The Marxist approach applied to Papa’s Waltz, the Swimmer and The Great Gatsby

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The different works of literature can be read and understood through a variety of lenses by focusing on the various ideas or meanings in these texts. Depending on the lens applied, different readers are likely to offer varied interpretations and understandings of a given piece of literature. One of such lenses is the Marxist approach which delves into the deeper economic, social and political themes in a text (Wright 7). The Marxist approach allows the reader to focus on the economic and social classes as brought out in the text, and how these different classes interact throughout that text. The current paper uses this lens to examine three major texts: My Papa’s Waltz by Theodore Roethke, The Swimmer by John Cheever and The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

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In the poem “My Papa’s Waltz”, Theodore Roethke brings out different themes depending on the interpretations of the reader. One of such themes, as seen through the Marxist approach, is that of the struggles of the working class. In displaying the relationship between a father and son, the poem points to the challenges faced by the working class. The final stanza of this poem best illustrates these struggles:

You beat time on my head
With a palm caked hard by dirt,
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt. (Roethke, 998)

In the second verse of this stanza, the father is shown to have a palm that is “cased hard by dirt.” The author suggests that the father has to struggle with hard labor or some form of dirty work throughout the day, hence the reason why his hands are dirty. He clearly does not own the means of production. This, according to the Marxist view, is a major problem suffered by the working class who has to suffer while the owners of the means of production enjoy the resulting profits (Wright 18). Furthermore, this stanza illustrates that whereas other fathers or parents in general might have the chance to link-up with their families early, this particular one has to work for long hours, and only come home very late, close to the son’s bed time. In the third verse, the author writes that father “waltzed” the son “off to bed”, indicating that he was in fact interfering with the son’s sleeping hours (Roethke, 998). This poem, when viewed from a Marxist lens, suggests that the struggles suffered by the working class have a profound effect on their family relationships and the roles they play as parents or guardians. The struggle of different classes in the society is also evident in the short story “The Swimmer”.

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In the short story “The Swimmer”, the struggles of the middle and upper class parents are brought out, and the effects on their personal lives and families. The Marxist approach is one that helps us understand the different relations of the various classes in our society, and these relationships are well brought out in this story (Wright 14). But perhaps this story goes further to illustrate to the readers how the middle and upper class persons attempt to find ways of enjoying life, often with a tragic ending. Through Neddy’s journey, readers see that he started out as a wealthy and successful person, but towards the end, he is a desperate and lonely man (Cheever, 737). The last paragraph of the story best captures Neddy’s predicament, summarized in the following sentence when Neddy finally returns home after his swimming journey:

The house was locked, and he thought that the stupid cook or the stupid maid must have locked the place up until he remembered that it had been some time since they had employed a maid or a cook (Cheever, 737).

Just like in “My Papa’s Waltz”, in “The Swimmer”, the struggles of different classes and how they relate to their families is a theme well brought out. The above quote shows that although Neddy attempted to enjoy his life to the full, just like many middle and upper class citizens would, he ended up losing his family. Furthermore, the fact that they had not hired a maid or a cook for a long time suggests that the economic conditions he and his family faced were harsh. Unlike in the “My Papa’s Waltz” poem above, the short story depicts a family that once enjoyed life, although the deterioration in their finances has contributed to a change in lifestyle. This story reminds readers that classes the different classes in society are not permanent since people will often find themselves moving up or down the ladder, depending on the prevailing economic and political conditions. In the “Great Gatsby” by Scott Fitzgerald, the elasticity of social classes in society and the quest for people to move up the ladder is well captured.

In “Great Gatsby”, the story is told of Nick Carraway, a young man who moves to New York in search of a better life. The novel brings out the theme of capitalism, one of the concepts brought out by Karl Marx. Throughput the novel, readers witness how the various characters are seeking ways of increasing their own wealth and move up the social ladder. But unlike the previous two texts, this novel further shows that as people look for more wealth, they are not only going to be more individualistic but will engage in behaviors that will endanger the society as a whole. Like the previous two texts, the effects of these class and social struggles have a strong impact on families and other relationships. For instance, one of the wealthiest people described in the novel is Gatsby, who unfortunately, caused the deaths of many before he was killed (Fitzgerald, 85). The upper classes in the society are clearly living a lie, and will one day end up descending down this ladder. This depiction of social classes is brought out in the following quote towards the end of the novel:

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . (Fitzgerald, 135)

The above quote shows that the wealth and status people crave for in society are a big illusion that is not fully satisfied. However, the struggles in the society will continue as long as people continue to chase this mirage. The novel, just like “My Papa’s Waltz” and “The Swimmer” indicates that the need for wealth and the desire to gain a higher social status is a major driving force in our societies leading to more evil than good.

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To conclude, the analysis of the above texts through the Marxist lens has revealed to me the effects of capitalism on personal relationships and families. The pressures associated with the different classes in society are as a result of the individualistic thinking that is promoted by the capitalist approach. As people struggle to move up the ladder in social status, they are likely to create enemies, destroy families and even kill each other. Through these texts, it is now possible to understand the various social issues in our society by looking at the challenges faced by the different classes in society. For example, before condemning one as an absent father or mother, it is perhaps prudent to understand the number of hours or days the person spends away from home working. Going forward, this analysis offers a chance for self examination and reflection so that I do not end up being swallowed by the jaws of capitalism and individualism in the pursuit for happiness and wealth.

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  1. Cheever, John. “The Swimmer,” John Cheever: Collected Stories & Other Writings. The Library of America, 2009, pp. 726-737
  2. Fitzgerald, F S. The Great Gatsby. New York: Scribner Paperback Fiction, 1995. Print.
  3. Roethke, Theodore. “My Papa’s Waltz.” Perrine’s Literature: Structure, Sound, and Sense. Eds. Thomas R. Arp and Grey Johnson. Boston: Thomson Wadsworth, 2006. 997-998
  4. Wright, Erik Olin. “Foundations of a Neo-Marxist Class Analysis.” Approaches to Class Analysis, edited by Erik Olin Wright, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2005, pp. 4–30.
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