New historicist criticism

A working definition

This critical approach emphasises 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. For example:

  • 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 in which they were written as about the times in 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 Persuasion

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

  • Social status is an ever-present issue in Persuasion. Jane Austen demonstrates the effects of new wealth and the rise of the professional classes on the structure of society
  • Wealth is closely linked to social status:
    • Captain Wentworth realises his ambition to be wealthy and is thus able to socialise with the landed gentry and even marry into it
    • William Elliot and Sir Walter are also ambitious to maintain and increase their social status through wealth and title. Their methods of doing this stand in contrast to Wentworth's
    • Mrs. Smith loses her wealth and thus her place in society
  • The precarious financial position of women in a male-dominated society, where women had few rights and property was passed down through the male line.

See the sections Social / political context, and Themes for further discussion of these issues.

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