Marxist Criticism is
- a research method, a type of textual research, that literary critics use to interpret texts
- a genre of discourse employed by literary critics used to share the results of their interpretive efforts.
Key Terms: Dialectic; Hermeneutics; Semiotics; Text & Intertextuality; Tone
|Class||a classification or grouping typically based on income and education|
|Alienation||a condition Karl Heinrich Marx ascribed to individuals in a capitalist economy who lack a sense of identification with their labor and products|
|Base||the means (e.g., tools, machines, factories, natural resources) and relations (e.g., Proletariat, Bourgeoisie) or production that shape and are shaped by the superstructure (the dominant aspect in society)|
|Superstructure||the social institutions such as systems of law, morality, education, and their related ideologies, that shape and are shaped by the base|
Marxism borrows some concepts from the nineteenth-century writings of Karl Heinrich Marx, though many of Marx’s ideas gained popularity in the twentieth century. A premise of Marxist criticism is that literature can be viewed as ideological, and that it can be analyzed in terms of a Base/Superstructure model. Marx argues that the economic means of production in a society account for its base. A base determines its superstructure. Human institutions and ideologies that produce art and literary texts comprise the superstructure. Marxist criticism thus emphasizes class, socioeconomic status, and power relations among various segments of society.
Marxist criticism places a literary work within the context of class and assumptions about class. A premise of Marxist criticism is that literature can be viewed as ideological, and that it can be analyzed in terms of a Base/Superstructure model. Karl Heinrich Marx argues that the economic means of production within society account for the base. A base determines its superstructure. Human institutions and ideologies—including those relevant to a patriarchy—that produce art and literary texts comprise the superstructure. Marxist criticism thus emphasizes class, socioeconomic status, power relations among various segments of society, and the representation of those segments. Marxist literary criticism is valuable because it enables readers to see the role that class plays in the plot of a text. Bressler notes that “Marxist theory has its roots in the nineteenth-century writings of Karl Heinrich Marx, though his ideas did not fully develop until the twentieth century” (183). Key figures in Marxist theory include Bertolt Brecht, Georg Lukács, and Louis Althusser. Although these figures have shaped the concepts and path of Marxist theory, Marxist literary criticism did not specifically develop from Marxism itself. One who approaches a literary text from a Marxist perspective may not necessarily support Marxist ideology. For example, a Marxist approach to Langston Hughes’s poem “Advertisement for the Waldorf-Astoria” might examine how the socioeconomic status of the speaker and other citizens of New York City affect the speaker’s perspective. The Waldorf Astoria opened during the midst of the Great Depression. Thus, the poem’s speaker uses sarcasm to declare, “Fine living . . . a la carte? / Come to the Waldorf-Astoria! / LISTEN HUNGRY ONES! / Look! See what Vanity Fair says about the / new Waldorf-Astoria” (lines 1-5). The speaker further expresses how class contributes to the conflict described in the poem by contrasting the targeted audience of the hotel with the citizens of its surrounding area: “So when you’ve no place else to go, homeless and hungry / ones, choose the Waldorf as a background for your rags” (lines 15-16). Hughes’s poem invites readers to consider how class restricts particular segments of society.
Foundational Questions of Marxist Criticism
- What classes, or socioeconomic statuses, are represented in the text?
- Are all the segments of society accounted for, or does the text exclude a particular class?
- Does class restrict or empower the characters in the text?
- How does the text depict a struggle between classes, or how does class contribute to the conflict of the text?
- How does the text depict the relationship between the individual and the state? Does the state view individuals as a means of production, or as ends in themselves?
Online Examples:Marxist Criticism and Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” by Jay Massiet The Working Class Beats: a Marxist analysis of Beat Writing and Culture from the Fifties to the Seventies by Paul Whiston, Sheffield University, United Kingdom
Discussion Questions and Activities: Marxist Criticism
- Define class, alienation, base, and superstructure in your own words.
- Explain why a base determines its superstructure.
- Choose the lines or stanzas that you think most markedly represent a struggle between classes in Langston Hughes’s “Advertisement for the Waldorf-Astoria.” Hughes’s poem also addresses racial issues; consider referring to the relationship between race and class in your written response.
- Contrast the lines that appear in quotation marks and parentheses in Hughes’s poem. How do these lines differ? Does it seem like the lines in parentheses respond to the lines in quotation marks, the latter of which represent excerpts from an advertisement for the Waldorf-Astoria published in Vanity Fair? How does this contrast illustrate a struggle between classes?
- What is Hughes’s purpose for writing “Advertisement for the Waldorf-Astoria?” Defend your interpretation with evidence from the poem.