ENGL 308 A: Marxism and Literary Theory

Meeting Time: 
TTh 10:30am - 12:20pm
SAV 131
Alys Weinbaum
Alys Eve Weinbaum

Syllabus Description:


Marxism and Marxist Literary Theory

         This course introduces several key works by Marx and his collaborator, Engels, and the debates that have grown up around them.  At the center of the course is the question of how 19th century writings about political economy, history, and philosophy were taken up by 20th century literary scholars, and how a distinct tradition of interpreting literature and culture from a Marxist perspective, using Marxist tools, developed over time and endures into the present. By contrast to other models of literary and cultural criticism which often seek to find in literary texts transcendent messages and universal meanings, Marxist theory has sought to situate literary and cultural texts within their historical contexts of production and reception, to understand the power dynamics (including those informed by race, gender, and class conflict) that shape textual meaning, and to explore how such conflicts impact meaning, message, genre, style, and form. 

            Our study of Marxist theory will involve us in close, intensive reading of dense philosophical texts.  We seek to understand how a materialist methodindebted to Marxism emerged as a dominant method within contemporary scholarship, and how diverse critical practices (often given labels such as “critical theory,” “feminist theory,” “critical race theory,” and “cultural studies”) are situated within a Marxist analytical tradition.   Over the course of the quarter we will engage two cultural texts--one filmic and one literary.  We will consider how our understanding of each is shaped by the Marxist frameworks that the course explores, and how each, in turn, may be used to reveal the (in)adequacy of Marxist methodologies. 


Course organization

            This course is organized into three units that treat several of the issues and concepts repeatedly returned to by Marx's interpreters: I) History and Class; II) Capitalism and Ideology; and III) Ideology, Literature and Culture.   In Unit I, we focus on the idea of “class,” paying special attention to how social and economic classes function as motors for historical transformation (historical materialism), and how class has been articulated with race and gender in the United States and globally.  In Unit II, we explore the concept of ideology as it was first developed by Marx, and then by later theorists who sought to describe the violence of “idea systems” that obscure the realities of human exploitation. In Unit III, we examine how ideas of historical materialism and ideology can be used to study literature and culture more broadly. 


Course goals and learning objectives

  • To readand understanddense theoretical texts.
  • To writeabout these texts with clarity and nuance.
  • To writeabout a range of cultural texts using the theories examined in this course.
  • To understandhow Marxist theory develops out of intensive dialogue among philosophers, economists and theorists.
  • To understandhow cultural texts can be used to explore the limitations of Marxism.
  • To evaluatethe usefulness of Marxist theory as a distinct critical practice.
  • To evaluatethe limitations of Marxist approaches to literature and culture and to understandwhat such approaches may obscure.
  • To be able totalkabout theoretical and cultural texts in informed and nuanced ways.


Course requirements

            Active, prepared, and informed participation time the class meets.          

            7 reader responsesdue in class, as specified

           Final paper (5 pages)

            Possible in-class quiz week 5


Participation in its many forms

You are expected to actively participate in this course by engaging with the course materials, with your colleague’s ideas, and by regularly taking part in class discussion.   It is not possible to do well in this course if you are not present to participate and if you do not use more than oneof the evaluated venues (reader responses, in-class discussion, final paper).  Oral participation must be backed by written engagement.


Final Paper

This paper is an exercise in concision; therefore,the 5-page limit is absolute.

All papers must be double spaced with 1-inch margins (all sides) and printed in a readable 12-point font. Endnotes should not exceed one page.  All citations to texts used in the class should be given parenthetically.  Outside sources are not to be used in writing papers for this class (see plagiarism policy).  Final paper prompts will be distributed in advance; you will have numerous options from which to choose.


Reader responses

Responses to the readings should raise questions about the readings that relate to the issues treated in discussions and lectures.  All responses must stick close to the assigned texts.  The best responses will treat individual passages and analyze these in order to raise larger issues and questions. At least three responses must be comparative. 

The class will be divided into two groups (A and B); responses will be due on the specified dates, as indicated on the syllabus.  All response must be precisely then number of  pages indicated in length, double-spaced with one inch margins (all sides).  Your name and the date should appear on the back of your response. 

The overall quality of responses will be assigned a single letter grade.  If you wish to have a response graded prior to the end of the quarter, you must come to office hours with a copy of the response you wish to have graded in hand.  Late responses will not be accepted.


Final Portfolio

At the end of the quarter you will submit a portfolio that includes all 7 responses; you may indicate the 3 responses you consider strongest.  Your portfolio must also contain your final paper.



