Study Guide

Marxism Texts

  • The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien (1954)

    "You shall not pass!"

    Who doesn't love a set of novels with its own film trilogy? Especially one that mixes class struggles with pointy ears, swords, and a Balrog?

    Supposedly inspired by the real history of the Second World War, this novel lets you see how fantasy and magic can still refer to the real world.

    What are the different power structures in each of the civilizations? Are some more democratic than others? What is the war ultimately about? Money? Land? Power? Something else?

  • The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins (2008-2010)

    Three books, four movies, lots of games. Like Lord of the Rings, this novel trilogy features teens fighting to the death in a computer-controlled arena. What's not to love?

    Of all recent fiction, you couldn't pick one better suited to Marxist theory. Revolution? Check. Oppressed industrial workers? Check. A ton o' struggle? Check. PLUS the use of television and entertainment to mask the class system (has someone let Fredric Jameson know about this?). Love it!

    What purpose do the Games serve for the inhabitants of the Capitol and of the Districts? What role does storytelling have on both sides of the revolution? Is it as important as violent action? Are the two linked?

  • Divergent, by Veronica Roth (2011)

    Post-apocalyptic Chicago and a rigid social structure based on character traits? Sounds like a Marxist field day to us. Here, we've got the usual fighting teens and the usual strife. The catch? Some kids have more than one trait (imagine that). They are Divergent… Uh oh, we smell trouble.

    Why does a broken-down society offer a better chance to show social structures? What is easier to see? Why are so many young adult novelists attracted to the future as a setting? What does it let them show that the present doesn't?

  • A Streetcar Named Desire, by Tennessee Williams (1947)

    If it's tension and distress you're after, this play (not to mention the 1951 movie based on it) is dripping with it. All the divisions are there: gender, sexuality, class, power. The scenes between Stanley Kowalski (a macho macho man) and Blanche DuBois (a fading and bankrupt Southern belle) are the class struggle gone feral.

    What role does money play? Where does Stanley's money come from? And where did Stella and Blanche's family money go? How are the changes in society represented in the main characters? What do the contrasts between Stanley and Blanche look like (remember—this is a play)?

  • Lord of the Flies, by William Golding (1954)

    If you like The Hunger Games, then here's a Nobel Prize winner doing it in black and white.

    In this novel, we've got a bunch of British schoolboys marooned on an island. What could possibly go wrong? Well, being marooned on an island has way of stripping all that ideology away, and once that happens, things pretty much turn into a fight to the death. The point? Civilization is only skin-deep. Marx would have loved it.

    What role does the division of labor play here? Who hunts, who cooks, who tends the fire? Do the boys need to fight? Is there a lack of space or food? Are there any other reasons for conflict?

  • Keywords, by Raymond Williams (1976)

    This is a short encyclopedia of the most common words used to describe literature, history, and society. Williams tries to be totally precise, giving lots of historical detail to show how all these concepts developed. This book lets you talk about "literature," "culture," and "society" without feeling quiet so uneasy.

    Why does Williams always give the word's first appearance in English? Why is language so important? If material things, not ideas, are most important to Marxists, then why is the author so focused on individual words? Is there any sense that a change in a word's meaning changes the world itself?

  • Marxism and Literary Criticism, by Terry Eagleton (1976)

    Clear and super concise (this baby is less than a hundred pages!), Eagleton gives us his own take on the Big Issues of Marxist literary theory. He's totally into the idea that Marxists do not actually ignore the issue of literary "form."

    You decide.

    Can you find any examples of readings of specific texts? Are they convincing? If not close readings, what does Eagleton's theory add to our understanding of literature?

  • Marxism and Literature, by Raymond Williams (1977)

    In this book, Williams goes into way more detail than Eagleton. Williams was a generation older than Eagleton and isn't as sparkly of a writer, but you'll get more economics and history from him, if you want to go there.

    Where does the idea of "literature" fit into history—where does it come from and why was it needed? What role does it play in contemporary society in Williams's account?

  • Marxist Literary Theory: A Reader, by Terry Eagleton and Drew Milne (1996)

    Does what it says on the tin.

    This is an anthology of Marxist texts with nice little biographical intros. Read all this and you'll know if you want to wade into the hard stuff.

    What do the authors see as the end-point of Marxist literary theory? Where is it going? What relationship do they show in the introduction between Marxist politics and literary theory?

  • Atlas of the European Novel 1800-1900, by Franco Moretti (1999)

    Franco Moretti may be the hippest Marxist literary critic working today, and here he argues that the most important thing when you're studying literature is figuring out the big picture. Think of it as "literary geography"—Moretti is basically trying to figure out exactly who was writing and read what, and where, at any given time.

    In the age of Google Earth, how far could you take the mapping of literary texts? To absurdity? Or to real insight? How could you apply this to today's bestsellers? Is there a geography that links, say, Divergent and The Hunger Games?

  • The Political Unconscious, by Fredric Jameson (1981)

    Jameson's the Big Daddy of Marxist theory these days. The guy's smart and wants you to know it, so don't expect him to just hand his ideas over without a fight. Even reading this introduction of this one, though, will clue you in to some mind-bending stuff on contemporary politics and society.

    What do you make of the idea that Marxism is not just more theory among others? Does Jameson make a convincing case for its uniqueness?