New Historicism and Cultural Materialism

My favorite novel is War and Peace, and part of the reason why I love it isn’t just because of the writing but because of the reasons why Tolstoy wrote it. Now I never considered that my love of the novel was in fact a part of what the new historicism critics were doing, but I think I can give a good example of how this works.

Barry says that, “the word of the past replaces the world of the past,” (Barry, 175) meaning that all we have to go on are the texts that have been left behind to us since the actual time in history no longer exists.

In Tolstoy’s case we could include in our analysis of War and Peace:

  • His wife’s daily journal. If you ever wanted to know what a pain in the ass Tolstoy was, as well as some insight into Tolstoy’s attitude towards women, serfs, the upper-classes, and how he behaved in general, read his poor wife’s journal.
  • We could look at Tolstoy’s military records (he served in the Crimean War 10 years previous to writing the novel) as well as his correspondence writing from that war in which we see him grow more disillusioned with war itself.
  • We could also look at the political reforms of the 1860’s, specifically the Russian Serf Emancipation of Emperor Alexander II.  

 

So armed with these additional texts we could get a better picture of what the author was living through at the time as well as give us extra insight into the author himself. Combined we get a bigger picture of not just what the novel is about, but why it exists in the world, why Tolstoy felt a book about the beginnings of the Decembrists Revolt was relevant half a century later.

War and Peace as seen through the old historicism lens could read:

  • The characters of the novel are constrained to act in accordance with their constrained social status under the ultimate rule of the Tsar and their desire to fight Napoleon’s invasion of their country.

 

War and Peace as seen through the new historicism lens could read:

  • The characters of the novel are greatly influenced by the new thinking of the age, such as nihilism, radical political reform, social justice, and the erosion of and political complicitness of the Orthodox church in regards to the power of the Tsar.