New historicist criticism

This critical approach emphasizes the historical, social, political and cultural context in which texts are conceived, written, published, distributed, read and received. It argues that contemporary issues, hopes and anxieties, whether or not they appear or are explicitly discussed in a particular text, may have a determining effect on the shape and direction of the text:

  • Books set in the future, like George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) or Philip K. Dick's Blade Runner (1972) tell us as much about the time at which they were written as the times at which they are set
  • Shakespeare's history plays, concerning events that take place between one hundred and two hundred years before they were written in the 1590s, reflect the problems and anxieties of the Tudor monarchy concerning such matters as legitimacy, usurpation, government and the relationship between the monarchy, the aristocracy and the mass of the people.

A new historicist reading of Jane Eyre

In the case of Jane Eyre, a number of social issues are directly addressed:

  • Ambition in a range of characters from Georgiana Reed to Blanche Ingram
  • Class, especially in the way that Blanche and her friends treat Jane
  • The education and individual opportunities offered to women relevant to all the women characters in the book
  • The social role of money in offering liberty to women such as Jane and the Rivers sisters from taking uncongenial jobs.

See the sections Social / political context, Educational context, Brontë and childhood and Themes and significant ideas for further discussion of these issues.

Wider contemporary issues in the novel

At a deeper level, other issues prominent at the time Jane Eyre was written and published can be detected:

  • National debates about education
  • The role of class in a rapidly changing, rapidly urbanizing society
  • Debates concerning the nature and role of the gentleman, which is dramatized in a number of contemporary novels, including others by Dickens, such as Our Mutual Friend (1864-5)
  • Religious debates, particularly those concerning Evangelicalism, Calvinism and predestination.

The reception of the novel, such as the concerns about the possibilities of revolution expressed by Lady Eastlake in the Quarterly Review, might also attract the interest of new historicist criticism, which would then see the novel as intervening in contemporary political debates.

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