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Themes of Marxism in 'The Great Gatsby' and 'Death of a Salesman'

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1147 words Published: 8th Sep 2021

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Marxism is an ideology that was theorised by Karl Marx that is based on the social and economic processes of class formation in a capitalist society. According to Marx there are two classes namely the bourgeoisie and proletariat. The bourgeoisie or ruling class own and control the means of production. They monopolise the political power and put laws in place in order to protect and further their interests. In this way the beliefs and values will reflect and legitimate their rule. Whereas, the proletariat or working class are dispossessed from making their own livelihood, but are forced to sell their labour for survival. If the dominant class’s power is accepted as legitimate by the working class, this is known as false consciousness (Longurst, Smith, Bagnall, Crawford & Ogborn, 2008). This ideology became the basis of analysing literature, known as Marxist criticism. Marxist critic’s approach to literature is based on sociological influences, which means that the texts are the result of whichever historical, economic as well as cultural circumstances they were created in. Texts from whichever epoch reveal the dominate class’s ideology, thus making them subjective. (Potter, 2010)

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The Great Gatsby is a novel written by Scott Fitzgerald in 1925. The novel focuses on the lives of the dominant class of a western capitalistic society and how they are shaped by this lifestyle. On the other hand, Death of a Salesman was written by Arthur Miller in 1949. The novel focuses on the life of a family of proletariats and how they are impacted by the bourgeoisies in society.

The Great Gatsby does not focus on both economic classes. Instead it focuses on different groups of the dominant class, namely old money and the nouveau riche and as a result this novel reflects the dominant ideology. Although the working class is mentioned, they are ignored for the most part. Old money is represented by East Egg, West Egg represents the nouveau riche and the working class is represented by the Valley of Ashes.

The protagonist, Jay Gatsby, is part of the nouveau riche who lives in West Egg. Jay Gatsby moves from being the son of “shiftless and unsuccessful farm people” (1994 p.105) to becoming the owner of a huge West Egg mansion with “a marble swimming pool and over forty acres of lawn and garden” (1994 p.11), this shows the possibilities offered by the American dream. Gatsby earns his money through illegal means, which places him in the new money category, and as a result he flaunts by throwing extravagant parties and buying expensive cars. Another reason Gatsby flaunts is to get the attention and win the affection of Daisy, thus treating her as a commodity (Tyson, 2006). Old money, on the other hand, has had money for generations, so they do not flaunt. Old money, people like Tom and Daisy, look down on the nouveau riche, because they got rich quick and, because they are threatening the status quo.

Myrtle and George Wilson are working class characters but they have aspirations to move to the upper class. George wants to achieve this through his business. Whereas, Myrtle has an affair with Tom in the hopes that he will eventually marrying her. Both the Wilsons are commodified by the bourgeoisie and disillusioned by the American dream. Myrtle’s murder is a perfect example of how the bourgeoisie do not suffer the consequences of their actions, because they have money, “…they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness… and let other people clean up the mess they made” (1994 p.186). One person attends Gatsby’s funeral, demonstrating that his attainment of the American dream was only an illusion.

Death of a Salesman is also a text that reflects the dominant ideology, but in this case the play is written from the point of view of the working class. Although the dominant class has an effect on the main characters they are largely ignored in the play. Willy Loman, the protagonist, is a worn out travelling salesman on the point of a breakdown. But Willy still believes in the capitalist values and has passed on the hopes of success onto his son Biff. Disillusioned by the dominant ideology, Willy is blind to its destructiveness and is fixated with his plans for Biff. Biff, however, has no intentions in following the plans his father has set out for him and intends to pursue a different path, one that Miller associates with socialist society. His lack of drive to follow conventional success is teaching him, not that he is useless, and but that the business world might not be for him and that he is better off without it. He is trying to understand himself and discover his true identity. In the beginning of the play, he was not sure of himself and as a result returned home in an attempt to fulfil his father’s dream. Happy, Willy other son, has a good job and would like to go further. He also has uncertainties about his career but has no way to replace it. (Swets & Zeitlinger, 1994)

The scene in which Howard, Willy’s young boss, fires Willy is a perfect example of the logic of the capitalist economic instrument. Willy, in an attempt to avoid failure, appeals to Howard’s conscience, reminding him the he has been a loyal and long term worker for the company, but to no avail. Although Howard is Willy’s friend and neighbour, he is a business man and abides by the law of profit making first, “business is business” (2000 p.63), which is absolute in the capitalist business world. Willy refuses a job offer by Charley because he feels its charity and would destroy his image of himself as a self-reliant individual. Willy failure and Biff similar fate makes Willy reject his son. This shows how capitalist value can distort and destroy a meaningful relationship between father and son. (Swets & Zeitlinger, 1994)

Willy decides to commit suicide in the hopes that his life insurance payment will enable Biff to rise in the world. But, Biff becomes the only one in the play to understand the destructive nature of capitalist values and pities his father, exclaiming: “I can’t bear to look at his face!” (2000 p.115)

Both texts show how in a capitalist society money gives power and those who have money control the power of society. As well as in western capitalist society the upper will inevitably oppress the working class and that the American dream is both an illusion and elusive.

This essay has discussed how the two texts differ socioeconomically, using a Marxist criticism approach. Specific reference has been made to Marxism and how it relates to Marxist criticism, the context of both texts by focusing on the time periods as well as how the characters lived. This essay has also looked at the socioeconomic context of The Great Gatsby and Death of a Salesman.


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