Literary Theory: Marxist Criticism

I have already talked at length about Russian contributions to the field (here and here), so it was really only a matter of time before I would get around to Marxism. As you will hopefully all remember from history class, the aim of Marxism is to bring about a classless society, based on the common ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange; it sees progress as coming about through the struggle for power between different social classes. I won’t go through the entire Communist Manifesto or Das Kapital with you, but only focus on those ideas and concepts that shape Marxist literary criticism.

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Literary Theory: “The Madwoman in the Attic” (1979) by Susan Gubar and Sandra M. Gilbert

“Penny Dreadful” still.

“It would not be too much to say that Anglo-American feminist criticism barely existed before [Gilbert and Gubar] rocked literary studies.”

Deborah D. Rogers, The Times Higher Education.

In 1979, Susan Gubar and Sandra M. Gilbert published The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, a hallmark of second-wave feminist criticism. Over 700 pages long, The Madwoman in the Attic presents an analysis of a trope found in 19th-century literature. Gilbert and Gubar proposed that all female characters in male-authored novels can be categorised as either an angel or a monster; women in fiction were either pure and submissive or sensual, rebellious, and uncontrollable (very undesirable qualities in a Victorian daughter/mother/wife).

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Literary Theory: Mythos/Logos and the Birth of Fiction


A mosaic from the ruins of Pompeii depicting Plato’s Academy.

Tell me, O muse, of that ingenious hero who travelled far and wide after he had sacked the famous town of Troy. Many cities did he visit, and many were the nations with whose manners and customs he was acquainted; moreover he suffered much by sea while trying to save his own life and bring his men safely home; but do what he might he could not save his men, for they perished through their own sheer folly in eating the cattle of the Sun-god Hyperion; so the god prevented them from ever reaching home. Tell me, too, about all these things, O daughter of Jove, from whatsoever source you may know them.

Homer, The Odyssey (trans. Samuel Butler).

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Literary Theory: “Illness As Metaphor” (1978) by Susan Sontag

"The Agnew Clinic" (1889), Thomas Eakins.

“The Agnew Clinic” (1889), Thomas Eakins.

Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.

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Literary Theory: “Death of the Author” (1968) by Roland Barthes


“Death found an author writing his life” (E. Hull, 1827).

This is one of those texts that are absolutely inescapable for literature students. Wherever you live, whichever classes you choose, at one point in your academic career you will encounter Roland Barthes’ “Death of the Author.” Whether you agree with him or not, Barthes introduced a concept that was truly revolutionary and is still a game-changing read for many first- and second-year literature students to this day.

So let’s blow some minds.

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