Your grade is based on a combination of class participation, the overall quality of your reader responses (the set is assigned a single letter grade), and the letter grade on your final paper.  Responses amount to 70% of your grade, your final paper to 30%. To achieve a top grade in this class you must complete allthe written work.  If you have turned in a complete portfolio and have actively and regularly participated in class discussion, your final grade will be bumped-up to the numerical grade that represents the top of the letter grade averaged in your written work.



Failure to accurately or fully acknowledge all sources, to provide accurate citations for quoted and paraphrased material, and/or submission of a sentence, essay, or an idea written or conceived of by someone else as your own constitutes plagiarism. Written work that contains plagiarism, however minor, will be excluded from consideration toward your grade and immediately reported to appropriate authorities. 


Texts available at University Bookstore

            Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto, Oxford edition will be used for pagination

            Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go


Other course readings

All other readings will be posted on Canvas. You are required to bring a hard copy of each readings to class on the day we discuss itas well as any relevant readings from previous classes.  Regular failure to have readings in hand in class will lead to being marked down for participation.


Schedule of readings and assignments

The following schedule is subject to revision. It is your responsibility to stay abreast of all changes and to come to class preparedeven if you have missed a previous class meeting.


Unit I:  History and Class

Week 1

Tuesday, April 2

Introduction to the course

Thursday, April 4

Karl Marx, Communist Manifesto (1848), Sections I and II (pp. 1-26)

             Prefaces to the English (1888), German (1890), and Polish (1892) editions

            Manifesto (Preface begin on p. 40)   Reader response 1A


Week 2

Tuesday, April 9

Communist Manifesto, Section III

Karl Marx, “Theses Concerning Feuerbach” (1845)

________, “A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy” (1859) Reader response 1B

Thursday, April 11

Immanuel Wallerstein, “The Ideological Tensions of Capitalism: Universalism versus Racism and Sexism” and “Class Conflict in Capitalist World Economy”

                                    Reader response 2A


Week 3

Tuesday, April 16

Zillah Eisenstein, “Developing a Theory of Capitalist Patriarchy and Socialist Feminism”

Silvia Federici, "Wages Against Housework" and "Why Sexuality is Work"

                                    Reader response 2B

Thursday, April 18

No Class (or office hours)


Week 4

Tuesday, April 23

Melissa Wright, “The Dialectics of a Still Life:  Murder, Women and Disposability”

                                    Reader response 3A

Thursday, April 25

Kimberly Kay Hoang, "Economies of Emotion, Familiarity, Fantasy, and Desire:  Emotional Labor in Ho Chi Minh City's Sex Industry"                           

                                    Reader response 3B


Unit 2: Capitalism and Ideology                                                                            

Week 5

Tuesday, April 30

Marx, Capital Volume One, Chapter 1, pp. 125-163     

Thursday, May 2

Completion of Chapter 1, pp. 163-177

                                    Reader response 4A and B 


Week 6

Tuesday, May 7

Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses”

Reader response 5A and B (on ISA essay)

Thursday, May 9

Althusser, “A Letter on Art”                                                                


Unit 3: Ideology, Literature and Culture                                                                          

Week 7                                                                                  

Tuesday, May 14

"Exit Through the Gift Shop" or "Sorry to Bother You"

                                    (Please watch film prior to class; bring viewing notes to class)


Thursday, May 16

Continue film discussion

Reader response 6A and B

(This response must be comparative and must treat Althusser and the film)                 

Week 8

Tuesday, May 21

Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproduction”               

Thursday, May 23

Raymond Williams, “Introduction” to Keywordsand select keyword entries on

“Art,” “Class,” and “Literature”          

Reader response 7A


Week 9

Tuesday, May 28

Raymond Williams, Chapters 6, 8, and 9 from Marxism and Literature

                                    Reader response 7B

Thursday, May 30

Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go (read half of the novel)                                             


Week 10

Tuesday, June 4

Never Let Me Go(complete the novel)                                                               

Final paper assignment distributed in-class only

Thursday, June 6

Final discussion of novel

Herbert Marcuse, “Liberation from the Affluent Society”


Final portfolios are Due Monday, June 10th, 10am

Drop portfolios in the box outside Padelford Hall 408B


Professor Weinbaum’s Reader Response Guidelines


  1. Read text carefully and make marginal notes as you go.
  2. Don’t just underline; note your ideas and/or questions as they arise.
  3. Reexamine marginal notes after completing your reading.
  4. What are some of the main ideas addressed in this piece?Summarize 3-5 of these for yourself in as many sentences beforeyou begin writing your response.


