An Enemy of the People: Essay Q&A
1. Explain the importance of the Baths and describe how central they are to the action of the play.
The Baths signify the present and future prosperity of the town. Until Thomas recognized the water may be polluted and, in turn, asked for tests to be made, the construction of the Baths has brought an optimism to the town that had previously been lacking.
In the early stages of Act One, it is also pointed out that Thomas had the original idea for the area to be turned into a resort while he was ‘buried’ alive up north. It is telling that he and Peter vie for credit for the idea prior to the exposure of the polluted water.
When the water is found to be polluted, the Baths then come to symbolize how fragile the economy of the town is. In turn, they also represent how fragile the capitalist economy as Peter and his cohort attempt to silence Thomas in fear that word will leak out and money will not be spent there. From this perspective, it is possible to interpret this play as continuing to be of relevance in the early twenty-first century.
2. Explain the use of the phrase ‘an enemy of the people’.
Thomas is designated as the eponymous enemy several times and although it is intended as an insult, it is also seen to be a truth that he comes to relish.
Because he refuses to be silent about the polluted water, and so speaks up when expected to be silent, he becomes an enemy by breaking ranks with those in power. As the play progresses, he also becomes an enemy of the masses, of the people, as he refuses to bow to public opinion. He represents the individual and is necessarily the enemy as he will not subordinate himself to the supposed wishes of the wider society.
3. Analyze how the corruption of power is depicted.
It is through the descriptions of the workings of the council and the press that the abuses of power are made vivid here. Peter, Aslaksen and Hovstad are seen to be primarily concerned with self-interest and self-preservation and when Thomas looks set to threaten these ideals, he is treated as the enemy and their corruption is made apparent.
The play chips away at how those at the top of a particular hierarchy are able to achieve this position through subordination to the chosen group (to others who are also powerful) and by acting in accordance with what is perceived as public opinion. Of the main characters, it is only Thomas that is seen to be influenced by morality and truth, and for this he is condemned to silence and forced out of his job and home.
4. Examine the role of women in this play.
This play is dominated by a nineteenth-century view of the public sphere in the nineteenth century and is perhaps unsurprisingly dominated by male characters. Only Kate and Petra have speaking roles and even then they tend to be limited in terms of supporting Thomas in his quest to be recognized as an individual who is prepared to stand alone against the masses.
It is perhaps only on a closer inspection, though, that one may interpret these two roles as exhibiting at least a partial criticism of the patriarchal society they spring from. Petra, for example, is used as a vehicle for voicing the ideals of an emanicipated woman and although like Kate she ends the play by supporting Thomas, their actions may be interpreted as ironic. This is because despite his claims of being alone, he is clearly drawing on the strength of these two women.
5. Consider the criticisms aimed at democracy and explain their impact on characters, viewers and readers.
Thomas is declared to be ‘an enemy of the people’ because he wants to tell the truth about the polluted water, and then goes on to oppose the authority of the council. Related to this, but on a more abstract level, he is also regarded as an enemy because he refuses to subordinate himself to the group as Peter suggested. Thomas is also characterized as being unafraid of public opinion and this enables him to question the ‘solid majority’ when the ‘solid majority’ is in the wrong.
By standing alone, and doing so for heroic reasons, Thomas is used as a means to challenge the notion that democracy is fair to all. Through his maltreatment by the crowd, and then his landlord and employer (who is also his brother) it is possible to see that the failings of democracy are laid out for the viewers and readers.