Tag Archives: Marxist criticism

Modernism

The word “modernism” is intentionally ambiguous, and perhaps without realizing it is a fitting term for such a literary movement. In the most common usage it refers to the twentieth-century movement that began with the concept of the “modern” (obviously, since without this word how could one have modern-ism?) and ended up being a collection of authors and works characterized by efforts by the individual character and author to remold and reshape reality while reflecting its social ills. This is quite a simplistic analysis of an entire movement, but I will go into greater detail below.

Modernism took elements from realist literature in that it sought to realistically portray the growing social isolation and alienation of individuals caused by industrial capitalism. Characters are almost always withdrawn, and the entirety of the work contains a bitter cynicism bordering on absolute nihilistic despair. The main geographic sites for this movement were England and America post-Industrial Revolution, blooming during the periods between World War I and World War II, the main places where this system had taken hold. These first few decades of the new century begin with writers such as Joyce, Eliot, Pound D.H. Lawrence, who all stepped forward onto the literary scene by creating texts that were called highly experimental on content rather than merely form. This is the movement we now call “modernism,” though I don’t mean to use it in a reductive sense to imply that outside of these few head writers there exist no modernist movement.

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Crisis & Capital In Wuthering Heights

The majority of Victorian literature is the product of the petty-bourgeois class, and Wuthering Heights is no different. The tumultuous ideological storms contained within demonstrate a crisis in the ideology of the 19th century Victorian petty-bourgeois class to which Emily Bronte was born. Frequently, novelists and intellectuals have a reflective role to play at a point of history where a crisis has impacted the prevailing base and has thereby begun the upward quake to the very spires of the ideological superstructure. The crises in the areas of estate, racial tensions and the family unit are all explored, but more than anything else, Wuthering Heights marks the crisis of individuality versus custom, since the contradiction between the social expectations of class privilege and the selfhood advocated by the rising neo-liberal capitalist system is the very essence of Victorian bourgeois consciousness.

From the start, Bronte seems more interested in showing the reader a world that is beset by the same conflicts as her own rather than an escapist daydream. Terry Eagleton says that “Wuthering Heights is […] an apparently timeless, highly integrated, mysteriously autonomous symbolic universe” (1), which utterly defies the prevailing methodology of fiction literature to remove the reader from the discord of his existence. Most fiction novels come close to portraying what we would call “myths,” that is, the illusory resolutions of real contradictions within society for the purpose of the story in such a way as to validate ideology and the societal status quo. Although it is inherent to fairy tales and children’s stories that the hermetically-sealed bubble of this world never be burst, oftentimes with adult novels this purpose is stricken by strains in achieving its “proper” ideological closure. Indeed, the novel itself loyally reproduces the various disasters assaulting Europe, manifested in individual characters.

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The Concept of the “Other” in Kim

Kipling seems to fancy himself as the first Eric Schlosser. In his story Kim, the presence of the concept of the “other” is scarce, even nonexistent, to the point of a noticeable, glaring omission. British, Indian and Tibetan cultures have minor contradictions with each other, but none is presented as particularly “domineering” over one another even within the context of colonial relations. No one is demonized; no one is more advanced or nobler than the other. Whatever ideologies might justify it, there is no particularly sharp mention of the destruction of previous forms of social organization (symbolized by characters such as the Lama), which seem merely dizzied rather than lost. Without realizing it himself, since this is the nature of ideology to fill the gaps and to consist on what the text hides, Kipling has constructed here a highly differentiated examination of pre-globalization before such a term existed. One cannot separate the full explanation of imperialism from late nineteenth-century colonialism and the necessary spread of capitalist production that comes from those particular stages. Such a spread, such as that from Britain to India, is globalizing, and imperialism has the ability to hide cultural and ethnic conflicts as much as it has the power to aggravate them for monetary and political gain. This is what we see a slice of in Kim.

Scott’s Denied Bourgeois Mentality

Sir Walter Scott may have denied traditionalism and the ruling class culture of his time personally, but his novels provide no alternative to those bourgeois doctrines and rather in the values of that system find their own comfortable justifications for existence. To illuminate the question of class ideology and how it is reflected in Sir Walter Scott’s works, one only needs to examine aspects of the author’s life and how the prevailing culture influenced him. Following the path of cultural analysis, one can then investigate Scott’s works and see that his main characters follow the dominant bourgeois ideology. Whether or not this was intentional and the secondary, more passionate characters are meant to be the “true heroes” of the novels, the existence of the heroes themselves demonstrate Scott’s capitulation to established bourgeois perceptions of idealism and heroism.

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Eliot’s Alienation

A modernist exercise in capitalist angst, T.S. Eliot’s famous masterpiece “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” at once exposes the crumbling of bourgeois society and the utter disintegration of its culture as a meaningful epoch. Considered by many to be the first modernist poem, its verses certainly carve out a splendid picture of the isolation and contempt for the status quo that marks modernist and postmodernist literature. More than that, it illustrates the emptiness and superficiality of class society through the middle-class male persona of the narrator, who is kept nameless but is presumably Eliot himself speaking through a fictional character.

The sense of being lost begins with the quotation at the beginning of the poem. Translated, it reads: “If I thought my answer were to one who could ever return to the world, this flame would move no more; but since no one has ever returned alive from this depth, if what I hear be true, without fear of infamy I answer you.” The quote, which comes from Dante’s Divine Comedy, is originally spoken by a lost soul in hell. This gives quite a first impression of the emotions to come from the main body of the poem.

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