A critique of literary theory

13 Oct





A Critique of Literary Theory

               Reading is supposed to be an enjoyable pastime and so one may posit that the employment of literary criticism detracts from one’s pleasure and instead of offering insight into an author’s work will simply dissect and present a fractured sum of its parts rather than a work in its entirety. The purpose of critical application is to engender the insight necessary to help the reader develop an understanding of what’s written between the lines and even why the lines where written in the first place. It offers a position of intelligence rather than one of ignorance. With these critical tools in hand, the reader is more likely to appreciate and understand the literature being studied. Instead of reading a text and accepting it at face value, the reader is able to garner a more complex understanding of the subject, able to discuss the finer literary points, analyze the text and compare and contrast it with contemporary writings whilst simultaneously applying other disciplines of scholarly pursuit to embellish one’s reading. Two such disciplines are Formulistic and Marxist literary criticism, as described by Dobie in her book “Theory into Practice,” that offer very different literary lenses both of which can be applied separately to the same writing. Although there are several different methods, these both offer a juxtaposition that allows one to enjoy the writing for itself and its intrinsic beauty whilst enabling one to recognize the characters social standing, understand hierarchical influence and recognize the inclusion of itinerate politic. By understanding both forms one learns not only to appreciate the craft and skill of the author but also to comprehend what inspired them to write what they did and from what view point their words flourished. Formulistic and Marxist theory are therefore complimentary bedfellows when exploring and analyzing any literary text.

               “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen,” the very first line of the dystopian novel 1984 published in 1948 by Eric Blair under the pen-name George Orwell. Orwell was a committed socialist who understood the value of life, who during his own fought against both fascism and communism and concluded that anything that was centrally controlled, no matter how represented, was essentially evil and detrimental to the pursuit of happiness and the welfare of humanity. That aside let’s take the first line and apply formulistic criticism. Formulism concerns itself with imagery, scene-setting and the engendering of emotion through metaphor and allusion. Observed through this lens one simply views a clock, no matter where it is, marking time. The clock has just struck one o’clock and so we may perhaps have encountered a satisfactory period directly after lunch. We’re also told that it’s April, that part of the year when we’re coming out of winter and heading into spring, a time of rebirth and continuity, the cold in the air suggesting that we’re still within the clutches of the old season but fast approaching the brightness and clarity of the new; a foreboding perhaps of pleasant weather and happier times? At this point we know nothing of Orwell, his politics, or as yet what the novel has to offer. In fourteen words we’ve been given a statement of facts offering us place and time, imagery of a chiming clock, a sense of season and very little else. A fairly simplistic opening until we explore this from the point of view of Marxist criticism.

               In order to do this we have to step back from the page and consider the author, his works, his life, and his political inclination. George Orwell was the product of an upper-middle-class family who’d attended the best preparatory school in England, Eton, and who was destined to go to Oxford. Instead of becoming a scholar he neglected his studies and through lack of funds or scholarship joined the Imperial Police and become a colonial policeman in Burma;  a job which entailed the wearing of a uniform, the carrying of a weapon and which came replete with the full force of the British Empire to back his every action. In effect he’d become a colonial slave master who was supposed to hold the indigenous population in subjugation in order for the British Empire to continue its criminal rape of the country and its resources for the benefit of His Britannic Majesty. Knowing only this about Orwell we can now apply Marxist criticism, as we can clearly define hierarchy and identify the Proletariat, Bourgeoisie and define the practice of hegemony.

               “… And the clock struck thirteen.” Now we see that time is being defined for a reason, everything must run to schedule in order to insure continuity and uniformity. A clock signifies control and the fact that it’s striking is either an order or a command to which a required response is expected. But why thirteen, why not one? The twenty four hour clock, or military time as it’s known in America, is both a little austere and forbidding. Instead of an image in the mind of a clock on a mantel piece gently chiming the hours of the day we now have an image of a monolithic military time piece dictating the march of time rather than indicating the passing of time. The seasonal change also takes on a different context as the chill in the air now denotes not the representation of change but rather that of permanence; classic foreshadowing which will reach far into the chapters of the story. By applying different lenses we now have two very different interpretations of what the Orwell’s words represent and that from just the very first line of the novel; such are the contrasts of Formulistic and Marxist criticism. In one example we’ve enjoyed the language and accepted an image and in the other, by understanding a little about the author’s viewpoint, have put the writing into its true context and quite differently defined the projected image.

               The application of both of these forms of criticism to the same piece of work adds a depth that would not otherwise be appreciated. In the sonnets of Shakespeare we are offered beautiful imagery where allusion and metaphor are compounded with iambic pentameter adding nuance and precision to the spoken word. Shakespeare’s words conjure not just imagery but sound and innate color, creating a three dimensional experience from a two dimensional page. One can spend hours or even a lifetime pondering the significance of his words, but what if we employ Marxist criticism and apply that, are the sonnets quite as beautiful? We know that the Renaissance England under Elizabeth was a police-state and that religious antipathy existed between the recently formed Anglican Church and the older established Catholic order. Relationships were therefore inflamed and confused, causing the people to accept cognitive dissonance and lives of ill ease. Was Shakespeare caught in this struggle, or more to the point how could he not be, and how did that affect his writing? We know that in his sonnets he’s extremely deferential – accepting that he’s not the equal of the receiver of the sonnets – and can therefore understand that when writing, was clearly aware of the established class system. We know he sought patronage, as unless protected by a wealthier person of higher status couldn’t have continued in his chosen profession.

               In sonnet 29 Shakespeare offers “bootless cries to heaven.” From the Marxist point of view one has to appreciate that during the Elizabethan era there was no higher law than god or that of his representative on earth the Queen; a clear assignation of hierarchy.  When we understand that by offering prayers to a “deaf heaven” in a time when church attendance was mandatory and belief total then the lines are defamatory, heretical and even treasonous. Is Shakespeare saying that god is deaf and impotent and in doing so, by implication, the monarchy as well? On the other hand if we use the formulistic process then we have beautiful imagery of a bootless, destitute, hopeless individual for whom even heaven offers no solace and where prayers simply bounce off the iron work of the pearly gates!

               The use of both types of criticism can be justified in that they offer different depths or strata to an author’s works. Instead of staring at the reflection of one’s self in the waters of a lake, to use the Formulistic metaphorical method, we can instead see through the glassy layer and understand the machinations of the currents and the creatures that live beneath its surface and reveal its Marxist qualities. A combination of political awareness and literary imagery completes a fuller and richer digestion of any explored text. By offering two separate and polar opposite criticisms one can experience and reveal both the implicit and explicit.


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