Student Question

What is "cultural materialism" in literary theory? Can you provide an example?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In literary theory, cultural materialism has roots in Marxism and feminism and examines the political influences and frameworks of a work of literature.

The term was made popular in a collection of essays published in 1994 titled Political Shakespeare: Essays in Cultural Materialism. The editors employ the words of Peter Barry to explain the way the historical context of a work reveals greater truths about the implied and implicit messages of a text:

The kind of history recovered would involve relating [literature] to such phenomena as enclosures and oppression of the rural poor, state power and resistance to it...

By examining literature within its historical context and using that framework to evaluate the narrative, it is possible to discern other narratives at that point in history, including those that have commonly been silenced or devalued. Critics who examine works from a lens of cultural materialism examine the historical implications of power, discerning how particular groups have historically exerted power over the marginalized. Cultural materialists believe that it is possible to transform social order by examining the ways a subcultural resistance emerges in response to political agendas.

ENotes has an excellent article (linked below) that examines Shakespeare's Othello from a cultural materialism perspective. In part, this article considers the way Othello's race reveals greater truths about the struggle of Blacks within that historical framework:

Othello "uses the racist idea of himself as exotic" (30), in order to convince the Senate that he captivated Desdemona by outlandish tales of adventure. In casting himself in this stereotypical role, Othello makes a knowing concession to Venetian racial prejudice.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial