Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House

Louis Althusser, one of the most influential of neo-Marxist critics of society and culture, achieved most of his level of fame due to his realization that the individual in a capitalist society cannot help but become complicit in furthering the dominant ideology even as effects of that ideology goes against their best interest. Althusser refers to this concept as interpellation. The title of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House points to the argument that the main character of Nora is a classic victim of interpellation.

She has become the plaything of the dominant ideology, designed to play whatever her small part in keeping the illusion going that she has some sort of free will. Until she learns that everything she thinks is true is nothing more than a veneer, however, she will stuck in the dollhouse, living her life according to the needs of those in power. Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House is finally, then, an emancipatory tale of a woman coming to consciousness that allows her to break through the falsity of what she assumed was real and reject the ideology that manipulates her and everyone else into conformity.

Louis Althusser’s theory of interpellation is brilliantly served by the very opening line of Ibsen’s play: Hide the Christmas Tree carefully, Helen. Be sure the children do not see it until this evening, when it is dressed.” In its natural state, of course, a tree contains no ideological meaning, but when it is adorned with certain decorations the same tree becomes loaded with ideological significance.

The significance here is underlined by the fact that Nora insists the tree needs to be hidden until it has been “dressed” at which point it ceases to be just a tree and instead becomes a symbol of commerce. From the opening line onward, the importance of money in establishing the value of any object is constantly reiterated. Indeed, the plot of A Doll’s House actually turns on the fact that Nora was previously reduced to having to secretly borrow money and must not only pay it back, but preserve the secret from her husband.

The bourgeous 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. Marx states that “the ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant relationships grasped as ideas”. Marx’s theory is realized throughout A Doll’s House. Consider, for instance, 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 the power to dictate social relationships. Another example occurs earlier when Krogstad ups the ante on his threats of blackmail. Nora’s situation worsen 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 a microcosm of the bourgeous ideology which grants the ruling class the power to define individuals as submissive subjects and Nora’s rejection of Torvald is a rejection of that ideology. The most obvious example of how gender equality can be used to inter-pellate a subject occurs in Act Three when Torvald almost seems to be giving an abject lesson in how this hailing of a subject works.

He describes how he works from his position of power to recreate Nora into the subject he wills: secret lover, young bride, treasured possession that belongs to him. 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 decidely non-Romantic confession that she no longer believes in even the possibility of wonderful things (III).

At the end of A Doll’s House Nora rejects the warmth and security provided by her complicity in an ideology that values money, respectability and patriarchy over intrinsic self-worth. Her opening line shows a woman fully interpellated into her role within that ideology; her penultimate line is a rejection of the possibility of happiness within it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

− two = 5