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Debating Literature

Updated on November 19, 2013

When it comes to a critical appreciation of literary works, critics tend to vary in their accounts on the aspects of literature, and they often try to persuade the reader into adapting to their point of view.

One main controversial debate is between the Marxist theory that literature, in some way, reflects politics and the ideology of society, and the other critics, such as Pater, who do not think that literature is political at all. Pater believes that literature possesses an artistic value, giving the idea that literature is rather apolitical. One, however, needs to keep in mind the fact that inspiration for these literary theorists comes from different sources. Marx and Pater were both born during the Victorian era, yet while the sociologist Karl Marx was concerned with the negative effects of capitalism, which, as he mentions in Das Kapital, include alienation and class struggles, Walter Pater’s interest was focused on the world of art and beauty rather than the ugliness of capitalist societies. Several critics, coming from the different branches of the Marxist school of thought, elaborate on Marx’s theories and thus literature becomes included in many arguments concerning ideology and politics.

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Literature and Ideology

The term ideology, which was first coined by the philosopher Destutt de Tracy, stands for a group of cultural beliefs that justify the inequalities of society, particularly the gap between wealth and poverty. In other words, an ideology portrays social stratification as being fair. This leads to false class consciousness amongst the different classes of society as people learn to accept their position in society and consider their situation as being fair and just.

The Marxists believe that a capitalist society is made up of two components; the infrastructure, sometimes called the base or the economic basis, and the superstructure. The base is formed by the forces of production, which include raw materials and technology, and by the relations of production, a term used to describe the social relationships of the workforce. On the other hand, the superstructure consists of the political, educational and legal institutions, the family and mass media. According to Marxists, the superstructure is determined by the economic basis, and thus any changes occurring in the infrastructure influence the value systems of the superstructure. Moreover, Marxists believe that art also forms a part of the superstructure and it is in this manner that literature is considered to be ideological and political at the same time. The early Marxists argued that the literature produced in capitalist society will eventually reflect capitalist ideologies and contributes to false consciousness.

Writing from a Marxist perspective, Louis Althusser, in an essay called Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses, came up with the idea of ideological state apparatuses (ISAs), which can be described as ‘social institutions which reproduce the dominant ideology, independent of the state.’ These ISAs include religion, the family, education and also the media.[1]

Althusser goes on to say that ideology is not imposed on the proletariat by the bourgeoisie, but it exists independently of people’s minds. Althusser also suggests that literature, like the other institutions previously mentioned, contributes to the ideological behaviour of individuals as it complements the different ideologies of capitalism. Thus, as Marx says, literature is also a participative factor in the superstructure.

For several Marxist critics, like Terry Eagleton, a correlation exists between literature and the political world, mainly between the text and the notion of ideology. In Criticism and Ideology, Eagleton says that ‘the text… is a certain production of ideology.’[2] While Marx believes that literary form and content is determined by the economic base, Eagleton suggests that literature does not just reflect the economic base of society but it also influences the history of social change. As an example, Eagleton writes about the influence of Greek culture and literature on contemporary ideology. The mode of production has obviously changed, but the works of philosophers like Plato and Aristotle have remained relevant to the values and belief system of the modern superstructure.

In an essay entitled Literature and History, Eagleton tries to show how literature has become a part of the historical power structure of society. Macherey and Eagleton put forward this idea of an ideological pseudo-reality, a term used for the imaginative content of a text, and go on to say that this pseudo-reality found in a novel is not directly connected to what is historically real. As an example to clarify this statement, Eagleton comments on Dickens’ Bleak House, saying that although "Dickens deploys particular modes of signification which entail a greater foregrounding of the 'pseudo-real' . . . we should not be led by this to make direct comparisons between the imaginary London of his novel and the real London. The imaginary London of Bleak House exists as the product of a representational process which signifies, not 'Victorian England' as such, but certain of Victorian England's ways of signifying itself." Literature does not reveal the falseness behind ideology, but as Eagleton says, ‘the truth of the text is… a practice- the practice of its relation to ideology, and in terms of that to history.’ According to this approach, literature reproduces history and its ideology in an aesthetic form. [3]

Althusser says that literature and ideology are analogous, in a way that just like ideology, literature uses imagination and language to express the real conditions that people are living in. Literature reflects and reproduces these lived experiences in its textual appearance, yet it still remains a fictitious work of art. According to Althusser, this also applies to historical novels. He does not believe that there is a direct and visible link between ideology and literature, and if there ever is, then he considers the work of art to be propagandist.


