Marxist Theory and Literary Analysis

In the Marxist tradition, works of art are analyzed in terms of the historical and cultural conditions of the society in which they are produced. I feel that Heart of Darkness and A Passage to India are particularly suited to this type of approach because the set of relations between groups and classes of people that imperialism sets up, and that these two works explore, starkly reveals the contradictions within capitalism in a way that a similar piece of fiction set within one culture and dealing with characters from that culture alone cannot. Prior to the analysis however, I would like to give a brief, pertinent explanation of the Marxist approach itself and of the terms I will be using.

After years of study and research, Karl Marx published the first volume of his monumental Das Kapital in 1867. In it Marx presents his theory of the materialist conception of history in which the economic base of a society gives rise to and interacts in a dialectical way with the societal superstructure of culture, law, religion and art. Among other things, Das Kapital traces the historical development of industrial capitalism as arising out of feudalism, predicts capitalism's further evolution, and sets forth theories of class structure and class struggle. It also critiques the methods by which industrial capitalism organizes the means of production so that capital and labor are separated and held by distinct and antagonistic groups within the society. This separation overwhelmingly benefits the holders of capital, politically and economically, to the corresponding detriment of those who sell their labor. Though this is by no means an adequate summary of Marx' ideas and contributions, my aim is to provide this simple theoretical framework within which to focus on more particular elements of Marxist theory. For the purposes of this study, the Marxist views concerning imperialism, ideology, and literature will form the basis of my critical approach to the two works in question.

Marx did not use the word imperialism but he did have theories about the impact of European capitalism on non-European pre-capitalist societies (Brewer, 27) and these were developed by later writers like Vladimir Lenin in his work Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism. Lenin describes imperialism as the "product of highly developed industrial capitalism. It consists in the striving of every industrial capitalist nation to bring under its control or to annex larger and larger areas of...territory, irrespective of what nations inhabit those regions" (155). Though this imperial relationship between Europe and the under-developed world as defined by Lenin is certainly detectable in the historical settings of both Heart of Darkness and A Passage to India, the specific conditions, areas of the world, and historical time frames represented in each work are divergent enough to make a more specialized definition helpful. Achille Loria's article written in 1907 in which he distinguishes between two kinds of imperialism, and quoted here from Bernard Semmel's book Imperialism and Social Reform, is particularly useful:

Achille Loria...drew portraits of what he called 'economic imperialism' and 'commercial imperialism.' The first he described as violent annexation on the part of old and well-populated states of thinly populated states which because of special conditions - tropical climate, for example-cannot be colonized. This was the imperialism of the Boer War...the imperialism of capital export. 'Commercial imperialism,' on the other hand, pertained to the strengthening of bonds between the mother country and its colonies-it might mean an all-out fiscal union or simply the granting of tariff preference (142).

Loria's definitions of these two kinds of imperialism corresponds very well with the conditions described in each story. The economic activities described in Heart of Darkness are examples of "economic imperialism" in which Europeans do not settle in the area but are only there temporarily to gather and export raw materials, and the British presence in India described in A Passage to India More properly represents "commercial imperialism" or colonialism, in which citizens of the industrial nation actually settle in the conquered territory. The fundamental motive of both imperialisms is economic: profits are large because investment in the conquered area is minimal and native labor is cheap, and this situation is maintained by depriving the native peoples of political and economic rights. When analyzing the two works in detail, the distinction between the two forms of imperialism will help throw light on the impact these economic conditions have on the relationships of the various characters within each work.

An understanding of what ideology is and the Marxist view of its function in a capitalist society is also necessary to this study. Marx states in The German Ideology that "The division of labour...manifests itself also in the ruling that inside this class one part appears as thinkers of the class...." (Elster, 303). The role of these thinkers is to develop and promote ideas that further solidify the power of the dominant class, which in a capitalist society is the class that controls the wealth, sometimes called the bourgeoisie. As Eagleton puts it: "The function of ideology is to legitimate the power of the ruling class in society; in the last analysis, the dominant ideas of a society are the ideas of its ruling class" (5).

