Marxist Literary Criticism

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

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The main features of the Marxist theory of literature are that literature, like all forms of culture, is governed by specific historical conditions, and that literature, as a cultural product, is ultimately related to the economic base of society.

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In examining works of literature, Marxist literary theorists emphasize the precise economic, social, and historical conditions in which they were written. Whereas more traditional literary criticism pays little heed to these conditions, Marxist theorists maintain that we cannot gain a proper understanding of literature unless we are aware of how and why it is produced.

To that end, Marxist literary theory looks at literature as part of the so-called superstructure of society. In Marxist thought, the superstructure can be defined as the cultural world of art, ideas, and morality that exists in any given society. That world has a symbiotic relationship with the base, which is the economic foundation of society.

To understand the superstructure, which of course would include works of literature, we need therefore to understand the economic base that gives rise to it. To be sure, the relationship between base and superstructure in classical Marxism is reciprocal, but the base undoubtedly plays the main part. It is the base that ultimately determines the superstructure.

A work of literature arises within certain economic and historical contexts. A play or a novel, for example, isn't treated by Marxists as if it were the purveyor of timeless truths, standing apart from the society in which it was created. On the contrary, literature, like morality, and like the culture of any given society, cannot be understood without reference to the economic and historical conditions that give rise to its creation.

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Marxist literary criticism bases itself on Marx and Engel's theory that class struggle is an ongoing historical reality. Main features include the idea that ruling classes keep power through ideology, a form of false consciousness or false construction of reality that Marx distinguishes from theory, which is the factual basis on which he believed Marxism was grounded. Marxist literary analysis aims to uncover the illusions or mystifications that the ruling class uses to maintain its control. 

Example best illustrates Marxist literary interpretation. Raymond Williams, a Marxist literary critic, studies pastoral literature in his book The Country and the City to show that in its literature, the English ruling class mystified the struggle and suffering of agrarian laborers, who worked under miserable conditions so the wealthy classes could live in comfort. Williams analyzes, among other works, "To Penshurst," a 17th century country house poem by Ben Jonson that celebrates the generosity and good order of the home's owners while describing an estate in which the labor is incredibly easy: the fruit falls off the vine effortlessly and the fish are waiting to be caught for the table. This mystifies labor by making it seem as if this country estate runs without hard work.

By bringing to light and questioning the assumptions or ideology of ruling class literature, uncovering its mystifications and pointing to the Marxist version of theory, Marxist critics hope to bring to light the reality of working class struggle.

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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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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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What are the key features of Marxist literary theory?

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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