Class (and literary studies)

The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018

Class (and literary studies)

Class (and literary studies): A matter of birth in some older, socially stratified cultures; since the Industrial Revolution, a term more generally used to refer to social and, especially, economic groups. German philosophers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who together wrote The Communist Manifesto (1848), divided capitalist societies into two classes — the bourgeoisie and the proletariat — and saw the history and future development of such societies in terms of class struggle. Since then, social theorists from Max Weber (Economy and Society [1921]) to Pierre Bourdieu (Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste [1979]) have generally agreed that the Marxist paradigm, though helpful, does not adequately define the way in which classes are delineated, defined, and constructed in modern societies. Class status depends not only on economic production — whether one produces wealth, as do laborers, or enjoys surplus wealth, as do the bourgeoisie — but also on patterns of consumption; ethnic, political, and national affiliations; social goals, expectations, opportunities; and so on.

Literary texts are among the most powerful forms of cultural discourse, and as such they may attest to, perpetuate, or critique the class divisions prevalent in a given culture at a given period of history. Indeed, a work of literature may simultaneously perpetuate and critique the class structure because, as Soviet critic Mikhail Bakhtin pointed out in works such as Rabelais and His World (1940), a literary text may be dialogic or even polyphonic. That is, it may contain two or more voices or discourses, one of which reinforces or reflects the values of the ruling class or dominant ideology, the other(s) of which represent(s) the priorities and values of the underprivileged class(es), the plebeian “second world” of commoners or folk.

Although Marxist critics tend to see literature in terms of class and class conflict, some Marxists have cautioned against an overly simplistic view of class oppression and of literature’s role in class struggle. In his Quaderni del carcere, written during the period 1929—35 (and partially published in English as Selections from the Prison Notebooks [1971]), Italian communist Antonio Gramsci argued that even working-class people have some power to struggle against the dominant ideology and change history. French Marxist Louis Althusser, in works such as For Marx (1969) and Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays (1971), saw ideology as being riven with contradictions that works of literature both reflect and expose; he followed Marx and Gramsci in believing that although literature must be seen in relation to ideology, it also has some independence from it. British cultural critic Raymond Williams, in Culture and Society 1780—1950 (1958) and The Long Revolution (1961), warned against viewing working-class people as the “masses,” rather than as individuals, and viewed literary texts in the context of dynamically changing and evolving cultures of individuals.

Nonetheless, because class divisions are real — and because they unquestionably result in very different experiences for those they separate — most contemporary critics, particularly those practicing cultural criticism, argue that class, class distinctions, and class differences must be taken into account when we speak or write about literary texts. They hasten to add, however, that matters of class are inevitably intertwined with matters of race, gender, ethnicity, and nationality. For instance, the experiences of working-class women differ from those of working-class men, and those differences, compounded by differences of race, ethnicity, and / or nationality, are reflected in literary texts. Thus, a class-based, comparative reading of two novels published in 1989, The Joy Luck Club, by the Asian American novelist Amy Tan, and Como agua para chocolate (Like Water for Chocolate), by the Mexican novelist Laura Esquivel, should address racial and ethnic differences and the impact those differences have on not only the two women novelists but also the female and male characters who populate their fictions.