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Marxist Literary Theory Applied to Mark Twain’s Short Stories

As Marxist literary theory states and asserts, literature is a reflection of culture and culture can be affected by literature. According to Marxists, literature itself is a social institution and has a specific ideological function, based on the background and cultural ideology of the author.

Marxist elements are present in different ways in Twain’s short stories, the interaction between the social classes, religion being the opium of the people,  and the economic struggle of a Capitalist system as shown in “The Story of the Bad Little Boy Who Didn’t Come to Grief” and “The Story of the Good Little Boy Who Did Not Prosper”. In these story, Twain points out that although they are a satirical parody of stories told in Sunday school, the focal point  is that due to the Capitalist system in America, people who cheat and lie like Jim in “The Story of the Bad Little Boy Who Didn’t Come to Grief” are given opportunities to become wealthy and successful. People don’t become successful by being honest and good like Jacob in “The Story of the Good Little Boy Who Did Not Prosper” therefore, Twain is commenting on the unfairness of a Capitalist system with class struggles and  socialist movements as depicted in his stories.

We also see Marxist elements in “A True Story, Repeated Word for Word as I Heard It”, as Twain illustrates the depth of the class and racial divide as it is symbolized and expressed through the conversation between the white character, referred to as Misto C——, and Aunt Rachel. As Marx believed that all past history is a struggle between hostile and competing economic classes in a state of change, Twain is able to show the ignorance displayed towards Aunt Rachel and other African American and slaves’ experiences, as the white character insinuates that Aunt Rachel must have experienced no trouble in her life, although her entire family was sold off into slavery and she has not been able to see them since, yet she was forced to continue to work, with no knowledge as to where her family may be, due to her social class.

When analyzing Twain’s stories it’s critical to understand his own background as an author. Twain grew up as a Calvinist and was taught that human nature is corrupt and the majority of the human race was damned to hell, which elicited the religious satire evident in his writing. This is seen in “Extracts from Adam’s Diary” which seems to ridicule the story of Adam and Eve as it makes light of religion, which is similar to Marx’s negative view of religion. Marxism views religion as the opium of the people and that all criticisms should start with religion as it is the symptom of a larger problem.

When comparing Twain and Chopin’s stories through a Marxist lens, it is clear that although both authors works include Marxist elements to show the hardships that come with belonging to a lower class as well as the interaction between the different classes, Twain uses satire to criticize the class system, whereas Chopin criticizes the system but also shows potential for change, such as in “Beyond the Bayou”. Twain also focuses on the perseverance of the class struggles as shown in “A True Story, Repeated Word for Word as I Heard It”. Unlike Chopin, Twain shows the endurance of characters through these socialist movements and class struggles, while Chopin shows the restrictions set by a society structured in such a way. Marxist elements are also shown in Chopin’s stories to elicit feelings of sympathy for the characters that experience hardships in this class system, like in “La Belle Zoraide”, while Twain shows how characters like Aunt Rachel persevere through the struggles of the class but continue to grow no matter their social class and what restrictions come with it.

Hoda Mahmoud

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