Summary and Analysis
Dr. Stockmann has his manuscript returned to him with a note from the Burgomaster that they should meet at noontime. Mrs. Stockmann suggests that perhaps he should share the honor with his brother. Dr. Stockmann is willing to share the honor if he can get the thing straightened out.
Old Morton Kiil, the man who adopted and raised Mrs. Stockmann, drops by to inquire if the news is correct. He thinks it is a good trick to play on the Burgomaster. Dr. Stockmann doesn't understand.
Morton Kiil asks if these poisonous animals are invisible and then says that the Burgomaster will never fall for such a story as that. But he is angry with the Burgomaster and the town council and hopes that his son-in-law will make them all "eat humble pie." When Hovstad drops by, Morton Kiil wonders if Hovstad is also involved. Now he is convinced that Stockmann and Hovstad are in some conspiracy to make the Burgomaster look foolish.
When old Morton Kiil leaves, Dr. Stockmann is astounded at the possibility that people won't believe him. Hovstad points out that a good many other things are involved aside from the medical aspect. He suggests that the poison comes not just from the tanning mills, but also from the poisonous life that the entire community is living. The "town has gradually drifted into the hands of a pack of bureaucrats," and that is why the pipes were laid in the wrong place to begin with. The leaders of the town show no foresight and no ability. He wants to take up the matter in the paper and use the case of the baths to clear the town council of all the "obstinate old blockheads" who are holding progress back. This is their chance to "emancipate the downtrodden masses."
Aslaksen, the printer, appears and offers his support to Dr. Stockmann. He is the head of the "compact majority in the town" and is sure the compact majority will stand behind Dr. Stockmann. He is thinking of some type of demonstration if one could be held with moderation. Dr. Stockmann explains that he needs no support because the issues are so clear and self-evident. But Aslaksen reminds him that the authorities always move slowly.
After Aslaksen leaves, Hovstad insists that "this gross, inexcusable blunder of the water-works must be brought home clearly to every voter." Dr. Stockmann asks him to wait until he can consult with his brother. After Hovstad leaves, Dr. Stockmann tells his family how good it feels to be able to do something good for his town.
The Burgomaster comes in to discuss the baths with Dr. Stockmann. He asks Dr. Stockmann if he checked to see how much new pipes would cost and how long it would take. They would cost around sixty thousand dollars and would take two years to relay. In the meantime, the baths would have to be closed down and after word got around that they were poisonous, no one would ever come to them anymore and the town would be literally bankrupt. He tells Dr. Stockmann that his report will literally ruin the town and that Dr. Stockmann will be responsible for the total destruction of his own town. Dr. Stockmann is shocked, but says that the baths are still contaminated and something must be done. The Burgomaster, however, is not convinced that the condition is as serious as Dr. Stockmann says it is. He accuses his brother of exaggerating greatly, and suggests that a competent physician should be able to do something to rectify the situation. But Dr. Stockmann asserts that anything short of relaying the pipes would be dishonest: It would be "a fraud, a lie, an absolute crime against the public, against society as a whole." He believes it is just stubbornness and fear of blame that keeps the Burgomaster from recognizing the disastrous state of the baths. Dr. Stockmann reminds the Burgomaster that the plan of the baths was "bungled" by the authorities, and now these same people cannot admit they were wrong. The Burgomaster reminds Dr. Stockmann that as an individual he has no right to an individual opinion and must always rely on the authorities. He therefore forbids Dr. Stockmann to turn in his report or to meddle any further in the affairs of the baths. Furthermore, he demands that Dr. Stockmann obey him. But the doctor says he will take his case to the papers and will write against the Burgomaster: He will prove that the "source is poisoned" and that the people "live by trafficking in filth and corruption. The whole of our flourishing social life is rooted in a lie."
The Burgomaster warns Dr. Stockmann that such "offensive insinuations against his native place" will brand him as an enemy of society. After the Burgomaster leaves, Dr. Stockmann is proud to know that he has the independent press and the compact majority behind him. He is determined to carry out his plan. Mrs. Stockmann reminds him that he has a family to look after and they might suffer dire consequences.
Dr. Stockmann, however, feels that he must stand by his principles or he would never "have the right to look my boys in the face."
Act I only presented the need of the baths to be cleansed. Act II begins to develop the problem with more implications. We are now able to see that the play is going to handle the broad subject of private vs. public morality. Or as the problem will later be developed, the conflict between personal integrity and social obligation. This idea will be more fully developed in later acts.
This act presents our first hint of the public's refusal to believe Stockmann. It comes from Stockmann's father-in-law. He believes that Dr. Stockmann is slyly trying to avenge himself against his brother by making the Burgomaster and the entire town council admit that they made a tremendous mistake. If Dr. Stockmann can do that, old Morton Kiil will be happy because they had previously forced him off the town council.
With the appearance of Hovstad, we see the liberal who is ready to jump at any cause and champion that cause as long as he thinks the cause will be popular and will increase circulation.
With Aslaksen, we see the man of cautious good will. He wants to do everything with moderation and not offend anyone. He represents the "compact majority" — that group of people who have no opinions and who follow others like a herd of animals.
When the Burgomaster appears, Dr. Stockmann is shocked to find out that his proposal will cost so much and will take so long to effect. The Burgomaster then is seen as a practical man who believes that the men in authority should decide everything. His view is that the individual freedom should be subjected to the demands of the authorities. This is, of course, a legitimate view, but Ibsen does not leave it a clash between two opposing ideological views. The Burgomaster's views must be seen in terms of his personal involvement. If the news of the baths is made public, he as the authority will be seen to have made a mistake. This will be a personal slight. But also, if the news of the baths is made public, the town will suffer tremendous losses and will be virtually destroyed; thus, his duty as the chief magistrate of the town is to try to save the town. Thus as was Dr. Stockmann's discovery tainted by his desire to avenge himself against the authorities, so now is the Burgomaster's defense somewhat tinged with personal motives.
Dr. Stockmann is still seen as somewhat the impractical visionary. He can see nothing except that the baths are dangerous and poisonous. It may be suggested that he is so confident in his views since he knows (or thinks) that the press and the compact majority are behind him. And under all circumstances, he is a man who does believe strongly in personal freedom and will not submit blindly to the rule of the authorities.
Mrs. Stockmann is seen in this scene as the eternal matriarch; that is, she is the eternal mother and wife figure whose main concern is with the personal welfare of her immediate family.
At the end of the act, we find that perhaps the town will consider Dr. Stockmann an enemy of the society. This is, of course, ironic because Dr. Stockmann thought he was doing a great service to the community. It is his desire to serve his fellow man that hurts more than anything else. Unlike the Burgomaster who believes that the people are like a herd and not worthy of consideration, Dr. Stockmann here believes in the potential capabilities of all the people and counts strongly on the general public to see his point of view.