Historical Perspective to Literary
Who is Stomping on Whom?
The Importance of the Historical
Historical novels often make important comments on the
human condition in a particular era.
Understanding the human condition and social pressures
helps understand the work
How can we understand Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher
Stowe without background knowledge about slavery?
How can we understand The Jungle by Upton Sinclair without
understanding the treatment of immigrants in the early 20th
century? The conditions in meat packing plants then?
(Guerin et al 52).
The Concept of Historical
Traditional historical perspective asserts that there “are ‘facts’
that we can know, with some degree of certainty, and as
readers we… need to gather them…, and fit them
together…, and cautiously relate them to literary works”
“A historical reading of a literary work begins by exploring
the possible ways in which the meaning of the text has
changed over time” (Kennedy 1474).
• To strive to understand a literary text
as a product of the social, cultural, and
intellectual context in which it was
• To examine how the text was initially
received by readers as well as how its
reception has changed over time.
• To examine how the author’s own
experiences may be reflected in the
Two Ways to Approach Literature
from a Historical Perspective –
Divergence of Thought
Old Historicism looks at the time in which a piece was
written to determine how it was interpreted by its
New Historicism demonstrates how a literary work
reflects ideas and attitudes of the time in which it was
Why Examine the Time Period in
Which a Piece Was Written?
Every literary work is written in a specific time
Time periods change how people think
Time periods change views of the world
Every time period has specific social values
Social values influence how a piece is written
Social values influence intellectual beliefs
Shakespeare wrote in a tumultuous time when some in power believed
the theater to be an evil influence
Did he write “all the world’s a stage” to comment on these attacks?
Kurt Vonnegut wrote Slauterhouse Five during the Viet Nam War Era
While the book is about World War II, how much of it is a commentary on the Viet
Why Demonstrate How a Work
Reflects its Time?
Many literary works comment on power struggles that are
occurring during the time in which they were written
Examining other texts of the same time period, such as diaries,
records, and institutions helps understand the literary work better
Language influences how we interpret text (the diction of a piece)
Comparing and contrasting “the language of contemporaneous
documents and literary works” reveals “hidden assumptions, biases,
and cultural attitudes that relate to the two kinds of texts…
demonstrating how the literary work shares the cultural assumptions”
of the time (DiYanni 1566).
Example: “A Rose for Emily” uses language that is taboo today.
A Checklist of Historical and New
Historicist Critical Questions
1. When was the work written? When was it published? How was it received by the
critics and public? Why?
2. What does the work’s reception reveal about the standards of taste and value during
the time period it was published and reviewed?
3. What social attitudes and cultural practices related to the action of the work were
prevalent during the time the work was written and published?
4. What kinds of power relations does the work describe, reflect, embody?
5. How do the power relations reflected in the literary work manifest themselves in the
cultural practices and social institutions prevalent during the timer the work was
written and published?
6. What other types of historical documents, cultural artifacts, or social institutions
might be analyzed in conjunction with particular literary works? How might close
reading of such nonliterary “text” illuminate those literary works?
7. To what extent can we understand the past as it is reflected in the literary work? To
what extent does the work reflect differences from the ideas and values of its time?
(Di Yanni 1567).
DiYanni, Robert. Literature Approaches to Fiction, Poetry, and
Drama. Boston: McGraw Hill, 2008.
Guerin, Wilfred L., Labor, Earle, Morgan, Lee, Reesman,
Jeanne C., Willingham, John R. A Handbook of Critical
Approaches to Literature. 5th ed. NY: Oxford U P, 2005.