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Why do many ghost stories involve an encounter between the higher and the lower social orders? Why is prostitution the last resolution to survival? Several theoretical perspectives can be used to respond to the above questions. One of such perspective is the Marxist theory. Marxism is an idea that includes a number of different smaller ideas.
In1850’s, several literary texts were completed reflecting Victorian era themes. One of such texts is a ghost story text To be taken with a Grain of Salt authored by Charles Dickens. When Christmas fire was lit, ghost stories could be told, which brought out hidden secrets. The purpose of this paper is to analyse the literary text by Charles Dickens from the Victorian Ghost stories using the Marxism theoretical perspective.
To be taken with a Grain of Salt brings out several aspects of ghost stories. It shows an aspect of the dead coming back to life together with their representatives. An interaction between the dead and the living is well developed in the story. Nevertheless, it is arguable that the author had no intention to create a story, which scares or renders the reader uncomfortable (Manning & Granström 2011).
The Victorian period extended through the time of Queen Victoria (1837-1901). In this period, England experienced many changes including politic and social transformations. Since several literary texts record and/or criticise such changes (Fairhurst 2011, p.32), it is anticipated that To be taken with a Grain of Salt possesses economic, social, and political developments in the Victorian era.
While there are a number of joint decisions about the requirement to build written judgments of the capitalist society, Karl Marx introduced the Marxist theory of how the society functions, how it has developed, and/or the reasons for its development. He focused mostly on the nature of capitalism (Trainer 2010). Marx insists the idea that life in the society depends on the serious disagreements of interests.
The most important disagreements are those that exist between people who have the power to control the method of production that is often referred to as Bourgeoisie and those who would purely exchange their labour power for money in the market place (Parkin 2002, p.32). These are known as proletariats. Marx defines a class as the things that belong to a person.
Perception of this ownership gives a person the right and power to prevent others from using the property for their own personal use. What people own determines their class in the society. Parkin (2002) agrees with this line of argument and further asserts that class is not determined by a person’s earning or status, but is determined by how things are distributed and/or consumed (p.32).
This claim then verifies the production capacity and strength of a given class. According to Marx, the social status of the bourgeoisie is known by what they own (Kingston 2000). The notion of social classes became well established in England during the Victorian era. This notion had the repercussion of worsening the working conditions of people, with child labour becoming rampant.
Children belonging to low social economic families were employed to help in improving their family budget. The Victorian period is associated with a huge success. It is sometimes called the period of the second English Renaissance. During the period, social classes had begun to emerge in England to mark the beginning of modernity.
Older hierarchical orders were disoriented, with middle classes developing at a first rate (Sally 1996). In addition, the composition of the higher classes started to change from being passed on by parents having high social rankings to a mixture of people with titles that belong to a high, wealthy, and social class.
This matter perhaps reveals the significance of Marxism theory, which develops various theoretical explanations to class struggles between two main groups of the society: bourgeoisie and the proletariat (Rummel 2009, p.235). Symbolically, the notion of interactions of the dead and the living developed by To be taken with a Grain of Salt perhaps exemplifies the differences in the classes of people.
While the perceptions of the ghost often associated with the dead seems like unreality to the living, the working class or the labourers live in turmoil as Marxist theory claims. Among the living, it is fearful to think of interacting with ghosts (Manning & Granström 2011). Much similar to this finding, the higher class of the society, which comprises the wealthiest members of the society who own all factors of production, does not interact with the low socio-economic status class of people.
While there is fear in ghost stories that interaction with ghosts may create personal suffering to the living, in the development of the Marxist theory of class struggles, the high socio-economic status class of people do not mingle with the low socio-economic status class of people akin to the perception of inferiority and insignificance (Kingston 2000).
In fact, the later class of people is considered defiant of the social order that is guided by social and moral norms. This finding perhaps reveals why the developments of themes like prostitution are dominant in the Victorian era ghost stories such as To be taken with a Grain of Salt.
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Attempting to interpret this theme from the context of the Marxist theory makes it paramount to argue that class struggles are important in determining engagement of people in activities that are considered out of the social moral order such as prostitution. The proletariats are often oppressed. They hardly earn enough to sustain their lives (Kingston 2000).
Why should they not then engage in activities considered ghost-like by the higher-class people? Marxist theory responds to this query by claiming that any activity that supplements the budgetary constricts of the low-class members of the society would be justified as worthwhile activities in the extent that they aid in narrowing the gap between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie (Trainer 2010).
The perception of class differences and struggles advocates for the necessity of the creation of a justice system that would enhance equality among all persons. This aspect is developed in the To be taken with a Grain of Salt. In charismatic and prolific manner, Dickens unveils the tale of a murdered man attending the trial for his murderer (Dickens 2011, Para.3).
The dead man is eager to see his murderer brought to justice (Dickens 2011, Para.5). In the story, various movements of the ghost of the murdered man coupled with all attendants of the trial process in the court are described. This case perhaps depicts the eagerness of all people as one that is negatively influenced by segregation of people into classes during the Victorian Era so that some people (the proletariats) were rendered non-vocal in the public domain.
From the Marxist theoretical perspective, the proletariats were rendered non-vocal by the Bourgeoisie in that this class of people utilised their capital power to oppress the proletariats. The murdered man has no power or ability to fight for his justice. He has to rely on the court system to acquire justice.
