Historical/Materialist Approaches: Marxism, New Historicism, Cultural Materialism
Focuses on play of socio-economic forces in a literary work as evidenced in the Plot and
Are there any class conflicts in the works? And if so how do they turn out? If there are
no major class conflicts, how do the different socio-economic classes interact with each
Remember, basic idea of Marxism: our consciousness is determined by the material
conditions of our existence. Where we live, work, what we eat, what our economic
situation is fundamentally determines consciousness.
Also, their theorization of the interaction between base and superstructure could be used
to understand how the two spheres (world of art/culture/diplomacy/law/religion and world
of labor/production/market) influence and interact with each other.
In the opera: there are fairly clear class identities with different levels of privilege and
There is the servant class – which includes all the servants (Pinkerton’s naval
‘servant’, Suzuki, cook etc.)
Then there is a middling class of sorts (involved in buying and selling, users of
consumer goods such as specific kinds of clothing, cosmetics etc.) that is
constituted of the geishas and Goro. This class seems more fluid with movement
possible upward or downward.
Then there is the upper class who seem to have the most economic, political,
and socio-cultural power: Pinkerton, Consul Sharpless, Yamadori, the Magistrate
who officiates at Butterfly’s marriage to Pinkerton, Cio-Cio San’s uncle, the Priest
Think of their socio-economic interactions: the play of power, of class aspirations
etc. And also consider how the plot represents these various classes.
In M. Butterfly, the movie, think of the class affiliations of the various characters and how
it effects their interactions.
There does seem to be a class hierarchy within the world of embassies that
Gallimard inhabits and much of it has to do with economic and political power.
Gallimard, as an accountant, has control over the inflow and outflow of cash, for
instance. What signals do we get about Song’s class status? How are those relevant to
her interaction with Gallimard?
‘China’ for Gallimard’s story is saturated with images of the sweating, toiling,
laboring masses – this demographic is mostly just seen as contributing to the
‘atmosphere’, the creation of an authentic scene, primarily as the “background” of
the more important story. But – foreground their world. Focus on them, their
role, their experience, with Gallimard’s story set aside for a while. How does
focusing on their class experience, their class aspiration, their economic hardship
change the meaning of the main plot?
The movie (and the play) are set in a very specific and important historical
moment: the Chinese Cultural Revolution. As Barry notes, Marxist criticism
focuses on the “class struggle, progression of society through various historical
stages such as from feudalism to industrial capitalism” or, in this case, socialism.
Think about how that transition is represented in these works.
In the play, Gallimard is clearly presented as cheap, upwardly mobile, quite
concerned with finances. Think of his interactions with other characters (real and
imaginary) in terms of his class status. (For instance, Marc’s father apparently
has a vacation home with a swimming pool).
In all these versions of Butterfly, how do representations of socio-economic status
impact your response to these works? Do you instinctively trust/mistrust,
condone/condemn certain characters because of their class? How do our sympathies
with certain characters, our comfort-level with certain aspects of the plot, etc. reflect our
own location in a specific socio-economic historical moment?
According to Marxist idea of Base-Superstructure relationship, think of these
literary/artistic works as part of the “superstructure” and analyze their relationship with
the particular “base” they emerge from. A literary work is a commodity for a specific
market and an author is a product of his or her economic situation – i.e. particular class
configuration so all these things impact the nature of the work produced. Consider these
works in this light. (You might have to research some of the historical/biographical
Specific genres as “speaking for” certain classes of people. Think of this as a way of
looking at the various genres of Butterfly.
Althusser’s notion of Ideology, ISAs, and Interpellation
Characters such as Puccini’s Butterfly, Suzuki, and even Pinkerton’s wife seem to stay in
situations that are not really to their benefit. How can we use Althusser’s notion of
Ideology, Interpellation, and ISA to understand them as Ideologically interpellated
subjects? Ideological interpellation is not singular and each subject inhabits a network of multiple
(sometimes hostile) ISAs. Consider the various Ideologies that are embodied in the
practices, rituals, actions, decisions of the characters. Gallimard (especially in the play),
Puccini’s Butterfly, Song – all these characters are often crisscrossed with shifting
Ideologies, which drive their conduct. Look at some of these characters as manifesting
“false consciousness” or “imaginary relations to real conditions of their existence” that
are more a layered, complex network rather than a simple, unproblematic belief system.
As Barry says, ‘doing’ New Historicism involves “the juxtaposition of literary material with
contemporary non-literary texts”.
How do you find the appropriate “co-texts” with which you can place the literary
work in an “archival continuum”?
When dealing with any text, think of some of the primary themes, issues and concerns in
that work. For instance, in the texts we are looking at, these might be identified as
Western perception of Asian culture,