Terry Eagleton starts his 1976 classic Marxism and Literary Criticism telling his readers that, “Marxism is a scientific theory of human societies and of the practice of transforming them.” He goes on to explain that Marxist literary theory must do more than simply “interpret symbolism, study literary history… it is first to understand the complex, indirect relations between [literatures] and the ideological worlds they inhabit.” Marxism aims to be more than an academic approach, it strives to offer a holistic examination of literature to expose what it says about reality, and ultimately to use that knowledge to change society. To understand how Marxism strives towards this goal we must grapple with the relationship between the material world and ideology; this is what Marxists refer to as base and superstructure. With this Marxist framework we can more fully contextualize literatures from older societies, and understand how they resonate with modern readers and writers.
Terry Eagleton uses the term “base” to describe the forces and relations which create the economic structure of society. In other words, the base of society can be understood as the combination of two things. First, the economic relationships which exist between people. For example, the economic relationship that characterized feudal Europe was the relationship between lord and serf. Today the dominating economic relationship is between worker (proletariat) and capitalist (bourgeoisie). The second part of the base of society is the means of production which include tools, machines, factories, land and raw materials required for commodity production.
Superstructure then is those things which are not directly related to production but are nonetheless required for the economic system to run. Another term for superstructure is ideology. Ideology can be understood as the law, media, politics, science, culture, philosophy, and for us most importantly art—including literature. The existence of ideology is dependent on an economic base first existing. Eagleton makes this point clear, saying that, “ideology in turn, is the product of concrete social relations of a time and place.” Art and literature then exist within the context of the social reality of their historical moment. To understand a piece of literature, we must grapple with the social reality in which it was created as well as our own present social reality and often everything in between.
Understanding that literature exists as ideology (informed by the social relations surrounding it) raises an important question: How can literature from other historical periods—during which the dominant relations of production were different from today’s—still resonate with readers? Terry Eagleton argues that ancient texts can still appeal to us because a historical link remains from the old society to the new. Moreover, he argues that in stories from older periods we see a relationship to the means of production which is less alienating than today’s. This is often described in terms of people having a closer relationship to nature. We can take this to mean that when we read older texts part of what we experience is a world which predates the alienation capitalism imposes on us. In imagining worlds from our past, we can imagine a future world.
The base and superstructure of society are inextricably linked. They are always in conflict with one another. They both reflect and reinforce the contradictions of society. But the superstructure or ideology is more than just a mirror for the means and relations of production. Ideology encompasses even those parts of society which aim to reshape the material reality.
Of all the parts of ideology, art is freest to do this.
As Ernst Fischer argues in Art Against Ideology (1969), “art, always transcends the ideological limits of its time, yielding us insights into the realities which ideology hides from view.” Eagleton borrows from the French Marxist Louis Althusser and says “art cannot be reduced to ideology: it has, rather, a particular relationship to it. Ideology signifies the imaginary ways in which men experience the real world, which is of course, the kind of experience literature gives to us.” It is often said that creators of literature lie to tell the truth. This statement describes the transcendent properties of fiction which Fischer, Althusser, Eagleton and so many other Marxists aim to understand.
Literature from the medieval period played a tremendous role in laying the foundation for how the modern world understands and relates to story. It’s certainly true that our literary canon is much older than the medieval period, but it is perhaps possible to argue that it wasn’t until the development of feudalism that the form as well as the content of literature began the process of becoming recognizable to modern audiences. This in part explains why medieval literature still resonates with readers today. This also explains why we see so many contemporary writers reproduce elements of fiction which were popularized in medieval times. We see in medieval literature an opening of possibility. New content develops—with new themes, architypes, and motifs—but so too do new forms of literature, like the novel. The relationship between form and content is closely related to the relationship between base and superstructure. Just as the base determines the superstructure, content determines form. “Marxist criticism sees form and content as dialectically related, and yet wants to assert in the end the primacy of content in determining form,” wrote Eagleton.
For Marxists, part of the reason stories like Beowulf continue to resonate with readers is because we are historically linked to their form and content. This doesn’t just mean we have a common genealogy which we can trace back to the creator of a particular piece of art. Our historical link is much more complex than that. Literature like Beowulf reveals that which is hidden from us. Throughout Beowulf the ideological contradictions of an early agrarian society clashing with a more developed society are apparent. When we read Beowulf, every time a Catholic explanation is provided for what was previously understood in pagan terms, the ideological antagonisms of the ninth century are revealed to the reader. We relate to them because in showing the contradictions of their time they also reveal contradictions of the present.
