We will now turn to the literary theory of New Historicism. It has some striking differences from the previous two theories we looked at. As review, in broad terms, the perspective of Feminist Literary Theory tends to focus on gender, and the perspective of Marxist Literary Theory tends to focus on economic class structure in literature. With New Historicism, their perspective focuses on: historical context and bias of the reader.
According to New Historicists, there is no “universal” quality to literature but it emerges out of a specific and complex historical moment. New Historicists argue that literary texts are “embedded” within their historical context. To put this simply, texts reflect the time period in which they were written. New Historicists will often look at other texs around the time the one they are looking at was written to better understand it.
New Historicists are often skeptical and see the author as subject to the forces of culture that he or she works within as well.
One thing that is interesting about this theory, unlike the other theories, is that it takes into account the reader of the text too. New Historicism sees readers, like authors, as subject to their time period who tend to read texts in ways that confirm their own cultural experience. In other words, readers are influenced by how they will interpret a text because they will apply at least some of their current cultural views to a text. New Historists recognize our that our views as readers change, as our society changes because our society influences who we are.
New Historicists investigate:
- the life of the author
- social rules found within the text
- the manner in which the text reveals a historical situation
- the ways in which other historical texts can help us understand the texts
Questions New Historicists often ask are:
- What language/characters/events present in the work reflect the current events of the author’s day?
- Are there words in the text that have changed their meaning from the time of the writing?
- How are such events interpreted and presented?
- How are events' interpretation and presentation a product of the culture of the author?
- Does the work's presentation support or condemn the event?
- Can it be seen to do both?
- How does this portrayal criticize the leading political figures or movements of the day?
- How does the literary text function as part of a continuum with other historical/cultural texts from the same period...?
- How does the work consider traditionally marginalized populations?