Critical Theory: New Historicism

New Historicism (a Counter-Point to New Criticism)

This critical theory sees texts as the product of a particular social-historical moment. Each era is a cultural moment with ideas, values and conflicts that predominate.

Any author is bound to be influenced by his or her cultural moment. Any work that author produces will then also be inextricably linked to the cultural moment.

The text is necessarily a product of its times.

Proponents of this critical theory insist on this as an essential factor in any good literary analysis. This insistence makes New Historicism in direct contrast to New Criticism, another popular critical theory.

New Historicism is a school of critical theory that suggests a work cannot be separated from the social and historical context in which it is created.

Some texts seem to cry out for a contextualized reading. Novels like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, for example, are distinctly linked to a specific historical context.

In order to fully grasp the meaning of that novel, we have to consider the cultural moment in which it was produced. Otherwise, the text loses some of its significance and our reading of the text becomes less significant too.

For New Historicism, this sensibility is always at work. The cultural context wherein a text was produced is always an important element to consider when analyzing that text.

Not all texts are as context-dependent as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, yet New Historicism would argue that all texts are a response to their times.

In one way or another, the author is necessarily influenced by the cultural moment.

Thus, even for science-fiction set in outer space, we can reasonably ask how the dominant ideas, values, and conflicts of the era are making their way into the literary text.

Often, when we look at texts this way we see that the author has intentionally included these things in the text. Often, commenting on the cultural moment that is part of the point of the work (and this is especially true for science-fiction.)

The bottom line: For New Historicism, context is essential to understanding what a text truly means.


Applying  New Historicism

These are the sorts of questions that we might pose when we apply New Historicism to our analysis of a text.

  • How does the text reflect the cultural moment of its production?
  • In what ways does the text demonstrate a social reality that belongs to a particular time and place?
  • What other texts were produced in the period when this work was published? What commonalities do they present?
  • How does the text respond to trends, politics, or philosophical movements of its era?
  • How does the text’s context influence its content?

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