What are the main features of the Marxist theory of literature?

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Payal Khullar | College Teacher | (Level 2) Associate Educator

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Marxist theory of literature, or the literary concepts and assumptions arising from Marxist paradigm, is a social theory in the form of discourse based on the studies of a German Philosopher and theorist Karl Heinrich Marx (furthered by Frederick Engels) that gives basis for Marxist criticism

Marxism is not merely a literary theory, but can be extended to literature for analysis of a literary text based on certain criteria. The main features of Marxist theory of literature are:

Literary text interpretation based on Marxist literary theory, directly or indirectly, focuses on certain societal issues like class, culture, power, etc. in the literary text.

Aesthetic and artistic elements are less important. The historical, social and political meanings are considered more important.

The author’s social class and his social conditions, and his ideology and interpretation of the social and historical background of his times are also significant for the study.

Marxism shows a sympathetic, soft attitude towards the working class. Literary analysis is based on class struggle, class-distinctions and class-conflicts, obvious or hidden, represented in the literary texts.

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thetall | (Level 3) Educator

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Before discussing the features of the Marxist theory of literature it is important to get a brief background on the beliefs that shape these features.

Marxism is based on the assumption that consciousness (language, politics, economy etc) follow existence. Basically this means we are born first then we develop knowledge and awareness about ourselves. Our consciousness is developed based on the type of environment that we exist in. If the environment we exist in is superior then the consciousness developed will be superior and vice versa.

This assumption can then be explained in the context of economy and history. Marxists believe that at birth people are equal but their environments begin to shape their realities. The state of Haves and Have-nots emerges from this, with the Haves controlling the factors of production while the Have-nots work in production to the benefit of the Haves. The fight between the classes is referred in historical accounts by Marxists.

Literature has been used historically to communicate preservation of the status quo by the oppressors “reactionary narrative” or to challenge the status quo by the oppressed “Progressive narrative”. To this end the features that Marxists theory of literature would attempt to critically analyze and grasp are:

  • Classes as exhibited by the literary work
  • Literary form whether reactionary or progressive
  • Political views guiding the literature

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