the role and function of ideology in literature


Introduction to Marxism and Literary Criticism

Marxism has influenced a host of critics in the twentieth century. In the 1930 nineteen-thirties, the radical critical trend in England left its distinct mark on Leavis and his disciples who owed allegiance to materialism. Most of the English critics in the thirties, forties and later took note of the importance of the historical context in literature and the great nineteenth-century fiction writers have been placed in a concrete context. The credit of making the great nineteenth-century fiction writers as uncompromising crusaders goes to the historicist principle made popular by Marxist literary criticism.

Marxist viewpoint is at the centre of discourses contending for acceptance today. Whether it is structuralism, poststructuralism, deconstruction or end of history theory, the target invariably is the idea that common working masses can change the face of history. Marxism has compelled the contemporary thinker and critic to reconsider his narrow individual-centred stand of helplessness or the abstract moralist notion of decay in the modern world. The writings of Marxist criticism is manifest in the writings of Marxist critics such as Raymond Williams, Frederic Jameson and Terry Eagleton who usefully link the literary work with its author. Marxism has also helped literary criticism in evolving new materialist concepts of culture, ideology, realism, modernism, political unconscious etc. with which to effectively counter the onslaught of bourgeois theorists.

Marxist criticism urges the writer and the reader to actively construct the meaning of the work to suit the positive humanist requirements of our age. Transcendentalist and materialistic philosophy unlike most philosophies which consider a transcendental force or which is called idea, mind, spirit, supreme being, etc. to be at the centre of human and natural existence, Marxism asserts that it is a matter which is of prime significance and whose different manifestations are ideas, mind, spirit, etc. While earlier philosophies can be termed idealistic, spiritualistic and other-worldly, Marxism claims to be materialistic and this-worldly. Materialism should not be confused with utilitarianism, consumerism or hedonism which bereft men are of any human value and reflect merely the narrow, self-serving and opportunistic distortions of human character. Marxism cannot take them as the central core of its conception. It is in this sense that Marxist materialism and the capitalist doctrine of individual centred profit motive should be seen as two entirely different and antagonistic modes of thought.

Ideology and literature influence each other

There is definitely an important way in which ideology and literature are related. The two do not merely coexist in the act of writing but also influence each other. In one way, an ideology, already formed in the mind of the writer in the course of living stands constantly challenged by certain new aspects of life that have emerged on the scene. The question arises: Should the writer allow the old ideology, with its grip on s/her consciousness, to oppose and negate the energy of the new trends by terming them dangerous to conventions? Or should one probe the factors that produced those trends?(IGNOU Book Unit 5).

Joseph Conrad's idea of literature ideology relationship supported by Roland Barthes, We shall understand this idea of a literature-ideology relationship better with reference to fiction because a large number of critics explain their notion of ideology with reference to novels. Joseph Conrad has remarked that "fiction is history, human history, or it is nothing." Of course, Conrad does not directly point towards ideology here. Roland Barthes broadly supports Conrad's paradoxical idea about fiction as history in his comment on the nature of a literary work. In Barthes's view, "The literary work is essentially paradoxical. It represents history and at the same time resists it." In this comment, literary work and history are seen as distinct and interactive. While the former stands for the text, the latter signifies a train of events, a process of change in time as well as those ideas and interpretations which combine seemingly scattered happenings into a totality. But in Barthes's statement, too, the word "ideology" has not occurred. Novels depict life as it is represented by ideology - Davis Lennard J. Davis, an American critic is more conscious of the role of ideology. He has argued that our view of fiction would depend a great deal upon how we visualise the working of ideology in literature. To quote: "Novels do not depict life, they depict life as it is represented by ideology. By this, I mean that life is a pretty vast and uncoordinated series of events and perceptions. But novels are pre-organised systems of experience in which characters, actions and objects have to mean something in relation to the system of each novel itself, in relation to the culture in which the novel is written, and in relation to the readers who are in that culture." Davis has also stated that each novel has an independent and distinct system of this kind with reference to which each incident or character begins to represent a meaning or a general trend.

Such a "system of experience" is the ideology of the novel it is the outcome of the clash between an author's general viewpoint and actual happenings in the arena of an existing culture. Davis considers ideology in a broader framework that novel has their peculiar "pre-organised systems of experience" and that each novel (also in the case of novels of the same author) has distinct systems of experience might suggest that such a system is open to change and evolution. This means that an author constantly works out his/her system in the novels. The obvious implication is that a system or an ideology can be false or true and thus project an angle not entirely acceptable to another system in a different novel of the author or to the reader. Such a system may also have a bearing upon the culture of which the work, the author and the reader are a part. This makes Davis consider ideology in a broader framework, "as a system of beliefs of a particular group or class; as false ideas or false consciousness; and the general cultural system for the creation of signs and meanings". Davis is right in indicating that victims of injustice in society may not be aware of this fact and may continue thinking that their world is rationally and justly governed. The idea of a "general cultural system" also clearly indicates a well-regulated oppressive system that constantly provides false consciousness. to the masses living under it.

In quite a few cases, the literary work could reflect such a fact and give an "ideological" outline of an alternative system, amorphous but holding a clear appeal to the reader. Literature in history seems to do this all the time. Conclusion Ideology is a more or less coherent set of beliefs and has roots in a class or group of people at a particular time. A socio-economic system with its neutral looking structures (parts and segments of the state) appropriates old beliefs and views and also generates new ones to perpetuate its stranglehold on people's minds. Religion, morality and ethical principles form the core of many a ruling class ideology. It is important for the owners of the means of production to mould as well as forge people's consciousness with a view to getting their uncritical approbation of the existing social relationships. A discussion of ideology is greatly helpful in understanding the meaning and message of a literary work as well as its aesthetic appeal. One can see a particular ideology influencing and determining a writer's consciousness as also the way in which that consciousness shapes characters, voices, responses and situations in a literary work. An alert reading of literature is sure to grasp the broadly political function of an ideology.



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