It was a “rigid journey” that started with two voices and that ended with one. One is the voice of meaningless modernity. Disjointed and syncopated, this voice hopes to fit in with the norm, tirelessly finding meaning through misconstrued words. The other is the voice of an ailing past as it struggles to keep up with the present. It is the words of fable and myth, lost in the humdrum of everyday life.
Coming in contact through an unexpected dialogue, these two voices collide but, further on, reveal their similarities in order to address the issues of their looming futures. Jonathan Safran Foer’s critically-successful debut novel Everything is Illuminated relishes in these two voices, speaking to its readers in dual tones as a metaphor of the different perspectives that arise from a problem of identity that epitomizes this generation: a generation fraught by issues brought about by concerns of industry, capitalism, and materialism.
Part memoir, part travelogue, this novel primarily chronicles the travels of Jonathan Foer, a young Jewish-American writer of the same name as the author, who attempts to research his grandfather’s life in Ukraine and discover the woman who had saved him from apparent execution in the hands of Nazi soldiers. To make his trip remotely easier, he employs the help of Heritage Tours, a tour company that specializes in aiding Jewish-Americans retrace their roots in the Old Country.
His guide and translator for this trip is Alex Perchov, a Ukrainian of the same age who is utterly enraptured by the American culture that reaching the State’s worshipped shores and becoming an accountant is all he has ever dreamed about. Along with the ride are Alex’s Grandfather, their supposedly blind driver, and his “seeing-eye bitch” Sammy Davis Junior, Junior. But, Foer, the author, also incorporates a second and third narrative amidst this backdrop of identity-searching.
One, told in Jonathan’s voice, tells the story of his Grandfather’s shtetl or town, TrachimBrod, its fabled rise and evident fall during World War II. We can initially perceive the novel as a seeming coming-of-age story that finds its core in the retelling of the happenings of the Holocaust and its evident impact on its Jewish survivors and their kin. But, it also echoes of the capitalist ideologies that define our era and how it has come to mold our youth, as seen through the depiction of Jonathan and Alex.
With this in mind, this paper aims to create an understanding of the hegemony within the text through the use of Marxist literary criticism. An Overview of Marxism and the Communist Manifesto At the heart of Marxism lies the struggle between classes, a definitive clash of ideologies brought about by the fight over the right of power. It is primarily a critique of the current Industrial Age society, wherein an apparent discrepancy between the growing bourgeois class and the working class began to be noticeable.
Promulgated by Karl Marx in the early nineteenth century, Marxism finds its roots in the analysis of the source of power, the base of power, within a society and how this social class determines the course of production within a society (Marx and Engels 1848). Heralded as the core ideology of Communism, it is a politically-driven social theory that deems to see that the proletariat be considered a class, that the reigning bourgeois be overthrown, and that political power should be reverted to the proletariat (Marx, Engels, and Jones 15).
Applied to literature, Marxism becomes a critique of the social structures and the point of authority found in the text, as concocted by the writer’s own perceptions of the history of class within the novel. The Communist “bible”, Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto, co-written by Frederick Engels, calls the proletariat to arms in what they see as a social revolution unlike any other. They deem that Capitalist rulings of the working class as exploitative, seeing these people merely as dispensable commodity to yield production.
They deem the bourgeoisie as state of “the abolition of individuality and freedom (22). ” They narrate series of possible events to the dissolution of the bourgeoisie that would mean the rise of the proletariat and the erasure of any other remnants of the feudalist system (Marx and Engels 17). Over-all, it is deemed that the only answer to a social revolution is the forcible overthrow of the present reigning base of power, the denouncement of past social conditions, and the creation of a strong network of representative that would protect the individual rights of working men and women.
A Dichotomy of Roles What makes Foer’s novel a definite stand-out in the literary scene is its experimentation with form and its boundless potentials. For his novel, he follows three narratives as told by the two primary characters of the text, Jonathan and Alex. Placed in the context of Marxism, there is an evident inner struggle between the two characters that is representative of their own social statuses and how they manage to deal with the issues specific to it.
According to Marx’s groundbreaking treatise, “society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes facing each other: Bourgeoisie and Proletariat (Marx and Engels 9). ” Although, most may deem this social division as outdated, it still reveals much about our current social structure that expected. In our globalized view, such structure can now be attributed to cultures dominating over each other, cultures that manipulate the flow of international relations given the power they retain through their economic superiority—a system that Marx had initially suspected.
As with today’s society, American culture (though flailing amidst the rise of new economic powers) remains the power base and controls much of the world’s economic activity, and hence, becomes the source of all human institutions and ideologies, or what Marx calls, the superstructure. With this power behind them, the base is able to influence the direction that society is driven to, characterizing each element as they see fit. Evident in the novel is undisputed hegemony of American culture as presented through the character of Alex.
Ensnared by the allure of money and progress, Alex is the quintessential American “wanna be”. He is driven to create an image of himself that is allegedly reminiscent of this culture: a womanizer, an excessive spender, a big talker. Evidence of this fascination with American culture can also be read in page 69 wherein Alex speaks with Jonathan over dinner and bombards him with questions about American life: “Are there good accounting schools?… Are there Negro accountants?… How much is the coffee there (Foer 69)?
” All the answers elicit an excitement for this prevailing culture, all the more pushing Alex to value it more than he does his own. In a letter to Jonathan written purportedly after the his visit to Ukraine, he mentions that he is saving up to go to the States, and that in order to save money (despite his Father’s belief that he isn’t so), he stays at the beach and just thinks. He thinks that Jonathan is so lucky (52). These ideas of American culture, the American Dream, are in fact disseminated through the film medium as presented in the text when Alex says: “I dig American movies (2).