Writing your response

Bellow I list several types of reader response.  The best responses stick close to the text(s) in hand and often focus in on a single passage that allows you to illuminate key ideas or a wider set of issues raised.  Summaries should include a brief summation of major points, and should raise specific questions and observations based on your interests or concerns.  Questions and concerns should emerge from specific passages that are either quoted directly or paraphrased, depending on length. Always include page numbers parenthetically.  Long quotes should be avoided.  Quote salient bits and assume I know the rest.


Editing your response

To get the response into the correct format (margins, page length) you will need to write and then edit. The key to good editing is organization. Systematically consider the following: Does each paragraph have a topic and clearly articulated focus?  Is there extra wordiness that can be eliminated?  Are there sentences that are not yet clear?  Are there ideas that need to be expanded with an additional sentence or two?  All quotes must be introduced and interpreted.  Never assume that anything reads the same to you as to your reader!


As you write your responses over the quarter you should try out the different approaches outlined below.  As the course unfolds you should become comfortable doing comparative responses--those that take up one reading and consider it in relation to a previous one.


  1. Questions about meaning and new ideas

This kind of response focuses on a new and/or perplexing idea. What ideas stood out to you as ones you had not thought about prior or by which you were perplexed?  Explain why by first describing this idea fully (citing the text), and then explaining what was interesting, important, or consequential about it.   If the idea raised a question for you, articulate this question as fully as possible. Is there a conceptual termthat is being used in a special way by the author to get at the idea upon which you are focusing?  If so, define this term and examine its various uses so as to generate a nuanced understanding of it.


  1. Questions about argument

If you think you have understood the overall argument (and thus its various parts), give a précis or summary of that argument in a paragraph or two. After you have done this raise a question about the argument or one of its parts.  You might consider seeming contradictions in the argument.  Are there aspects of the argument that appear counter-intuitive or contradictory?  You might also consider the philosophical or political implications of the argument. What do you want to take away from this argument for future use?  What is suggestive or illuminating about this argument in relation to other ideas/readings we have discussed in class?


  1. Questions about politics

If you think you have understood the bulk of the argument, give a précis of it in a paragraph or two. What is this argument’s main political purpose? Who is the implied audience? What is at stake in advancing this argument?  How does this argument imply or constitute an audience?  To what end?


  1. Questions about form and style

If you think you have understood the bulk of the argument, give a précis of it in a paragraph or two.  Can you discern a relationship between the form in which the argument is made and its meaning?  How do form and/or authorial tone and style contribute to the meaning of this argument and the effectivity of its expression and elaboration?


  1. Comparative questions

Once you have discerned the political implications of an argument you may wish to place it into dialogue with a related argument with which it is explicitly or implicitly engaged.  You will want to explore overlaps, differences, and how one argument supplements or points out the gaps in the other in some way.  How does one text build on the other?  How do these texts overlap?  How do they departfrom each other?  If they are completely at odds, formulate a few sentences and/or develop a question that gets at the differences.  How do these differences point towards the different political positions advanced in these texts? Is one argument more effective than the other?  Explain why.


  1. Setting theory to work

If the text that we have read seems directly relevant to something going on in your/our world, write a reader response that explains this relationship.  Begin by summarizing the main argument of the text in hand and pulling out a specific part of the argument that resonates for you.   Then explain how this reading has allowed you to think about your world in new ways, or made you see something you were not able to see prior.  You must have a firm grasp on the argument and an ability to succinctly summarize it in order to effectively set it to work in relationship to the real world.  This is one of the hardest types of reader response!


A few notes on writing about literary fiction and film in relation to theory:

It is common in English classes to read theory and “apply” it to literary fiction or film--to use it as road map of sorts, a lens through which the text becomes intelligible.  In this class we will do this sometimes.  And you may write a reader response that applies theory if you wish.


This said, the aim of this course is to disrupt the assumed distinctions between literature/film and theory.  To this end, we will read literature/film as offering theoretical ideas; and, we will read theory as a form of writing that is itself literary and can be “read” or interpreted using the skills of close reading that we will hone over the course of the quarter.

Reader responses that place literature/film into conversation with theory might not only apply theory but also might examine how the fictional text in question reveals something new about the theoretical text --something about its explanatory power or limitations.  What can theory teach us that literature/film cannot, or does not?  What can literature/film teach us that theory misses or dismisses?




Catalog Description: 
Introduces Marxist theory and methodology. Explores how and why Marx's writings, Marxist theory, and materialist methods became central to the study of literature and culture over the course of the twentieth century.
GE Requirements: 
Visual, Literary, and Performing Arts (VLPA)
Last updated: 
August 2, 2019 - 10:20pm