Marxism and Art, Part 2: Heroes in the Novel

In the previous issue, our author introduced different Marxist evaluations of art. Now he looks at how the emergence of modern fiction mirrored the expansion of capitalism. By Phil Butland.

Andrea: Unhappy is the land that breeds no hero.
Galileo: No, Andrea: Unhappy is the land that needs a hero

[Berthold  Brecht, ‘Life of Galileo’]

According to Friedrich Engels, the emergence of capitalism was not just responsible for immiseration and poverty, but also (and simultaneously) “the greatest progressive revolution that mankind has so far experienced”. An emerging middle class of lawyers, army officers and merchants felt that they were being held back by the old rulers – the nobility and the clergy. So, the new bourgeoisie started to rebel against the old hierarchies.

Title_page_William_Shakespeare's_First_Folio_1623As the son of a money-lender, the English playwright William Shakespeare understood this class. When Shakespeare wrote about the lust for power of the Scottish regicide Macbeth or the Roman patrician Coriolanus, he was speaking as much about the contemporary British bourgeoisie as he was of eleventh century Scotland and ancient Rome.

In pre-capitalist theatre, the fate of the protagonists was generally predestined and determined by the will of the Gods. In Sophocles’ tragedy ‘Oedipus Rex’, we know from the start that Oedipus must kill his father. By contrast, Shakespeare’s heroes are able to change the world. The only thing limiting their development is the old feudal society. Change this society and you can decide your own fate: this is a revolutionary message for revolutionary times.

It’s difficult to locate the birth of capitalism in a specific event or date, but it is reasonable to talk about the existence of a revolutionary capitalist class, at least from the start of the English Revolution in 1649. With the novel, this class was able to produce its own art form. As society radically changed in the following two centuries, this political development could be seen on the pages of the novel, whose heroes took their fate in their own hands, and tried to change the world.

The earliest novels were written by and about the emerging bourgeois class (one possible exception here is Cervantes’ ‘Don Quixote’ (Spain, 1605), a satire of ageing stagnant feudalism). The heroes were explorers, such as Daniel Defoe’s ‘Robinson Crusoe’ (England, 1719) and Jonathan Swift’s Lemuel Gulliver (‘Gulliver’s Travels’, Ireland 1726) or scientists like Mary Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein (England 1818).

The new capitalist class prided itself on its talented and dynamic individuals. Progress came through individual talent, not through the patronage that dominated under feudalism. So it is no coincidence that the new art form focussed largely on individual heroes. Unlike plays, where the audience sees several actors and actresses on the stage at the same time, the early novel was generally told be a single omniscient narrator and had one main character. In this period, nearly every major novel shared its name with the protagonist.

Normally, this protagonist was a bourgeois man, although Defoe’s ‘Moll Flanders’ (England, 1722) was doubly unusual in that his “hero” was not just a woman but also working-class. Interestingly, Flanders and the heroines of the novels of the Marquis de Sade were just about the only protagonists in early novels who were not thoroughly bourgeois. Their trade was prostitution.

1378984-bona11At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the rise of the revolutionary bourgeoisie started to falter. As a reaction, Napoleon and his army tried to export the French Revolution. As British Marxist historian Chris Harman says, they tried to “carry through from above reforms similar to those enforced, from blow in France – abolition of serfdom and feudal dues, separation of church and state […] and the establishment of more or less democratic assemblies.”

This revolutionary fervour was short lived: “what began as a war of liberation passed through a bitter period as a war of revolutionary defence, and ended up as a war of imperial conquest […] Napoleon’s defeat allowed all the kings, princes and aristocrats to return in style, creating a weird half-world in which the old superstructures of the 18th century ancien régimes were imposed on social structures which had been transformed – at least in France, northern Italy and western Germany”

The social restoration and counter-revolution was recorded by contemporary novels, not least in post-Napoleonic France. “The Red and The Black” (France, 1830) was written by Stendhal, a former war commissioner in Napoleon’s army. The novel’s hero, Julien Sorel, is born in poverty. A generation earlier, he could have found a career in Napoleon’s army. Now he is, at various times, a private tutor, a priest, and a private secretary to a Marquis.

Sorel’s ambition is constantly thwarted by intrigue from above. Dismissed as an upstart with ideas above his station, he is falsely charged with murder and executed. Sorel’s hero is Napoleon – he longs for a time when a gifted individual could advance socially. But Napoleon is dead and the revolutionary era is over. Sorel’s talent and assiduousness are no longer useful.

For women, social advancement was even more difficult. Both Gustav Flaubert’s Emma Bovary (‘Madame Bovary’, France 1856) and Leo Tolstoy’s ‘Anna Karenina’ (Russia, 1878) kill themselves because they are unable to develop. Even a self-confident woman like Charlotte Brontë’s ‘Jane Eyre’ (England 1847) restricts her ambitions to marrying well, rather than personal achievement.