” It is, in essence, a diluted imagery of what American culture is like as shown through the limited capacity of film. Gone are seemingly politically correct ideologies and from the vantage point of Alex’s restricted viewpoint of American culture we see the flaws of a race and gender divided structure. It is also necessary to note the importance of the Alex’s use of language in the text. His language is a mix of profundity and slang in an attempt to sound as American as possible, but failing miserably to communicate what he actually means in the process.
His misconstrued language echoes the attempt of the working class to attain a level of equality with the bourgeois (American culture), but unsuccessfully doing so because the line that separates the two arenas can never be crossed. Alex’s character, in this sense, epitomizes the proletariat desire to obtain an amount of power (how miniscule) it might be from the dominating bourgeois by inculcating themselves within a culture created by the elite. When he took on the role of translate for Jonathan, Alex believed it to be an “unordinary (Foer 2)” experience.
By taking on this Americanized persona, Alex believes he is setting himself apart from a family of three Alex’s, from his own culture. He yearns to “depart” from his class and seek a brighter one in another. But, I believe, that this is the tragedy of Alex. He deems to create for himself a new personality, an individuality, but through the acceptance of another ideological structure that might even be stronger and far more dangerous than the one he opts to leave behind. This is, as what Marx says, is a sense of false consciousness (Eagleton 103).
“People are conditioned by the material world to accept certain ideas and beliefs as objective fact. They misunderstand their position and the meaning of their position. (Progreba 2). ” On the other hand, we see Jonathan who departs from the States and its culture to find his roots in Ukraine. Armed with the picture of his grandfather and the picture of the woman who rescued him, he embarks on a journey to understand his muddled identity. Whereas, Alex looks at the American culture as one that would finally define him, Jonathan temporarily denounces it and searches for it in his history.
This is evident in his chronicle of the history of his grandfather’s little village. But, similar to Alex, he finds fascination in a culture other than his own and looks up to it as a medium to understand his own identity. By narrating the events that led to the destruction of the village, from its establishment and his grandfather, Safran’s, rescue from the Nazis, Jonathan communicates with his past and forms a dialogue with it. For both young men, this search for identity traces itself to their yearning to reclaim their place in a society that alienates them.
According to Marxist theory, the capitalist society alienates people in three different levels: first, the worker is alienated from what he produces; second, the worker is alienated from himself; and third, the worker is alienated from society. “The work of the proletarians has lost all their individual character, and consequently all charm for the workman. He becomes an appendage of the machine, and it is only the most simple, most monotonous, and most easily acquired knack that is required of him (Marx and Engels 14). ”
Jonathan, who has taken a leave of absence from university, finds himself at a loss regarding his future goals in life, some of which are imposed on him by the requirements of his social circle: fame and fortune. By following these, he would have to let go of his roots, of his own identity, and deliver products as what society needs of him. Hence, he finds his travel to Ukraine an opportunity for soul-searching, a method to deliver himself from the constraints of social responsibilities and discover his own potential as a person.
When Alex questions Jonathan about his yearnings to be a writer, Jonathan answers him half-heartedly, as if questioning even his own decision to take on this career (Foer 69). But, by the middle of the novel, as implied in one of Alex’s letters to Jonathan, he had gone on back to university to pursue this career, perhaps already with an inkling of his own identity discovered during his visit in Ukraine. Alex, on the other hand, seeks deliverance in American culture. He detests his Father who bullies him and his “miniature” brother, Little Igor.
He yearns to separate himself from this abusive authority and find solace in a culture that is “free” and “progressive”. We can view his Father and their travel company in the Marxist context as the Capitalist. Their company, Heritage Tours, having been a family business for three generations ties Alex intensely to the family that he hopes to leave behind. As his mother had said, she is extremely proud that her son had decided to taking the responsibility of acting as a guide for the “Jewish boy” instead of wallowing around doing nothing and wasting money (Foer 2).
Marxist theory also expands on the notion of a “counter-hegemonic” culture that should be developed in order to retaliate against the prevailing social norms as promulgated by the ruling class. Essentially, the novel revolves around this, as with any text that centers on a search for identity and individuality. Alex and Jonathan both are at war with their societies which is why they seek to find it another, whether in more direct forms (like Jonathan’s) or discreetly (like Alex’s). There remains, in the story of these two individuals, a definite struggle to fight against hegemony and the norm.
Conclusion The third narrative, as we have mentioned, are letters from Alex to Jonathan, still written in the same manner as he had spoken to us in his usual narrative. These letters, from mere discussion of their positions in life finally show the kind of relationship these two young men are able to foster. They are the acceptance of their brotherhood amidst the flurry of modern life, amidst the demands of their social classes and their inherent responsibilities. But, most importantly, as the novel proves, it serves as an insight into a quiet counter-revolution that prevails today.
Works Cited: Eagleton, Terry. Criticism and Ideology: A Study in Marxist Literary Theory. William Clowes Ltd. : Suffolk, Great Britain. 2006 Foer, Jonathan Safran. Everything is Illuminated. Houghton Mifflin Books: New York, New York. 2002 Jones, Gareth Stedman. “Introduction. ” The Communist Manifesto. Penguin Books Ltd. : USA, 1967 Marx, Karl and Frederick Engels. “The Communist Manifesto. ” Socialist Labor Party of America. 2006. Retrieved from < http://www. marxism. net/pdf/marx/comm_man. pdf >
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