Oliver Twist and Marxism

Number three in my graduate papers series. I decided to post this one because it directly relates to my own work, and possibly to yours. I hope it does you some good; if it does, let me know! ~ MM

In Barry’s chapter on Marxist literary theory he defines Marxism (“communism”) as “… the belief in the state ownership of industry, transport, etc., rather than private ownership.” (Barry 150) Though Marx and Engles themselves never had an official stance on literature or the arts in general, many literary critics have used Marxist ideas in their criticisms. The most interesting form of this to me is “Engelsian” Marxist criticism, specifically the idea of “making strange”, an idea that “… one of the chief effects of literary language is that of making the familiar world appear new to us, as if we were seeing it for the first time, and thus laying it open to reappraisal.” (155)

Though, as Barry points out, these “Formalists” were not strictly Marxist in their ideas, many of their members went on to form later Marxist criticisms based on original Engelsian views. For example, the concept of defamiliarisation, or “making strange”, has certainly transferred over to modern Marxist criticism in the idea that “Literature… often tries to repress historical truth, but analysis can reveal its underlying ideology…” (160) This idea, coined by the American Marxist critic Frederic Jameson, reconciles Marxism and psychoanalytic literary explanations.

To put it succinctly, Marxist Criticism then espouses the idea that the Marxist ideal of everyone in a society being equal and thus sharing equally in ownership of industry via the state, is often denied by literature through the assumed fictional world wherein similar ideals are openly shared, but underlined by a more capitalistic moral in the end. Thus, the story “makes strange” factual historic data such as the lives of the working poor by showing it in a far more dramatic, and thus surreal, light than the actuality.

Such as it is in Oliver Twist

Since I first read Dicken’s classic novel as a teenager, I have been somewhat disconcerted by the ending. Oliver, born into poverty of the like Marxism defends against, pushed into the role first of a “machine cog” worker, then of a thief against his own wishes to be good, is saved in the end not by his goodness or by his own intellectual or physical abilities, but because he is in actuality a member of the bourgeoisie himself. In showing the reader Oliver’s world of poverty as a “made strange” literary device through the eyes of Oliver and thus new to the reader, Dickens indeed helps to open our eyes to how it has been for so many and the original push behind Marxism. However, by saving Oliver through a birthright instead of his own abilities, Dickens seems to remove any hope for those who have not been lucky enough to be born into wealth.

This is where I feel the largest difference between Marx and Engles’ view of the world and that of Dickens’. The former, in their “Communist Manifesto”, call for the rights of all people, especially the “proletariat”, or the workers on who’s backs the bourgeoisie have built and continue to build their empire: “The lower middle class, the small manufacturer, the shopkeeper, the artisan, the peasant, all these fight against the bourgeoisie, to save their existence as fractions of the middle class.” (Marx and Engles, 4-5) Dickens also shows us early on the terrible exploitation of the lower classes from birth: “…a parish child- the orphan of a workhouse- the humble, half-starved drudge- to be cuffed and buffeted through the world- despised by all, and pitied by none.” (Dickens 1) And, indeed, throughout the whole of Oliver Twist there is a continuation of this theme. However, it is never assumed or hoped that the lower classes will ever become anything more than they are, unlike the views of Marx and Engles, who see within that same class the makers of a revolution: “Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletariats have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.” (Marx and Engles 5) Indeed, as I have said, Oliver is saved by being a part of the higher classes, not by fighting them. Still, Oliver’s new family, though of the bourgeoisie social status, are good people. Marx and Engles themselves admit that this is more than a possibility: “… a portion of the bourgeoisie goes over to the proletariat, and in particular, a portion of the bourgeoisie ideologists, who have raised themselves to the level of comprehending theoretically the historical movement as a whole.” (4) In his array of colorful characters, too, there are good poor, bad wealthy, good wealthy and bad poor. Yet still the wealthy stay wealthy and the poor stay poor, despite it all. Even Oliver, of whom it could be said wealth is gained in the end, truly only gains his birthright.

I would venture to say that though this is a far less optimistic view than that of Marxism, it is also far more realistic. Which, in the end when viewed through the eyes of defamiliarisation, is quite ironic to me.


Works Cited

Barry, Peter.Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. Manchester University Press (1995, 2002): 150-160. Print

Dickens, Charles.Oliver Twist.The Literature Network (2011):http://www.online-literature.com/dickens/olivertwist/2/.Web.

Engles, Frederich and Marx, Karl. “Excerpts from the Communist Manifesto”. (1848) Pdf.


3 Responses to “Oliver Twist and Marxism”

  1. james turner Says:

    Interesting thoughts I never really thought about the left behind poor so much as focused on Oliver he does seem to have and maintain high moral standards when those around him are sinking into the abyss of greed and living the criminal lifestyle. Does this reflect upon Dickens frame of mind that “high born” people will have this moral compass while “low born ” are given over to become and embracing their lifestyle? I cannot be certain but it does seem to give a snapshot of the city life and (perhaps) the prevailing city attitude of the times.

  2. Epic. Informative

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