In the editor's room of the "People's Messenger," Hovstad and his assistant, Billing, are discussing Dr. Stockmann's article. They feel that now the Burgomaster is in trouble and they will use this trouble to hound him out of office. They hope to replace him with men of more "liberal ideas."
Dr. Stockmann arrives and tells the men to go ahead with the publication of his article. They call Aslaksen who wants to know if the article will offend people. He is assured that all intelligent and prudent men will support the article. Dr. Stockmann believes that his article will send all the old bunglers packing, and the town will have a new regime. Aslaksen insists that they proceed with moderation. He explains that he has learned caution when attacking local authorities. If it is a subject of attacking the national government, he is not timid, but with local authorities, one must proceed with caution. Billing maintains that Dr. Stockmann will be declared "a Friend of the People."
After Dr. Stockmann and Aslaksen leave, Hovstad wishes that they could get some financial backing from someone else so that they wouldn't have to rely on Aslaksen. They think about old Morton Kiil who is bound to have some money and the money will go to Dr. Stockmann's family. At this time, Petra comes in to explain that she refuses to translate a certain English novel because it does not conform with Hovstad's liberal ideas. The novel is unrealistic and false to life. Hovstad explains that the paper must print something to attract the attention of the reader so as to trap him into reading the more important liberal ideas. Petra feels this is not honorable and is somewhat disgusted. In further discussions, Petra sees that Hovstad is "not the man" he pretended to be, and she tells him that she will never trust him again.
As Petra leaves, Aslaksen comes in to tell Hovstad that the Burgomaster is in the printing office. After some small talk, the Burgomaster sees Dr. Stockmann's article. He wants to know if the paper is going to print and support Dr. Stockmann's position. He inquires about the compact majority and pretends to be surprised that so many of the "poorer class appear to be so heroically eager to make sacrifices." Aslaksen and Hovstad are confused. The Burgomaster explains that it will require this huge sum of money, which will have to come from the town, and the project will take two years to complete. In the meantime, other towns will take over the business and when the news reaches other places, no one will ever come to their town. Hovstad and Aslaksen now see that Dr. Stockmann was not informed of all the facts. The Burgomaster explains that he is not convinced that there is anything wrong with the water supply. He has brought with him a short statement of what should be done about the baths and wonders if the paper will care to print it.
Just as Hovstad is accepting the paper, they see Dr. Stockmann approaching. The Burgomaster hides in the next room. Dr. Stockmann asks if the first proofs on his article are ready. He is told it will be quite some time. He warns his friends not to get up any type of testimonial for him because it would be too embarrassing. Mrs. Stockmann comes in and warns her husband of the trouble he is getting the entire family into. At this time, Dr. Stockmann notices the Burgomaster's hat and cane. He routs his brother out of hiding and tells him that the power has now changed hands. But Aslaksen and Hovstad take the Burgomaster's side. Both explain that Dr. Stockmann's plan will ruin the town. Dr. Stockmann refuses to budge from his position. He maintains that the truth cannot be killed by a "conspiracy of silence." He promises that his report will be made public in spite of all threats. As the men turn against Dr. Stockmann, his wife comes to his side and promises to stand by him always. He is told he can have no hall to speak in and no society will listen to him. He threatens to stand on the street corner and read his paper to the people.
Act III is the changing point in the drama. Here we see the various motives of the characters examined under pressures and thus we find out who are the real men of principles. At the first of the act when Aslaksen and Hovstad think that the doctor's discovery will be popular and beneficial and when they think it will provide an opportunity to get rid of the old authorities, they are supporting him. Later when they realize that it will be harmful to the town and therefore unpopular, they turn against the doctor. Aslaksen is a man who does not wish to offend anyone and who wants to proceed with moderation. But more important, when his principles are confronted with the possibility that he will lose financially, the principles are no longer important.
With Hovstad, we see in his discussion with Petra, that he is not a man of true principles. He publishes not what he believes in but what he thinks will increase circulation. Thus his allegiance to Dr. Stockmann stems not from a belief in the truth of Dr. Stockmann's ideas, but from the hope that his cause will be a popular one and thus increase circulation.
With the appearance of the Burgomaster, the theme of personal integrity and social obligation becomes dominant. The Burgomaster is attempting to save the town, but in doing so, he is also trying to preserve his image as the town's foremost citizen. If the report is made public, it will destroy both the town and the Burgomaster's reputation because he was responsible for the construction of the water pipes which cause all the trouble. Thus for the benefit of the town and his own personal integrity, he refuses to believe the truth of Dr. Stockmann's report and hints that the doctor has always been impetuous and wild in his ideas. Dr. Stockmann is now seen as the impractical idealist. In striving to achieve the ideal or the perfectly moral solution, he ignores all practical advice and opposes everyone who would stand in his way. In other words, he is ready to carry his idealism to absurd degrees.
Mrs. Stockmann is somewhat comic in these scenes. She is opposed to her husband's plans until the people turn against him. Then she is ready to stand by him simply because he is her husband. She doesn't understand what is at stake here, but is nevertheless convinced that her husband is right even though a few moments earlier she was trying to get him to change.