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Marxist Literary Theory in Relation to Mark Twain’s Short Stories

Marxist literary theory emphasizes the idea that literature is not made up of timeless works, but is a product of the socio-historical and cultural contexts it took place in. As Marx once said, “it is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but on the contrary their social being that determines their consciousness” (Panda, 2). From a Marxist lens, literature is directed towards addressing class struggle and history, domination and oppression, to an intended audience with political motives (Panda, 2).

Marxist elements are varyingly exemplified throughout Twain’s short stories; the interaction followed by corruption of social classes and economic structures and religion being the opium of the masses are themes exhibited 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.” Using satirical parody, Twain addresses the discrepancy in the fact that a common individual cannot survive in a world dictated by the “inherently good” characters of Sunday school books. His strongest argument is that, as a result of the Capitalist society we live in, those who cheat, like Jim from “The Bad Little Boy,” prosper, while those who play by the rules, like Jacob from “The Good Little Boy,” often remain in the dark, completely opposing the hypocritical expectations set forth by religion. Twain says, “every boy who did as he did prospered, except him. His case is truly remarkable. It will probably never be accounted for” (Twain, 33). Twain mirrors these two stories in order to demonstrate class struggle and social corruption. This is evident as Twain says, “he is the infernalest wickedest scoundrel in his native village, and is universally respected, and belongs to the Legislature” (Twain, 13). Jim’s community is willing to elect him to the legislature, not because of his moral goodness and ideals, but became of his material wealth. This goes back to the Marxist idea that man is a material being, motivated by his material means, not by any notions of justice or equality.

Twain was raised in a Calvinist family and taught that a majority of humans were damned to hell, thus framing the human predicament as hopeless. Twain’s obsession with the idea that everything was preordained by the grace of God manifests itself in his stories in the form of religious parody. His existence in the pre-war and post-war reality serves as the hidden necessary condition that make a text possible; after all, Marxist literary theory asserts that a text cannot know itself without its author (Panda, 3). This satirical manifestation is seen in “Extracts from Adam’s Diary,” as Twain makes light of religion by ridiculing the original story of Adam and Eve. From a Marxist approach, Twain depicts the negative aspects of religion in the sense that he criticizes its constant need to legislate nature and control society, for it is defined by Marx as the opium of the people, and the first phase of a greater threat. In doing so, Twain also sheds light upon the Marxist belief that there is no abstract ideal that humans strive for but portray class struggle rather as a material brawl for survival. Since Adam is the first man on Earth, he has no conception of ideal; therefore, he is ironically stripped of religious connotation.

Furthermore, Marxist elements are also seen in “A True Story Repeated Word for Word as I Heard It,” as Twain brings awareness to the ignorance of the oppressor towards the oppressed. This is epitomized through the conversation between former slave, Aunt Rachel, and the white character, Misto C–. The focal point of this conversation lies within the initiation of it as Misto C—asks Aunt Rachel “how [it is] that [she’s] lived sixty years and never had any trouble?” (Twain, 46). In doing so, the white narrator demonstrates the overwhelming ignorance of the period he lives in and the oppression that his race had perpetrated. Misto—C looks past the fact Aunt Rachel had been sold off into slavery, eternally separated from her family, and continued to work for all these years, simply as a result of her social class. This conversation further upholds the Marxist belief that all history revolves around the constant struggle and competition between classes undergoing revolutionary development (Panda, 3).

Overall, throughout the previously mentioned short stories, Twain paints an image of the superior and the inferior, the good and the bad, and the oppressor and the oppressed in terms of religion, convention, and race.

 Safa H.



Works Cited

Panda, Aditya Kumar. “Marxist Approach to Literature: An Introduction.” JOURNAL OF TEACHING AND RESEARCH IN ENGLISH LITERATURE, vol. 6, no. 3, Jan. 2015,

Twain, Mark. The best short stories of Mark Twain. Edited by Lawrence I. Berkove, Modern Library, 2004.




1 Comment

  1. monaalbizri says:

    I enjoyed your Marxist perspective on Twain’s short stories. I recognized how Twain strips religion away from his characters to reveal that there is no ideal human, contrary to what is depicted in the Sunday-school books. Furthermore, I now have a clear understanding of Twain’s motivations behind employing satire in these short stories.

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