Reading module nº 10



a critical approach to literature










Poesía Inglesa Siglos XIX-XX

Curso 2005-2006

Profesor: Vicente Forés

Alumno: Alfredo Carbonell Rico

In this reading module we are going to deal with a way of interpreting literature called ‘Marxism’. But first, we should explain what a critical approach is. A critical approach is a series of procedures to study and analyse a written work in order to interpret it. Through the use of these procedures, we will be able to find normally what that literary work communicates, what structure has it got and which genre it belongs to.(3)

Obviously, it is essential to talk about the figure of Karl Marx, the main texts where these theories are presented and the political movement previous to the literary one. Marxism began with Karl Marx, the nineteenth-century German philosopher best known for Das Kapital (1867; Capital), the seminal work of the communist movement. Marx was also the first Marxist literary critic, writing critical essays in the 1830s on such writers as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and William Shakespeare. Even after Marx met Friedrich Engels in 1843 and began collaborating on overtly political works such as The German Ideology (1846) and The Communist Manifesto (1848), he maintained a keen interest in literature. In The German Ideology, Marx and Engels discuss the relationship between the arts, politics, and basic economic reality in terms of a general social theory. Economics, they argue, provides the base, or infrastructure, of society, from which a superstructure consisting of law, politics, philosophy, religion, and art emerges.(2)

But there is another centre of thinking for the Marxist theories. The Frankfurt School is a school of neo-Marxist social theory, social research, and philosophy. The grouping emerged at the Institute for Social Research (Institut für Sozialforschung) of the University of Frankfurt am Main in Germany when Max Horkheimer became the Institute's director in 1930. The term "Frankfurt School"  is not the title of any institution, and the main thinkers of the Frankfurt School did not use the term to describe themselves. Several camps of criticism of the Frankfurt School have emerged.One criticism is that the intellectual perspective of the Frankfurt School is really a romantic, elitist critique of mass culture dressed-up in neo-Marxist clothing: what really bothers the critical theorists in this view is not social oppression, but that the masses like Ian Fleming and The Beatles instead of Samuel Beckett and Webern. Another criticism, originating from the Left, is that critical theory is a form of bourgeois idealism that has no inherent relation to political practice and is totally isolated from any ongoing revolutionary movement. (5)

The literary critic trend called Marxism is basically a sociological approach to literature that viewed works of literature or art as the products of historical forces that can be analyzed by looking at the material conditions in which they were formed. In Marxist ideology, what we often classify as a world view is actually the articulations of the dominant class. Marxism generally focuses on the clash between the dominant and repressed classes in any given age and also may encourage art to imitate what is often termed an "objective" reality. Contemporary Marxism is much broader in its focus, and views art as simultaneously reflective and autonomous to the age in which it was produced.(1)

The aim of the Marxist criticism is to value the literary work according to some criteria, for instance if the text agrees or not with the political program proposed by Marx and Engels (this is against capitalism, in favour of the working class etc) or if the text has got the capacity to reflect the social development of its time. Bertold Brecht is one of the main theoreticians for this literary trend. The German writer stated that producing art was not a simple vehicle for the content, but a vehicle to raise social awareness. He also expected the public not to just accept what they were reading or seeing but to understand the problems the artist was dealing with.(3)

Now, we are going to look at some of the key terms that define Marxism (note: definitions below taken from Ann B. Dobie's text, Theory into Practice: An Introduction to Literary Criticism) Commodification - "the attitude of valuing things not for their utility but for their power to impress others or for their resale possibilities" (92).Conspicuous consumption - "the obvious acquisition of things only for their sign value and/or exchange value" (92).Dialectical materialism - "the theory that history develops neither in a random fashion nor in a linear one but instead as struggle between contradictions that ultimately find resolution in a synthesis of the two sides. For example, class conflicts lead to new social systems" (92).Material circumstances - "the economic conditions underlying the society. To understand social events, one must have a grasp of the material circumstances and the historical situation in which they occur" (92).Reflectionism - associated with Vulgar Marxism - "a theory that the superstructure of a society mirrors its economic base and, by extension, that a text reflects the society that produced it" (92).Superstructure - "The social, political, and ideological systems and institutions--for example, the values, art, and legal processes of a society--that are generated by the base" (92). (1)

Some of the main figures in this thought stream are Terry Eagleton, Fredric Jameson, Raymond Williams, Louis Althusser, Walter Benjamin, Antonio Gramsci , Georg Lukacs, Friedrich Engels, Theordor Adorno, Edward Ahern, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari.(1)

As an example of the application of these literary theories, I have chosen a poem by Bertold Bretch titled ‘Questions From A Worker Who Reads’(4). I think this is a perfect example of the Marxists theories but also of Brecht . In this poem, the author takes a look at the main empires and kings of the world in a very particular way. Brecht is actually referring to those people who do not appear in history books, the anonymous workers who built the gorgeous buildings and who fought in the wars dying for the interest of a country or in particular for the interest of its governors. It is quite obvious that the poet wants his audience to realise that the history is mainly made by those who do not appear in the history books, but by all the workers and therefore all the working class.



1 Dr. Kristi Siegel, Associate Professor, English Dept.Chair - Languages, Literature, and Communication Division, Introduction to modern literary theory


2 Adapted from The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms by Ross Murfin and Supriya M. Ray. Copyright 1998 by Bedford Books.


3 Profesora Ana García Herráez, Universitat de València, Subject: 14214 English fiction from the XVIIth century


4 Poem Hunter, Bertold Brecht, Questions from a worker who reads

Questions from A Worker Who Reads

Who built Thebes of the seven gates?
In the books you will find the name of kings.
Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock?
And Babylon, many times demolished.
Who raised it up so many times? In what houses
Of gold-glittering Lima did the builders live?
Where, the evening that the Wall of China was finished
Did the masons go? Great Rome
Is full of triumphal arches. Who erected them? Over whom
Did the Caesars triumph? Had Byzantium, much praised in song,
Only palaces for its inhabitants? Even in fabled Atlantis
The night the ocean engulfed it
The drowning still bawled for their slaves.

The young Alexander conquered India.
Was he alone?
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Did he not have even a cook with him?
Philip of Spain wept when his armada
Went down. Was he the only one to weep?
Frederick the Second won the Seven Years' War.
Else won it?

Every page a victory.
Who cooked the feast for the victors?
Every ten years a great man.
Who paid the bill?

So many reports.
So many questions.

"Fragen eines lesenden Arbeiters" - translated by M. Hamburger
from Bertolt Brecht, Poems 1913-1956, Methuen, N.Y., London,


5 WIKIPEDIA, the free encyclopedia: The Frankfurt School, Wikipedia Fundations Inc.





All the research was made on the 21st, May 2006.