In an imperial situation, which involves an industrial state engaged with a pre-industrial society for purposes of economic gain, profit depends largely on limiting rights for the natives. James Kavanagh points out in his essay "Ideology," that such a "social situation embodies an implicit tension that can at any time erupt into open conflict, and thus every class society has certain repressive mechanisms (police, armies, courts) force social subjects to accept the relations of subordination and dominance between classes" (308). But ideology, defined by Webster's Dictionary as "the integrated assertions, theories, and aims that constitute a sociopolitical program," is a more efficient way to manage social contradictions because it provides a comprehensive picture of the society in which social and economic inequalities are represented as natural and inevitable. The aim is to make the subordinate classes feel it would be futile to attempt to change their situation and "dominant-class subjects themselves are freer to believe that their wealth and power are after all justified" (Kavanagh, 309).

Much of the standard British ideology regarding Empire in the late 19th and early 20th centuries conforms with two basic related themes. One body of ideological writing emphasizes Britain as the most highly developed civilization in the world and therefore asserts that the people of the regions it controls can only benefit through their exposure to Britain and its culture. A. P. Thornton, in The Imperial Idea and Its Enemies, encapsulates it well: "England by her traditions and institutions was the natural guardian of liberty...She must see to it that her ideas were asserted, her influence felt, and her anger feared" (4). The other ideological theme is distinct in focusing specifically on racial and cultural differences between Europeans and native peoples. Yet Brian Street points out that racial stereotypes were already hardened before the latter half of the 19th century and "imperialism tended to use theories already worked out by scientists and which lent themselves to political manipulation" (5). These parallel, yet interlocking, ideologies will be examined more fully in the following chapter in terms of their historical development and their prevalence in the culture and literary fiction at the time Heart of Darkness and A Passage to India were written in order to aid identification of these ideas within the texts themselves. More specifically for this study, part of my analysis will involve examining characters from both works in terms of the extent that they internalize cultural and ideological assumptions and looking at the various psychological consequences that this entails because, in this approach, individual psychology is also a social product.

The Marxist theories of literature identify it as part of a society's ideological superstructure in that literary works are "forms of perception, particular ways of seeing the world" and these, in turn, are "the products of the concrete social relations into which men enter at a particular time and place; it is the way those class-relations are experienced, legitimized, and perpetuated" (Eagleton, 6). But Eagleton goes on to qualify that a work of art is never "a simple reflection of a ruling class's ideas; on the contrary, it is always a complex phenomenon, which may incorporate conflicting, even contradictory views of the world" (7). This is one reason why both Heart of Darkness and A Passage to India are so fascinating. Both works stand out as being exceptionally complex in that both present a realistic depiction of the historical circumstances in which they were written, both feature characters who espouse the ideology of the dominant culture, yet both also treat members of the "backward" countries with seriousness and sympathy as well as raising questions about the imperial mission itself in ironically drawing attention to its flaws. This all against a background of what Wendy Katz describes as "the gradually developing intensity of racism in literature [which] seems to reflect the historical shift from a relatively self-confident to a more defensive Empire" (132). John A. McClure writes in Kipling and Conrad that "as the twentieth century opened, the artists and intellectuals of the age increasingly came to believe that imperial rule, if inevitable in the short run, was an inglorious enterprise that deformed both those who ruled and those who submitted" (153). I believe that Joseph Conrad and E. M. Forster were two such artists and that the two works in question reflected their growing awareness of imperialism as an "inglorious enterprise" whether this was consciously expressed by the author(s) or not. This study will also attempt to tease out the ways in which each work both supports and subverts the imperial mission and its ideology and I will also speculate to a certain extent as to how these contradictions in the works reflected contradictions in the society in which they were written.

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31 July 2014. Author: Criticism