A Doll’s House and the Escape From Ideological Suffocation

Marxist critic Louis Althusser’s fame rests substantially on the basis of his critical theories surrounding his proposition that human beings are interpellated by society to become complicit in propagating the prevailing ideology even when that ideology does not serve their interests. Interpellation basically means turning the individual into a subject that in turn serves to further reproduce the ideology (Althusser 295-301). The title of Henrik Ibsen’s play A Doll House lends credence to the idea that Nora has been interpellated to become an unthinking, unquestioning, well-oiled cog keeping the machinery of bourgeois, middle class ideology humming along. A Doll’s House is the apparently tragic, but ultimately uplifting story of the emancipation of an individual who finally rejects an ideology that manipulates conformity by placing too high a value on money, reputation and gender inequality. The opening line of A Doll’s House serves as a perfect metaphor for the Louis Althusser’s conception of the theory of societal interpellation of people into subjects that serve a bourgeois economy: “Hide the Christmas Tree carefully, Helen. Be sure the children do not see it until this evening, when it is dressed” (I). A tree is a natural entity free from ideological constraints; once decorated, however, that same tree can be transformed into an ideological symbol. Tellingly, this tree must be hidden until it has been “dressed” (I) to become a symbol of commerce. From the opening line of A Doll’s House onward, the vital importance of money in establishing the value of any object is reiterated over and over. The mere fact that the crux of the entire plot of Ibsen’s famous play revolves around the circumstance that Nora was forced to borrow money without telling her husband is especially illuminating of Althusser’s contention that “an individual is always-already a subject even before he is born” (302) because the system had already subjected Nora into that position.The bourgeois ideology reproduces itself by inculcating within its members a naturalization of the idea of respectability, which only further serves to tighten its economic grip on individual desires. Karl Marx asserts that “the ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant relationships grasped as ideas” (Marx 253). This theory is realized throughout A Doll’s House. Consider Mrs. Linde’s revelation that she rejected her own passionate love for Krogstad in exchange for the security of a wealthier man (III). Society’s ruling ideas concerning the respectability of security, in other words, have been endowed with the power to dictate social relationships. Another example that illuminates this concept occurs earlier in the play when Krogstad ups the ante on his threats of blackmail. Nora’s situation worsens as a result of Krogstad’s need to not only be rehired by the bank, but to be rehired into a more respectable position (II). The unspoken promise, of course, is that more position equates with respectability. Although not directly related to Nora’s emancipation, these two episodes serve to reinforce the universality an ideology that affects people of all economic stations and both genders.Nora and Torvald’s marital relationship is best viewed as a microcosm of the bourgeois ideology which grants the ruling class the power to define individuals as submissive subjects. He describes how he works from his position of power to recreate Nora into the subject he wills: secret lover, young bride, treasured possession. It is any wonder that finally Nora rejects this objectification of herself? Johnston suggests Nora’s rejection is really just “carrying out into that world the most fragile of illusions: the demand for Romantic self-realization,” but that view dismisses Nora’s decidedly non-Romantic confession that she no longer believes in even the possibility of wonderful things (III). At the end of A Doll’s House, put-upon protagonist Nora rejects an ideology that values money, respectability and patriarchy over intrinsic self-worth. Her opening line shows a woman fully occupying her role within that ideology; her penultimate line is a rejection of the possibility that happiness can possibly exist within it. Works CitedAlthusser, Louis. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden: Blackwell Publishers, 1998.Ibsen, Henrik. “A Doll’s House.” The Compact Bedford Introduction to Literature. Ed. Michael Meyer. Boston: St. Martin’s Press, 2003.Johnston, Ian. “On Ibsen’s A Doll’s House.” Malaspina Univ. College. 2000. 2 Sep 2006 .Marx, Karl. “The German Ideology.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden: Blackwell Publishers, 1998. 

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