Literature as ideological apparatus: re-reading The Great Gatsby

Raihan Rahman | Published: 00:00, Sep 15,2019 | Updated: 00:49, Sep 22,2019

Raihan Rahman, F Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, Jazz Age, Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Georgy Plekhanov, Louis Althusser, ISA, RSA

F Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, The Great Gatsby (1925), considered as his magnum opus, tells the story of the glaring hollowness that underlies the ‘American Dream’. Written in the ‘Roaring Twenties’, a period which marks the USA’s unprecedented economic prosperity, this novel portrays a dark side of American upper-class bourgeois, Raihan Rahman reviews the novel

TAKING an eccentric nouveau riche as the protagonist, F Scott Fitzgerald, in his The Great Gatsby (1925), shows the pitfalls of social and class mobility which defines a general tendency of the ‘Jazz Age’. Since the novel’s plotline is set in a upper-class bourgeois surroundings, a Marxist reading of it could open some undiscovered dimensions of the text.

Not that its bourgeois settings makes it a suitable text for Marxist reading, but any text can be within the reach of Marxist criticism since the text itself and the historical period in which it belongs to are never beyond the scope of material conditions of the society. The historical-materialist approach of Marxism always emphasises on the material condition of the time and space in any analysis.

In the Marxist tradition, materialism, or more specifically, dialectical materialism is the most important tool in any intellectual investigation. In Marxist epistemology, society presents itself in the dichotomy of base and superstructure.

Art or literature belongs to the realm of the superstructure. Besides, the Marxist school of literary criticism is always interested in reading a literary text in the context of history. The concept of history and materialism goes hand in hand when a literary work is read through the Marxist lens. How a mode of production comes into being historically and how it materially defines life and society and how its influence articulates in the realm of consciousness is of primary importance in a Marxist investigation. Literature cannot escape this historical influence of the material conditions of life.

Being situated in the sphere of superstructure, the realm of consciousness, according to ‘vulgar Marxism’, it is directly conditioned by the mode of production or the base. This claim of ‘vulgar Marxism’ is derived from directly from Marx as he writes, ‘The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.’

However, this mechanical determinate power of base is contested in the Marxist tradition by Friedrich Engels himself. Engels wants to go beyond the one-to-one correspondence between base and superstructure. He further proposes that the elements of the superstructure can also react back upon the base and can even influence them. 

So, literature as an element of the superstructure is not always a mechanical product of base but has an autonomous existence and function in the society. Trotsky too claims art has a ‘high degree of autonomy’. Even though it has certain autonomy, most of the Marxian theorists think that in the last instance, it is determined by the base, the dominant mode of economic production.

Literature’s relation with history in Marxist tradition is very clearly articulated in Georgy Plekhanov. He writes, ‘The social mentality of an age is conditioned by that age’s social relations. This is nowhere quite evident as in the history of art and literature’. Reading a work of literature in context with history helps to understand the world of ideology (/ideologies) it inhabits and what function it performs in the complex network of social relations.

The concept of ideology and its relation to art and literature is a contested one even within the paradigm of Marxism itself. By ideology, Marx meant only the dominant ideas of a time with which people correspond to in general and the dominant ideas being the ideas of the ruling class. Since people of the dominated class also accept those ideas, Marx calls ideology ‘False Consciousness’.

However, later Marxists were not interested in confining ideology just within the idea of false consciousness. About the relationship of art and literature to ideology, there is no consensus in the Marxist tradition either. As Terry Eagleton puts that one school of Marxism thinks that ‘literature is nothing but ideology in a certain artistic form’.

Engels, however, suggests that art is not just a simple reservoir of false consciousness but the relationship between art and ideology is more complex. A thorough investigation about this is found in Louis Althusser’s works. Althusser thinks, ‘Ideology is a ‘representation’ of the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence’. For him, it is not a mere false consciousness but has a material existence through practices of different apparatuses. He names those apparatus as ISAs (Ideological State Apparatuses) and RSAs (Repressive State Apparatuses). According to Althusser, art and literature functions in society as cultural ISA.

Every social system comes into being from a dominant mode of production.  For this system to exist and to continue its existence, it must reproduce its condition of productions. Althusser mentions two conditions that must be reproduced: the productive forces and the existing relations of production. The conditions of productive forces are reproduced on the economic level or in the realm of the base. But the reproduction of the existing relations of production is done on the ideological level by the ISAs. Literature belonging to cultural ISA engages itself in serving the purpose of reproducing the condition of relation of production so that the existing social system can continue with itself. This function of literature is explained more elaborately by Althusser’s student and colleague Etienne Balibar and Pierre Machery.

Although Althusser insinuates on the role of literature as ISA, and Balibar and Machery elaborate it, neither of them sees it as a straightforward process. Rather than resting on the mechanical role of literature in the ideological realm, Balibar and Machery are more interested to look for the dialectical aspects in the relation between literature and history.

They want to locate how literary effect is produced historically as a part of social practices. This dialectics of which Balibar and Machery talk about concerns itself with the internal contradictions of literature’s relationship with ideology. This relationship, full of internal contradictions defines literature as an ideological form. They insist that literature as an ideological form is ‘manifested through the workings and history of determinate practices in determinate social relations’ or ISAs.

Fitzgerald’s modern classic, The Great Gatsby is a product of a particular time and in itself embodies the traces of that very same historical period. After the Great War, when European superpowers, both winners and losers, were struggling to rise from the gaping pit left by the war, the USA who did not suffer a single bomb in those four years was experiencing unparalleled economic opulence. Besides the old bourgeoisie retaining their share of the profit, the society saw a new class of rich people who within a short span of time in the post-war period became members of the dominant class.

Jay Gatsby, around whom the narrative of the novel is weaved, represents this class of nouveau riche. In him, the picture of social mobility of that age is found. For being very faithful to its contemporaneity, the novel apparently provides a fine critique of the spirit of its age — of ‘American Dream’. Fitzgerald shows the repercussions of hankering after material wealth and accumulation of it at any cost through the tragic consequences of Gatsby.

Besides, this novel can also be read as an outward critique of the high-class lifestyle of the bourgeois of ‘roaring 20s’. The American dream like Daisy is ultimately unattainable for people like Gatsby who dreams of riches from the rags, no matter how hard they try. Moreover, this type of ambition of social mobility only brings unbearable tragedy.

The disillusionment Fitzgerald had with American Dream of the Jazz Age, the hopeless pursuit of happiness accompanied with material greed seems well reflected in the novel. However, the novel does not embody a complete and unitary picture of that age. Balibar and Machery believe that a literary work is never a complete work, neither it contains a subjective theme or the spirit of the age. It is materially incomplete and disparate with ideological contradictions. The Great Gatsby is no different.

                                                            The rest of the review will unfold in next week.

Raihan Rahman is a young writer and critic

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