Ideology: A set of beliefs underlying the customs, habits, and practices common to a given social group. To members of that group, the beliefs seem obviously true, natural, and even universally applicable. They may seem just as obviously arbitrary, idiosyncratic, and even false to those who adhere to another ideology. Within a society, several ideologies may coexist; one or more of these may be dominant.
Ideologies may be forcefully imposed or willingly embraced. Their component beliefs may be held consciously or unconsciously. In either case, they come to form what Johanna M. Smith, in “’Too Beautiful Altogether’: Patriarchal Ideology in Heart of Darkness” (1989), called “the unexamined ground of our experience.” Ideology governs our perceptions, judgments, and prejudices — our sense of what is acceptable, normal, and deviant. It may cause a revolution; it may also enable or even promote discrimination and exploitation.
Ideologies are of special interest to politically oriented critics of literature because of the way in which authors reflect or resist prevailing views in their texts. For instance, some Marxist critics have argued that literary works reproduce the ideologies that produced them; most, however, have shown that such works expose the contradictions within ideologies or have focused on the ways in which texts themselves are characterized by gaps, conflicts, and contradictions between their ideological and anti-ideological functions. Fredric Jameson, an American Marxist critic, argued that all thought is ideological, but that ideological thought that knows itself as such stands the chance of seeing through and transcending ideology. Many feminist critics have sought to expose and challenge the patriarchal ideology mirrored or inscribed in works written by men — even men who have sought to counter sexism and break down gender stereotypes. New historicists have been interested in demonstrating the ideological underpinnings not only of literary representations but also of our interpretations of them.