of. I am reluctantly forced to subscribe to the opinion just expressed by some worthy citizens, and I think we ought to formulate this opinion in a resolution. I therefore beg to move, “That this meeting declares the medical officer of the baths, Dr. Thomas Stockmann, to be an enemy of the people.”(Thunders of applause and cheers. Many form a circle round the DOCTOR and hoot at him.)

Dr. Stock.(to the people hooting).Ah, fools that you are! I tell you that——

Aslak.(ringing).The doctor is out of order in speaking. A formal vote must be taken; but out of consideration for personal feelings, it will be taken in writing and without names. Have you any blank paper, Mr. Billing?

Bill.Here’s both blue and white paper——

Aslak.That’ll do; we can manage more quickly this way. Tear it up. That’s it.(To the meeting.)Blue means no, white means yes. I myself will go round and collect the votes.(The BURGOMASTER leaves the room. ASLAKSEN and a few others go round with pieces of paper in hats.)


Aslak.With the exception of one intoxicated person, this meeting of citizens declares the medical officer of the baths, Dr. Thomas Stockmann, to be an enemy of the people.(Cheers and applause.)Three cheers for our fine old municipality!(Cheers.)Three cheers for our able and energetic burgomaster, who has so loyally put aside the claims of kindred!(Cheers.)The meeting is dissolved.