To a very limited extent, personal advancement was possible. In Alexandre Dumas’ ‘The Three Musketeers’ D’Artagnan is promoted to lieutenant despite his relatively lowly background (even here, D’Artagnan is from lower nobility). Even this advancement is wholly dependent on blind loyalty to the Ancien Régime.

220px-Chartist_DemonstrationThis does not mean that the nineteenth century saw no class struggle. In 1838, England saw the birth of the Chartists – the first mass movement of the working class. Millions signed the charter for electoral rights and equality, with 500,000 going on strike in 1842. Ten years after the Chartist movement was formed, revolutions swept across Europe. A new, dynamic, class was starting to get a sense of its own power.

Again, lived experiences were reflected in contemporary art. Charles Dickens did not write ‘Oliver Twist’ (England, 1838) about a comfortable bourgeois hero, but an orphan from the workhouse. In ‘Life in the Iron Mills’ (USA, 1861), Rebecca Harding Davis described the lives of factory workers. Davis was among a disproportionate number of female authors – alongside Elizabeth Gaskell, George Eliot and the Brontë sisters – who spent the second half of the century writing novels about social issues.

The first novels with working-class protagonists tended to be written by middle class authors who despaired at the poverty and depicted workers as suffering victims, lacking the agency to change their desperate situation. Yet by the end of the century, Emile Zola’s Etienne Lantier could lead a strike in ‘Germinal’ (France, 1885) while Thomas Hardy’s Judah Fawley battled against inequality in ‘Jude the Obscure’ (England 1895).

zE01RLTxwqs4NJ1l0nEhPMd5gXmUnlike these fighters, Studs Lonigan, the hero of James T Farrell’s trilogy written in the 1930s was both working-class and wholly unsympathetic. Lonigan is a nationalist, a racist, and a sexist. He dies young as an embittered alcoholic and barely develops during his short life.

Farrell was a rarity amongst authors in that he was a political activist – as a member of the US Socialist Workers’ Party. Most of his characters are neither heroes nor fighters. Yet this did not stop Norman Mailer – like Farrell a writer from a poor family – from saying that reading ‘Studs Lonigan’ was “the best single literary experience I had had, because the background of Studs was similar to mine. I grew up in Brooklyn, not Chicago, but the atmosphere had the same flatness of affect. Until then, I had never considered my life or the life of the people around me as even remotely worthy of—well, I didn’t believe they could be treated as subjects for fiction. It had never occurred to me. Suddenly I realized you could write about your own life.”

In the 1960s, Alan Sillitoe’s novel ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’ and Bill Naughton’s ‘Alfie’ were turned into films. The heroes of both books (Arthur Seaton and Alfie Elkins) resemble Lonigan, as they are mainly interested in drinking and sex. They meet different fates – Seaton gets married and Elkins’ girlfriend leaves him for a younger man – but both end up lonely and unhappy.

As with Farrell, these stories avoid both happy endings and large industrial disputes. What they do show, however, is a new working class which is unapologetic for its background. The films of these books introduced audiences to actresses and actors like Albert Finney, Michael Caine and Cilla Black – proud working-class figures, who spoke with a regional accent. For the first time, large sections of a cinema audience were represented on the screen.

don-draper-2Who are today’s heroes and heroines? It is no original observation to say that the most innovative storytelling of our time is found in television series, but this observation is still true. Modern heroes in art are people like Jimmy McNulty in ‘The Wire’, Don Draper in ‘Mad Men’ and Walter White in ‘Breaking Bad’.

There are a number of similarities between the TV heroes. They are seriously flawed, but at the same time they are charismatic. They often belong to the new middle class, yet are not necessarily comfortable with their social position. Many are from poor backgrounds, whose legacy they still carry like an affliction.

The new heroes embody the American dream – they have bettered themselves through their own talents. Yet none is particularly happy. McNulty drinks more beer than he should, Draper cocktails and whiskey, and White survives by selling crystal meth. These are heroes of an era with a low level of class struggle. An individual can improve his own life, but only within very narrow limits.

Art always reflects in some way the social position of the artists who produce it. So there are now more women writers – and more heroines – than ever before, even if these mainly come from the middle class.

Yet the increasing importance of television as an art form has been accompanied by a growing proletarianisation of art as a profession. Authors have traditionally worked alone and for themselves – but television scripts are generally written by a group of writers working together for a faceless corporation. In previous generations it was barely possible to conceive of a novelist going on strike. In 2007 and 2008, the Writers’ Guild of America actually struck successfully.

Artists have always questioned the social relations of the society in which they lived, but until now their resistance has been always carried out as individuals. The new collective consciousness experienced by writers may produce new art and new art forms which were previously literally unthinkable. We wait in anticipation to see what will develop.

At the same time, there is a danger that modern art will develop in a different, more reactionary, direction, where art becomes increasingly commodified and artistic freedom restricted.  This danger will be the subject of the third and final article in this series.

The original version of this article appeared in marx21 magazine Issue 38, Winter 2014.