How might one discuss the function of ideology in literature?

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Any attempt to discuss the function of ideology in literature depends on clear definitions of the terms “ideology” and “literature.” “Literature” can be defined as language that calls attention to itself as language. “Ideology” can be defined as a body of principles, often political or social principles, that motivates the conduct of those who embrace it.

Ideology, defined in this way, can therefore have a number of functions in literature, including the following:

  • It can determine what literature is allowed to say, as when an official ideology leads to censorship of literature that doesn’t conform to officially sanctioned ideas.
  • It can be hidden or go largely unnoticed within literature, as when literature seems to be have no ideological implications. Some analysts would argue that literature inevitably has ideological implications of some sort, and that the job of the critic is to discover and discuss those implications. According to this view, even the most apparently non-political poem nevertheless has political implications. Thus Michael Ryan, in his book Literary Theory, comments that

A second major form of Marxist criticism consists of a critique of ideology. It seeks to understand how ideology works in literature to mask social contradictions such as those between economic groups.

Clearly the function of Marxist criticism (in this view) is to expose the hidden ideology of literary works.

  • It can help determine how literature changes the world or fails to change the world.
  • It can receive an attractive, appealing, effective presentation by talented literary artists.


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