Marxist Literary Criticism

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What are the key features of Marxist literary theory?

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Marxian literary criticism addresses the themes that characterized the philosophy of Karl Marx. Marx thought that if one wanted to understand anything about a society, they needed to analyze its economic base. This meant looking at who controlled the means of production in a society. Marx described this people as the bourgeoisie, and those who did not control the means of production—the working class—as the proletariat. The nature of every other aspect of society, including religion, gender roles, family life, and literature was determined by the economic relations within a society. Marx called literature, art, religion, and so on the superstructure that was built upon the economic base.

Therefore, in analyzing a work of literature, Marxian literary critics tend to look at how it reflects the social structure of the society that created it. They might also look at the ways it reflects bourgeois values or the way it might be used to persuade people to accept their economic condition. Sometimes, they may ask whether it portrayed class relations or the effects of industrialization in persuasive ways.

A Marxian analysis of Oliver Twist, for example, would emphasize that the horrors of London society encountered by Oliver and the many villains he came in contact with were the product of fundamental economic changes rather than of a lack of morality on the part of the individual or the corrupting influence of the city.

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