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Literary Critical Theories

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Topics: Sociology, Marxism
Marxist Literary Criticism:
What do Marxist literary critics do with texts?
They explore ways in which the text reveals ideological oppression of a dominant economic class over subordinate classes. In order to do this a Marxist might ask the following questions:
Does the text reflect or resist a dominant ideology? Does it do both?
Does the main character in a narrative affirm or resist bourgeosie values?
Whose story gets told in the text? Are lower economic groups ignored or devalued?
Are values that support the dominant economic group given privilege? This can happen tacitly, in the way in which values are taken to be self-evident.
Who was the audience? What does the text suggest about the values of this audience?
What other approaches resemble Marxist literary criticism?
Marxist literary criticism often shares with feminist criticism a desire to challenge the power structures in contemporary society. For feminist, the issue is a marginalized gender; for Marxists, the issue is not gender but economic power, leading to political power.
Marxist literary criticism can also be viewed as a type of cultural criticism, in that it seeks to analyze a discourse (of power) that makes up one of the discourses that determine a text's historical meaning.
Example:
“Harrison Bergeron” helped me understand Marx’s theory of communism by applying “equality” in the most extreme sense of the word. . . . Though it [the story] contained much opinion, it offered a tangible example to work through Marx’s ideas. The most helpful aspect of this story was the characters’ loss of individuality and ability to think for themselves. The stomping out of social differences is shown to be difficult and extreme.
This process of doing theory by conducting an analysis of “Harrison Bergeron” provides an object of study that has real-world implications to understanding the impact of capitalism and communism. At the same time, it generates a dialogue beyond Marx by initiating questions about social difference and social inequality . . . . Vonnegut (1998) compelling, because they have such a difficult time imagining a world without capitalism, economic classes, and social inequality.
Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron” put a human face, applicable to any one of us, on Marxist theory. Marx’s theory came to life—could see it as reality—even if it was over-exaggerated, it brought the message home. It also generated a lot of personal thought: how far do we have to go to achieve equality?
The above excerpts were taken from Christina D. Weber’s peer-reviewed journal article titled “Literary Fiction as a Tool for Teaching Social Theory and Critical Consciousness”

Feminist Literary Criticism:
Feminist criticism is concerned with "...the ways in which literature (and other cultural productions) reinforce or undermine the economic, political, social, and psychological oppression of women" (Tyson). This school of theory looks at how aspects of our culture are inherently patriarchal (male dominated)
Typical questions:
How is the relationship between men and women portrayed?
What are the power relationships between men and women (or characters assuming male/female roles)?
How are male and female roles defined?
What constitutes masculinity and femininity?
How do characters embody these traits?
Do characters take on traits from opposite genders? How so? How does this change others’ reactions to them?
What does the work reveal about the operations (economically, politically, socially, or psychologically) of patriarchy?
What does the work imply about the possibilities of sisterhood as a mode of resisting patriarchy?
What does the work say about women's creativity?
What does the history of the work's reception by the public and by the critics tell us about the operation of patriarchy?
What role the work play in terms of women's literary history and literary tradition?
The above excerpts regarding Feminist Theory are taken directly from the Purdue Online Writing Lab, which has also quoted directly from Louis Tyson’s Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide

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