Historicism is a literary theory that looks at the life of the author and the time period the text was written in. Specific details matter in this literary theory, such as the type of food they eat, the style of dress and the language used New Historicism challenges the meaning that history places upon a piece of literature. For instance, we might say that people in the Romantic Era were driven by passion or people in the Great Depression Era were frugal.
These generalizations might be true, but does this apply to all people? That is the type of question New Historicism raises more likely there are varying degrees of these facts. Where Historicism says facts create meaning New Historicism says those aren’t facts, they are opinions, so let’s listen to the voices found in literature and see how they create complex dialogue without fixable meaning. They challenge the adage that history is knowable and stable by asking how the events have been interpreted in literature.
New Historicists believe that culture will affect the interpretation of a literary work. They believe that truth is relative and that the text can be impacted by many things. For example, who is writing the text. Winston Churchill once said, “History is written by the victors.” New Historicists believe that all voices should be heard and taken into account when interpreting history based on literature and texts. New Historicism seeks to reconnect a work with the time period in which it was produced and identify it with the cultural and political movements of the time, and that every text is a product of its time.
They believe society and culture influences the creation of a work. After the work is published, society and culture digest the work and it is changed in some small way. Literature has a tendency to change its readers. The work, and society’s interpretation of that work, alters the culture and leads to the creation of new work. This circle of influence continues as time moves on it is impossible to separate literature from culture, and vice versa.
New Historicists believe history is everything when interpreting a text. They also believe everything is biased and they are always asking “What was left out?” They do not believe one story represents an entire time period or group of people, but rather it is part of a sea of voices that make up the tapestry of experience and history. They also believe you must follow the power. Michel Foucault, a French historian and philosopher, is famous in the literary world for his work with the structuralism and post-structuralism movements. He took a three-pronged approach to interpret history, a term he later coined as Power-Knowledge. He believed power was everywhere, and that unequal amounts of power amongst people led to obscure and invisible people who were left out of the historical text.
When interpreting late 19th century culture in France within the text of Guy de Maupassant’s short story “The Necklace” it is important to remember that one text does not represent the entirety of the culture during the time it was written. But we can make connections between the text and the time period by examining both how the authors times affected the text and how the work reflects the authors times. Guy de Maupassant was born in 1850 near Dieppe, France. His father was a member of the minor aristocracy, a small privileged class. Maupassant’s family was considered to be free-thinkers, but he received his education from the church and was sent to a seminary at the age of thirteen. He loathed his circumstances and deliberately concocted a plan that led to his expulsion. He later studied law and volunteered, and served, as a first-private in the field and was moved to serving with the quartermaster corps, because of his fathers influence, during the Franco-German War.
With the assistance of his father he was promoted several times and went on to work in the Ministry of Public. Thanks to his mother’s close relationship with Gustave Flaubert’s sister, Maupassant secured an apprenticeship with the famous novelist. This opportunity led to his success as an author it would seem opportunity and advancement were at Guy de Maupassant’s fingertips because he was born into a higher class and contacts were made available to him. His works are most famous for his dispassionate portrayal of his characters without passing any judgment upon them he was able to capture their personality by simple gesture’s or language while properly describing their social backgrounds as if to say the big picture (past and present) make up the whole of the person.
The end of the 19th century and the beginning of he 20th century was associated with cultural innovations and new art forms, but it was also a time that was highly divided by religion, class and money. New Historicists believe cultural history can be revealed by studying the dispersion of power and the marginalization of social classes. In “The Necklace” we see class issues represented by the detailed description of Mathilde’s plight: “…born by a blunder of destiny in a family of employees” (Maupassant). Mathilde’s family was a part of the working class and she had no hopes of rising above her station. Most members of the working class experienced great hardship in France during the late 19th century, and Mathilde “suffered intensely, feeling born for every delicacy and every luxury” (Maupassant). The chance of advancement economically or socially, however, was difficult and limited; especially for women. We see this detailed in “The Necklace” when Maupassant describes Mathilde as “simple”. He goes on to say, she was unhappy as though kept out of her own class for women have no caste and descent” (Maupassant). The sheer mention of class and the caste system illuminates the time period and draws our attention to France’s history of classism and keeping marginalized groups of people in their place.