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Marxism in Literature: Conflict in the Classics Essay

Two short stories will be analyzed using a Marxist lens to investigate unresolved conflict among characters and situations where conflict arises to show class struggle in society. Both “Hills Like White Elephants” by Hemingway and “The Man Who Was Almost a Man” by Wright show conflict in their characters lives and in larger society. Those who use Marxist literary theory to explore the characters and their settings in society use both the external and internal conflicts in a character’s life.

Sometimes the inner conflict can mirror external problems in a symbolic way, so Marxist theorists must observe the same literary devices as other critics, such as symbolism, personification, metaphor and so on to comprehend how the conflict can best be described. In “Hills Like White Elephants”, there is much symbolism suggesting the war between natural versus unnatural that is both external and internal.

In “The Man Who Was Almost a Man” the teenage character illustrates both conscious and subconscious acts of rebellion while living life in poverty and the shame of beatings from his parents and chastising from the white members of his community. It is very significant to look at these parts of the stories to find Marxist themes and modes for thinking in a way that supports Marxist theories.

It should be noted that Marxism as an ideology transcends sociological and political realms to support the use of literature by the masses to further the aims of Marxist thought, but literary critics use the tenets of conflict and class to analyze the works without a motive for their study, but instead a simple lens of viewing social problems that are amplified in literature. Some critics, especially those of the Post-modernism school agree that ideology has no place in these works and their criticism should be noted.

But the stories that will be used here will be simply analyzed in terms of class and conflict without any ideological preconceptions while ignoring the misconceptions of critics. It is the latter course I pursue here, though in conclusion I shall raise the question how far the concept of ideology can still be fruitfully applied to literature. I concentrate, furthermore, on criticism within the Marxist tradition, because it is here that the most systematic attempts have been made to think literature in relation to the concept of ideology.

Of course, a non-Marxist may ask somewhat similar questions of the literary text, without using the concept of ideology, to those asked by a Marxist critic whose analysis relies on the concept. Moreover, not even all Marxist critics make use of the term (Moriarty, 2006, p 43). Though, Moriarty does make reference to the fact that not all Marxist critics use ideology in their criticisms, it may be a common misconception among other critics that ideology must always be a part of review.

Instead conflict, such as the problem between the couple in “Hills Like White Elephants” have nothing to do with ideology and instead conflict and progress and the themes surrounding this. In “Hills Like White Elephants” a question by the editor of the anthology containing the work is posed, “What kind of resolution does the story offer” (Pickering, 2001, 681)? A Marxist critic would be concerned with this type of answer.

A story without a resolution means that the central theme still exists in society and cannot be resolved by either the characters of the world at large. The story’s main conflict is a choice that the couple has to make between themselves as to if they will chose to have the woman undergo an abortion. But, the conflict of the two is not the central theme, it is the central conflict however. But underlying this is the theme of the contrast between what is manmade and what is natural.

An abortion, obviously, is in the manmade category, making it significant. But, there is no resolution in this story and that would leave a Marxist critic to believe that the issue that cannot be resolved is not with the couple, but with the mechanical nature of life and the flight from the natural state of man (and woman). This analysis can be found in the scenery described by Hemingway, with beautiful natural hills outside of one window and on the other side is a train station, tracks, and so-called civilization.

In keeping with the idea of the issues surrounding mechanical production and reproduction (especially in literature), it should be noted that the earliest Marxist thinkers did believe that a great deal of good could come from the dissemination of literature to forward a Marxist movement. Walter Benjamin is on Marxist theorist, not a literary critic, but his ideas may have influenced the discourse of other critics into embracing Marxist literary criticism.

“He believes that no matter how revolutionary one’s thoughts, if they were expressed in a conventional, academic writing style, they would be inevitably be swallowed up in the routines of bourgeois culture” (Gardner, 2001, 249). This belief meant that the only hope for works not being swallowed up in the bourgeois culture was to make writing less academic and more creative and to use literary works to further Marxist ideals. This, however, was the root of Marxist ideals aimed to be put in place at least a century ago.

So this new lens of Marxist criticism should be separated by politics and ideology of more Communistic times around the world to today and the struggles that are timeless. “The Man Who Was Almost a Man” provides a timeless look at teenage rebellion, rebellion against society, poverty, and class struggle. The teenager believes that in buying a gun, he will be free from the constraints that are heavily put on him. The essential them is rebellion and freedom, which is a highly Marxist ideal. But, interestingly enough it can be said that there is some closure in this character’s life by him choosing to flee his oppressive environment.

However, it is a mystery as to where this utopian life he seeks will lead, making this an unresolved conflict. Pickering asks in his “Questions for Study” after reading the story “does Dave’s decision to climb aboard the freight train a convincing conclusion to the story” (Pickering, 2001, 1447)? It is not, as stated before, as the utopia that Dave seeks is unclear and may very well not exist. Michael Delahoyde in his class website reveals that Marxist critics will ask this questions about the stories they read. All of these questions linger in the stories chosen for analysis.

What role does class play in the work; what is the author’s analysis of class relations? How do characters overcome oppression? In what ways does the work serve as propaganda for the status quo; or does it try to undermine it? What does the work say about oppression; or are social conflicts ignored or blamed elsewhere? Does the work propose some form of utopian vision as a solution to the problems encountered in the work? In conclusion, the stories chosen here briefly highlight the questions that Marxist critics ask when reading and analyzing literature.

There is obvious discourse in other communities of criticism and ideology, politics, and the aims of Marxists in heated Communistic times should not be confused with Marxist criticisms of today. The works analyzed are viewed in a simple lens, asking simple questions that affect society and class struggle. These stories al pose interesting ways in which personal struggles translate to wider questions and the lack of resolutions require deeper thought as to what those resolutions might be. Works Cited:

Michael Delahoyde, Class Website for Introduction to Literature, “Marxist Criticism”, Accessible online : http://www. wsu. edu/~delahoyd/marxist. crit. html. Last accessed 15, November, 2008. Roberta Gardner, “Walter Benjamin” in Social Theory: Continuity & Confrontation. (2000), Toronto, Ontario, CA: Broadview Press. 249. Michael Moriarty, “Ideology and Literature” in Journal of Political Ideologies (February 2006), 11(1), 43. James Pickering, “Questions for Study” in Fiction 100: An Anthology of Short Stories 9th Ed. (2001), Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall. 681 & 1447.


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