Copyright 2019 by Michael W. Rickard II
Editor's Note: Here's an essay I wrote on Charlotte Bronte's industrial novel Shirley.
Shirley character Mr. Yorke provides a rich amount of material to analyze through Marxist criticism as Yorke raises many of the questions posed by Marxists during the Industrial Revolution including criticism of the upper class, the military, and clergy. While Marxism was in its infancy during the time Shirley was published, I shall show how Yorke shares Marxist views, despite his status as a landowner. Nonetheless, a Marxist reading of Yorke supports the interpretation that while Yorke expresses Marxist views, his lack of action in remedying capitalism’s failures only affirms the need for a Marxist revolution of the proletariat.
Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley features many interesting supporting characters that reflect different perspectives in the Yorkshire community, ranging from laborers to factory owners. These different characters allow Bronte to explore the societal dilemma caused by the Industrial Revolution—how industries can stay afloat financially with technological advances without the workforce suffering low wages or unemployment. The character of Mr. Yorke provides a cleverly written point-of-view as he is a landowner who is sympathetic to the lower classes and resentful of upper classes.
While Mr. Yorke is a landowner, his sympathies are with the lower class. This is seen repeatedly throughout Shirley as he expresses his opinions on the world around him. While there is evidence suggesting Yorke is an angry old man who vents his temper on everything around him, his rants provide a rich vein to mine via Marxist criticism.
As Tyson explains, Marxist criticism revolves around the Marxist principle that:
…getting and keeping economic power is the motive behind all social and political activities, including education, philosophy, religion, government, the arts, science, technology, the media, and so on. Thus, economics is the base on which the superstructure of social/political power is built.” (53-54)
An integral part of this is the idea of class, “which is why many Marxists today refer to socioeconomic class, when talking about the class structure” (54). Shirley provides many characters whose class structure makes for Marxist criticism, but none more than Mr. Yorke.
As Abrams and Harpham point out, there are different forms of Marxist criticism. One involves examining literary works through their ideology:
…a Marxist critic typically undertakes to explain the literature in any historical era not as works created in accordance with timeless artistic criteria, but as ‘products’ of the economic and ideological determinants specific to that era/” (205)
Somewhat similar is the idea that “The Marxist critic (who tends to be primarily interested in content) writes from the definite standpoint of Marx’ philosophical ideas and from his view of history in which the class struggle is fundamental in terms of socio-historical factors (Cuddon 422). Thus, I will explore the ideological Marxist criticism here to analyze Yorke’s attitudes towards the working class and the mill owners that control the means of production, i.e. the bourgeoise.
Inherent in this analysis is the idea of ideology, a concept Abrams and Harpham define as, “…the belief, values, and ways of thinking and feeling through which human beings perceive, and by recourse to which they explain, what they take to be reality. An ideology is, in complete ways, the product of the position and interests of a particular class” (204). My analysis will show Yorke’s sympathies lie with the proletariat, but his actions (passive as they may be) support the proletariat, thus constituting a defacto support of capitalist ideology.
Mr. Yorke vilifies several common targets of Marxists, beginning with religion. Yorke holds particular venom for the clergy as seen when he denounces the actions during Moore’s defense of his mill, “The Church,” he said, “was in a bonnie pickle now; it was time it came down when parsons took to swaggering, among soldiers, blazing away wi’ bullet and gunpowder, taking the lives of far honester men than themselves” (Bronte 346). As Cuddon notes, “The question of God’s existence is not the fundamental issue for Marxist analysis rather, what human beings do in God’s name—organized religion—is the focus” (59). Here, Yorke is not criticizing the teachings of Christ, but seems to be criticizing clergy who claim to represent Jesus Christ but disobey one of his basic teachings, “But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also” (The Bible, Matt. 5.43) and Christ’s warning, “Then said Jesus unto him, Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword” (Matt. 26.52).
Although Yorke’s opinions are not Marxist per se, they fit with Marxist views of the proletariat being suppressed by the bourgeoisie—here both the mill owners and the societal forces they enlist to aid them in suppressing the proletariat. For example, Yorke denounces mill owner Moore, “If Moore had behaved to his men from the beginning as a master ought to behave, they never would have entertained their present feelings towards him” (347). Yorke’s criticism of the military is seen when he says, “He had the soldiers, those poor slaves who hire out their own blood and spill other folks’ for money” (Bronte 347). Yorke points out how the mill owners oppress their workers and rely on the state-sanctioned power of the military (ironically manned by the bourgeoisie) to suppress the bourgeoisie.
What is most interesting about Yorke’s viewpoints is that he as a landowner he fits in the social class of the bourgeoisie, yet sympathizes with the proletariat. I argue a Marxist criticism of Shirley interprets this as recognition that even the bourgeoisie acknowledge the injustices served on the proletariat. However, while Yorke is sympathetic, he does not yield his land to the proletariat, reinforcing the Marxist concept that a revolution is needed for the proletariat to control the means of production and create equality.
A Marxist reading of Shirley’s Mr. Yorke shows the bourgeoisie recognize the inequalities imposed by the capitalist system (here, the mill owners), but even sympathetic bourgeoisie such as Mr. Yorke fail to act, a fact which a Marxist reading supports the need for a proletariat revolution.
Abrams, M.H. and Geoffrey Galt Harpham. A Glossary of Literary Terms, 11th ed., Cengage
The Bible. Authorized King James Version, Oxford UP, 1998.
Bronte, Charlotte. Shirley. Edited by MacDonald Daly, Penguin Books, 2006.
Cuddon, J.A. Dictionary of Literary Terms & Literary Theory. Penguin Books, 2013.
Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide. 2nd ed., Routledge, 2006.
 As Abrams and Harpham note (205), ideological analysis is not limited to Marxist criticism.