To understand Beowulf from a Marxist point of view, we can start by addressing the dominant means of production and social relations which have influenced the piece. Through the social relations of the fifth century, society is depicted in Beowulf as tribal, semi-communal, and agrarian. The family as we understand it is still developing and has not yet become what we understand as the nuclear family. To the royalty and upper classes, heredity is vitally important to the distribution of wealth and power. For this reason, upper class women like the queen of Heorot have very defined and structured roles to play in the kingdom. But lines 990 through 993 of Beowulf demonstrate that this gendered hierarchy applies to the lower classes differently. “Then the order was given for all the hands/ to help to refurbish Heorot immediately: / men and women thronging in the wine hall, / get it ready” (990). That both men and women perform labor to rebuild what Grendel had destroyed reveals how the gendering of labor existed in the medieval period and has changed over time.
What’s offered above is a brief historical analysis of Beowulf, but it’s not yet a Marxist analysis. It fails to consider the linguistic and theological shifts in tone which are found throughout the story. It also fails to account for the fact that Beowulf as we know it is a translation based on one surviving manuscript. The above analysis also fails to recognize the pedestal on which Beowulf sits as one of Britain’s oldest and most celebrated pieces of literature. Lastly, the above analysis doesn’t mention the translator Seamus Heaney or that he’s Irish and that his translation of Beowulf is influenced by his Irish identity and the generations of struggle between Ireland and Britain. To reach a true Marxist interpretation of a text, we must do all those things; in other words, we must grapple with both the content of the story and its form.
In Dante’s Divine Comedy, the relationship between content and form often goes from subtext to overt declaration. When the character Dante speaks, his dialogue often seems to be doing two things. In the ninth canto, Dante says, “look now and see the meaning that is hidden/ beneath the veil that covers my strange verse.” To do as we are told and find the hidden meanings of Dante’s Divine Comedy, we should proceed as we did with Beowulf, and examine the economic base surrounding the text. Dante Alighieri wrote The Divine Comedy after being banished from Florence, Italy. Dante was from the upper classes of Florence at a time that early mercantile classes were beginning to accumulate wealth and power. From this economic base, an ideological struggle manifested itself in political and religious terms and is described by the Norton Anthology of World Literature Vol. 1 as a struggle “between forces favoring the power of the church and those favoring the independence of city-states.”
Dante’s work greatly influenced literary interpretations of Christianity. Our modern conception of Hell is informed by Dante’s Inferno as much as it is by The New Testament. Dante’s depictions of Hell and Limbo and of journeying through the afterlife are almost perpetually reproduced in contemporary literature. Philip Pulman’s depiction of the Suburbs of the Dead in The Amber Spyglass is a direct homage to Dante. Both texts explore the separation of body and soul, themes of memory and sight, and both evoke the much older scene of crossing the river Styx.
Throughout his journey, Dante’s body remains united with his soul. When he steps into the Boatman’s craft to cross the Styx, he realizes his physicality affects the boat’s buoyancy unlike Virgil’s or the Boatman’s. “Only then it seemed to carry weight,” he says. The protagonists of His Dark Materials are forced to sever their connections with their souls to reach the world of the dead. In what is possibly the most heart wrenching moment of the entire series, Lyra does this, and when it’s her turn to step into the boat, Pullman writes, “she was so light that it [the boat] barely rocked at all.”
Pullman quite deliberately uses motifs from Inferno in His Dark Materials to deepen the arguments about religious authority and secularism. We’ve already noted that The Divine Comedy was written in a context of political intrigue and religious rebellion. The Divine Comedy drips with a political critique not so much of religion but of religious power. For Dante (the character and the writer), Hell is all too real, but ultimately Dante (the writer) decides who is damned. Dante’s choice to send religious leaders like popes to Hell directly reflects the ideological turmoil of his time, which itself was based on developing class antagonisms.
The choices Dante made as a writer reveal to us both the economic base and ideological superstructure of the world in which he existed. That Philip Pullman used these same motifs to make his own secular argument is an example of how texts, to use Terry Eagleton’s words, “mediate” between multiple “levels” of interpretation. It demonstrates how form and content are inextricably linked and can move from one economic period (feudal Italy) to a later, more developed period (late capitalism).
Marxism, as a method, can be used to holistically examine a piece of literature and to deepen our understanding of the text by uncovering the material and subjective forces which brought it into being. This method allows us to see art as dynamic pieces of history as opposed to static relics from other times. Viewing literature this way, we can see not only how a piece came into existence, but how it reflects its social reality and influences our own.