The presentation of ghosts is particularly moving. Considering the relationship between the Bourgeoisie and the proletariats, the use of the ghosts in helping to develop the notion of class struggles is not coincidental. Ghosts are considered unreal appearances to the living. Analogically, proletariats who seek punishment for Bourgeoisie are also unreal.
Consistent with this assertion, Rummel (2009) maintains that the proletariats have no protection for their rights. However, the Bourgeoisie class has both political and economic powers to protect it from facing legal consequences for its oppressive acts (p.242). In the developments of the themes of inequality in accessing justice, Dickens is purposeful and careful in the use of the dead man (Fairhurst 2011).
Indeed, he uses mild and smooth expressions to portray the victim’s agony for justice. This strategy creates an atmosphere of two classes of people. One is able to fight for its course while the other is incapacitated in the extent that a person who was killed by the powerful force represents it. Some lines in Dickens’ text reflect this atmosphere.
For instance, Dickens says, “A certain murder was committed in England, which attracted great attention…We hear more than enough of murderers as they rise in succession to their atrocious eminence” (Cox & Gilbert 2003, p.55). Therefore, the acts of murder were treated with simplicity by the legal forces in the effort to protect the mighty members of the society as evidenced by the phrase “…and I would bury the memory of this particular brute, if I could, as his body was buried, in Newgate Jail’’ (Dickens 2011, Para.12).
At the time of writing the text, the working conditions for the working class of people were still not encouraging. For instance, child labour was a reality that the society had to face. Children worked in dangerous working environments without negating the fact that they were also paid poorly. Agile boys were hired to work in chimney sweeps while small children got jobs for scrambling machineries to remove bobbins of cotton (Sally 1996).
Children also worked in mines for coal, especially where crawling in narrow tunnels was required. Additionally, they were involved in the selling of cheap goods besides serving as domestic workers. In the mid of 18th century, the number of children working as domestic workers was more than 120, 000 (Sally 1996). Working hours ranged from 64 hours a week for the case of builders in summer while during the winter season they worked for 52 hours.
Domestic servants worked for an average of 80 hours in a week (Sally 1996). From the above arguments, struggles for justice pursued by the dead man were a clear exemplification of the need to provide equal social orders. Those who are oppressed, as Marxist theory suggests, are those belonging to the low socio-economic class such as children from poor households.
In the practical world, ghosts (representatives of the dead people) are not anticipated to seek any legal justice just as children in the Victorian Era and other poor people could not do it. This similarity perhaps reveals well why ghost stories involve an encounter between the higher and lower social orders.
Indeed, tantamount to the way the murdered man appeared in the form of a ghost to listen to the proceeding of the case against the murderer in the effort to witness justice being delivered, children and the low socio-economic class of people (often oppressed by the Bourgeoisie) live with eagerness for justice to apply in all aspects of life. This way, they can be freed from the capitalistic exploitations acerbated by the Bourgeoisie.
Living in a society that has little to cater for fundamental needs requires the members of a given society to seek all possible alternatives to ease the economic challenges. According to Brown, a ghost refers to a type of spirit (2010 p. 5). Hence, as may be evidenced by the To be taken with a Grain of Salt, the ghosts are a representation of fights against certain cultural and social oppressive orders.
Indeed, in many of the ghost stories of the Victorian Era including the text under scrutiny, the ghost re-appears to fight for a cause, which is not justified from the contemporary social order. Consequently, it is arguable that Victorian ghost stories reflect very deep concerns of the society. Hence, they fail to serve the purpose of creating fear in their readers.
One of the major social concerns for the Victorian Era was the increasing cases of prostitution. In London, many of the prostitutes belonged to the age gap of 15 to 22 years during this time (Sally1996). With regard to the national census conducted in 1851, the population of Britain was about 18 million. In this population, about 750, 000 women were considered superfluous in the extent that they did not have men to match them since women were in excess (Sally1996).
Considering the position of women in the society during the Victorian Era, it meant that these women had no men to provide for them. They had to look for alternative ways of eking out a living. In many instances, they opted to engage in prostitution. This being a social problem, it was inevitable for any literary work in the Victorian Era to be developed fully without a reflection of prostitution as the last resolution to survival, especially among the surplus women.
From the context of the Marxist theory, prostitutes fitted into the low social economic social class of people who had to do anything within their reach to eke out a living lest they be overtaken by events. Such people were less like the Bourgeoisie, but more like the ghosts seeking justice in a court of law, which is captured in Dickens’ text.
Consequently, prostitution is arguably a social problem that emanates from struggles between various classes within a society. In such a tag war, one class is overpowered (proletariat) and becomes economically drained by the more powerful and superior class (Bourgeoisie) (Rummel 2009). However, the inferior class must survive. Hence, it cannot shun away from engaging in activities considered ghost-like by the superior class such as prostitution and poorly paid labour often involving physical, mental, and spiritual torture.
In conclusion, discussing the applicability of Marxist theory in the To be taken with a Grain of Salt calls for a talk of the condition of life among the proletariats. This consideration may also help to lay a fundamental background why many ghost stories involve an encounter between the higher and the lower social orders and why prostitution is the last resolution to survival.
Brown, N. 2010, The Paranormal, Alpha, New York & London.
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Kingston, T. 2000, The Classless Society, Stanford University Press, Stanford.
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Parkin, F. 2002, Marx’s Theory of History: A Bourgeois Critique, Columbia University Press, New York.
Rummel, R. 2009, ‘Marxism and Class Conflicts’, European Journal of Public Governance, vol. 3 no. 2, pp. 235-247.
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