Marxist Literary Criticism

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Apply Marxist theory to Hard Times.

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A Marxist reading of Hard Times would undoubtedly seek to emphasize the book's searing indictment of the excesses of industrial capitalism. In particular it would focus on the way in which capitalism, in the form of Mr. Gradgrind, attempts to cloak its ideology in a quasi-scientific language of fact. Capitalism is often presented by its adherents as a perfectly natural system, one that corresponds to the brute facts of the world. Yet Dickens challenges this notion; capitalism, as it existed in Mid-Victorian Britain, was an artificial system that was created to serve the class interests of certain groups in society.

At the same time, a Marxist reading of Hard Times would also criticize Dickens for what appears to be a certain romanticism on his part. Marx, despite his withering critique of the inhumanities of capitalism, nevertheless welcomed its supersession of the old feudal system, seeing in it the necessary preconditions for the development of socialism. Marx didn't want to turn the clock back to some pre-capitalist golden age; it was only through a highly developed system of industrial capitalism, with all its manifest contradictions, that socialism can finally emerge.

Yet Dickens's critique of capitalism is rather sentimental. The horrors of the industrial system act upon his emotions rather than his intellect. Dickens doesn't want the workers to rise up and throw off the shackles of class domination and oppression; indeed, he shows marked hostility towards any kind of radical agitation on the part of labor unions. His solution to the depredations of capitalism is for employers to act with greater benevolence and kindness towards their workers. For a Marxist, this would smack of the kind of paternalism shown by industrialists such as Robert Owen—himself a socialist, albeit of a different kind to Marx—who sought not to overthrow the capitalist system, but to mitigate its most serious effects.

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I think that a Marxist read to Dickens' work could focus on the teachings of Gradgrind as a starting point.  Marxist theory would suggest that the emphasis on "facts, not fancy" and the embrace of Utilitarianism becomes a justification for the abuses perpetrated as a part of capitalism.  Capitalism and free market teachings that are such a part of financiers like Bounderby have become a means to oppress many.  In Bounderby's case, Marxist theory would detail this in the personal and the social realms.

In Gradgrind's case, Marxist theory of capitalism as dehumanization extending to everyone who comes in contact with it can be seen in the cases of his children.  Gradgrind has become dehumanized by capitalism in his teachings that have deemphasized human feelings and interactions, again making it easier for capitalism to perpetrate its abuses.  At the same time, Grandgrind's children suffers under the realities of capitalism that are perpetrated in their father's teachings.  Tom learns to use people as a means to an end, a condition of capitalism, while Louisa cannot value the emotional sensibility of human beings. For the Marxist, the condition in which the Gradgrind children emerge is a capitalist one where any hope of redemption in being is lost to a detached and alienated suffering in consciousness.

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