[1] John J. Macionis and Ken Plummer, ‘The Mass Media,’ in Sociology: A Global Introduction, 3rd edn (Harlow: Pearson Education Limited, 2005), p.585.

[2] Robert Paul Resch, ‘Literature and Ideology’ in Althusser and the Renewal of Marxist Social Theory (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), p. 270 in UC Press E-books Collection <http://ark.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/ft3n39n8x3/> [accessed 14 February 2010]

[3] Robert Paul Resch, ‘Literature and Ideology’ in Althusser and the Renewal of Marxist Social Theory (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), p. 273-274 in UC Press E-books Collection <http://ark.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/ft3n39n8x3/> [accessed 14 February 2010]

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Literature and Aesthetics

Writing on a totally different theme, Pater’s literary criticism is more focused on aesthetic philosophy and the idea that beauty is at the centre of literary texts. Although he does not straightforwardly state that literature is not political, his ‘obsession’ on aesthetics and the subjective perception of beauty in works of art proves that Pater does not take notice of literature’s correspondence with politics and ideology.

Pater was both intrigued by and influential on the Aesthetic Movement of the nineteenth century, which movement believed in the importance of aesthetic values over moral themes in art. The artists of the Aesthetic Movement rejected the theories developed by Ruskin and Arnold which state that art does not only have to be beautiful, but it also has to be moral. Pater moved away from the Victorian morality in culture and art to a new stage of individual freedom. Pater’s recurring themes include the aestheticism and beauty of art and less importantly, yet it was the cause that earned him some negative criticism, the futility of religion. He turned away from religion towards the study of philosophy, yet he soon felt the need of something greater than religion, for hedonism alone did not fulfill him. His most famous phrase from The Renaissance; ‘to burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life,’[1] sums up Pater’s philosophy on hedonism and aestheticism.

In the preface of The Renaissance, Pater starts by saying that the beauty of art must not be universal, but rather the argument of what is beautiful should be subjective. The critics need to stop and wonder why they like a particular work of art, why it pleases them and what effect it creates on them. Like the artist, the critic should recognise the individuality and uniqueness of a work of art. Then, according to Pater, the aesthetic critic should find himself in tune with beautiful objects and be deeply moved by them. For this reason, Pater is considered to be a Romantic in thought. In one of his works called Appreciations, he describes Romanticism as being ‘the addition of strangeness to beauty, that constitutes the romantic character in art.’[2]

Pater comments about the importance of emotion, intensity and sincerity in art. Sincerity in his account stands for ‘that perfect fidelity to one’s own inward presentations, to the precise features of the picture within, without which any profound poetry is impossible.’[3] In other words, Pater is saying that the artist has to be loyal to his personal and creative self if he wants to succeed in a work of art.

Pater’s The Renaissance received a variety of criticism. Ruskin and Morris accused it of encouraging egoism and nihilism while discrediting the importance of social and moral values in literature. Pater was against moral nihilism, but he did believe that the emptiness of our lives could be filled with the aesthetical beauty of art. He was also conscious of the misinterpretations of his work, especially when his meaning of hedonism included aesthetical and intellectual pleasures.


[1] Frank Kermode and John Hollander, ‘Victorian Prose’ in The Oxford Anthology of English Literature: Volume II (USA: Oxford University Press, 1973) p. 1105.

[2] Rene Wellek, ‘Walter Pater’s Literary Theory and Criticism’ in Victorian Studies (Indiana University Press, 1957) p. 38 in JSTOR <http://www.jstor.org.ejournals.um.edu.mt> [accessed 18February 2010]

[3] Rene Wellek, ‘Walter Pater’s Literary Theory and Criticism’ in Victorian Studies (see above) p. 38-39

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