Literary Theory

Key Terms

Capital - money used to buy something only in order to sell it again to realise a profit.

Interpellation-  the process by which we encounter a culture's or ideology's values and internalise them

Hegemony- leadership or dominance, especially by one state or social group over others.

Key People

Terry Eagleton

Friedrich Engels

Jürgen Habermas

Antonio Gramsci

Vladimir Lenin

Karl Marx

Leon Trotsky

Key Works




Marxist theory is founded upon the works of Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels published in the mid-19th century. Primarily concerned with economic production, it explores the relationship between workers, their products and capital. Marxist critics may explore the implications and complexities of the capitalist system, the relationship between different classes, and how different groups’ experiences are fundamentally driven by socio-economic differences. Often concerned with different power relationships Marxist critiques examine whose values are being privileged and what social organisation is being reinforced in the texts analysed. Moreover, Marxist theory may also explore notions of interpellation and hegemony, where capitalist power structures are seen as the ‘natural’ social order...

What Marxist Critiques do

They make a division between the 'overt' (surface) and 'covert' (hidden) content of a literary work and then relate the covert subject matter of the literary' work to basic Marxist themes, such as class struggle or the progression of society through various historical stages, such as the transition from feudalism to industrial capitalism.

Another method used by Marxist critics is to relate the context of a work to the social-class status of the author. In such cases, an assumption is made that the author is unaware of precisely what he or she is saying or revealing in the text.

A third Marxist method is to explain the nature of a whole literary genre in terms of the social period which 'produced' it.

A fourth Marxist practice is to relate the literary work to the social assumptions of the time in which it is 'consumed', a strategy which is used particularly in the later variant of Marxist criticism known as cultural materialism.

A fifth Marxist practice is the 'politicisation of literary form', that is, the claim that literary forms are themselves determined by political circumstance. For instance, in the view of some critics, literary realism carries with it an implicit validation of conservative social structures; for others, the formal and metri¬cal intricacies of the sonnet and the iambic pentameter are a counterpart of social stability, decorum, and order.

What Questions do Marxist Critiques ask

Whom does it benefit if the work or effort is accepted/successful/believed, etc.?

What is the social class of the author?

Which class does the work claim to represent?

What values does it reinforce?

What values does it subvert?

What conflict can be seen between the values the work champions and those it portrays? How does this change others’ reactions to them?

What social classes do the characters represent?

How do characters from different classes interact or conflict?

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