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“The literary text is itself part of the interplay of discourses, a thread in the dynamic web of social meaning.” – Lois Tyson
An historical approach to literary interpretation and analysis is perhaps the oldest and one of the most widely-used critical approach. The historical approach involves understanding the events and experiences surrounding the composition of the work, especially the life of the author, and using the findings to interpret that work of literature.
Indeed, especially in Carroll’s day, study of a work of literature necessitated a study of the author’s life and experiences, as that was seen as the only way to really understand a piece of literature. Thus in the history of Alice criticism there has been a lot of research into the life of Charles Dodgson/Lewis Carroll to explain the Alice books. I have called this the “Biographical” interpretation.
The historical approach was somewhat abandoned in the mid-twentieth century, in the wake of “New Criticism,” a school which disregards the author to focus on the work itself. However, in the last thirty years or so, it has made a come-back with slightly a different approach and under the name: “New Historicism.” New Historical critics, according to Lois Tyson, consider literary texts to be “cultural artifacts that can tell us something about the interplay of discourses, the web of social meanings, operating in the time and place in which the text was written” (291). They argue that “the literary text and the historical situation from which it emerged are equally important because text (the literary work) and context (the historical conditions that produced it) are mutually constitutive: they create each other” (Tyson 291-292). So, a New Historical Critic would ask not only what the Victorian Era can tell us about Alice, but also what Alice can tell us about the Victorians. The “Victorian” interpretation section incorporates elements of both the old Historical approach, and New Historicism, exploring the relationship between Alice and the social, political, philosophical, and religious ideals and issues of the Victorian Era.
Additionally, New Historical critics study how literary interpretations are shaped by the culture of the various interpreters. For instance, in this section I also explore the “Psychedelic Interpretation” as an example of an approach to understanding Alice which is firmly rooted in the culture of the era in which it was developed.
Biographical Interpretation of Alice
Victorian Interpretations of Alice
Psychedelic Interpretation of Alice
Want to read more about New Historicism?
Wikipedia Article on New Historicism
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