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Greenblatt Guru of New Historicism

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 4898 words Published: 14th Dec 2017

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According to M.A.R Habib, New Historicism has become a literary term closely associated with Greenblatt, who is generally regarded as the “guru” of New Historicism and, as a predictable result of his sudden prominence, the focus of much criticism. By breaking disciplinary boundaries between the text and history, and between fiction and reality, New Historicism, eventually and inevitably, has now come to terms with the decision to set up its priority in a place between textualism and contextualism. In other words Karbe believes that “text or phenomena cannot be somehow torn from history and analyzed in isolation outside of the historical process” (401).

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Against the traditional view to history as Tyson says” history is a matter of interpretations, not facts, and that interpretations always occur within a framework of social conventions”(289),so the new historicist critics believes that all historical analysis is unavoidably subjective. “Historians must therefore reveal the ways in which they know they have been positioned, by their own cultural experience, to interpret history” (290).

In order to know the rule of literature in new historicism and the relation between the society and environment of the time or generally the role of history of time and place to create a literary work, it would be highly important to explain some details to understand this notion better. Like the other new historicist critics Tyson believes that for new historical critics, a literary text doesn’t embody the author’s intention or illustrate the spirit of the age that produced it, as traditional literary historians asserted. In continues he assert that:

“Nor are literary texts self-sufficient art objects that transcend the time and place in which they were written, as New Critics believed. Rather, literary texts are 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. And they can do so because the literary text is itself part of the interplay of discourses, a thread in the dynamic web of social meaning. For new historicism, 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” (291-2).

Like the dynamic interplay between individual identity and society, literary texts shape and are shaped by their historical contexts. Michael Payne asserts; “new historicism is a collection of practices rather than school or a method” (2), so that’s why flourishing in the 80’s, New Historicism mainly based on French philosopher Michel Foucault’s theories offered just such a critique of history, and the dominant new historicist theories which have been used in this study would be according to the Foucault’s definitions of this term. The new historicism explores the place of literature in an ongoing contest of power within society which has been defined widely latter by Foucault whose ideas have strongly influenced the development of new historicism,” power circulates in all directions, to and from all social levels, at all times”(Tyson 284). The others notions which are directly related to the new historicism are discourse, identity and the episteme of the time. Dr. Chung Hsiung Lai in his essay “Limits and Beyond: Greenblatt, New Historicism and a Feminist Genealogy” says that” language is bound up with questions of identity because it is through language that we speak of ourselves and interact with others” (4). We can promote the role of language in a new historicist reading to discursive power or social self fashioning force which Foucault explain them later fully.

New historicist reading of the literary work according to Foucault, could be reading it according to dominant discourse and episteme of the time of the writer which could help the researcher to comprehend the identity of the creative characters of the selected works better and also helps to understand the intention of the author to create this imaginative world.

Accordingly it is beyond argument that notwithstanding Greenblatt as a dominant figure in new historicism, Foucault’s theories as a new historicist author have been concerned largely with the concepts of power, knowledge and discourse, These concepts alongside of the other concepts like identity and episteme are those which could applied in the text of so many literary works in a new historicist reading of them; but the author that has been selected for this study is Margaret Atwood who the notion of new historicism is highly applicable in her novels especially the selected ones The Handmaid’s Tale and Edible Woman.

Atwood has created a stunning Orwellian vision of the near future in The Handmaid’s Tale. This is the story of Offred, one of the unfortunate Handmaids under the new social order who have only one purpose: to breed. In Gilead, where women are prohibited from holding jobs, reading and forming friendships, Offred’s persistent memories of life in the “time before” and will to survive are acts of rebellion.

According to Dr. Chung Hsiung Lai “Greenblatt evokes the traditional privileging of speech over writing, where meaning are thought to be somehow less ambiguous as the speaker consciously aims at reducing the chances of misinterpretation” (5).Howells in her essay “Margaret Atwood’s Dystopian Vision: The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake” asserts that “this novel might usefully begin with this statement, for Offred’s fictive autobiography come to us as a written text, and only at the end do we discover that, what we have been reading was actually a spoken narrative which has been transcribed from the old caste types and reconstructed for publication long after the narrator is dead”(165).

The second novel which has been analyzed in this study is Edible Woman, The “edible woman” of the novel’s title is, most obviously, a doll shape cake cooked and consumed in the novel’s conclusion. However the title also refers to the novels main character, Marian MacAlpin, who is so preoccupied with food that she interprets life around her in terms of food consumption, eventually come to identify with food, and develops a serious eating disorder as well as some romantic relations, love affairs, a broken marital engagement, a planned pregnancy and birth.

The concept of body is what Atwood use widely, during the plotline of these two novels, and Foucault in Discipline and Punishment and also History of Sexuality use and explain this notion which would be highly useful in this study and At the centre of the study is a triangulated set of concepts concerning the body and its articulation with relations of power and knowledge.

Barry Smart asserts that “Genealogical analysis reveals the body as an object of knowledge and as a target for the exercise of power. The body is shown to be located in a political field, invested with power relations which render it docile and productive, and thus politically and economically useful” (69) Thus the exercise of power necessarily puts into circulation apparatuses of knowledge, that is creates sites where knowledge is formed. Foucault himself in Discipline and Punishment asserts that “a knowledge of the body that is not exactly the science of its functioning, and a mastery of its forces that is more than the ability to conquer them”(26). and also Bartky believes that “Both [feminism and Foucault] identify the body as the site of the power” (102).Thus this analysis of power has set in motion an entirely new way of examining power relations in society, focusing more on resistance than simple passive oppression.

Foucault also interested in the way that power operates through different forms of regime at particular historical period ,” Foucault’s genealogical analyses begin with an examination of the character of modern power relations literally with the question of how power is exercised and the associated issue of the relationships between power and knowledge”(Smart p. 69), and also Mills declares that “For Foucault, discipline is a set of strategies, procedures and ways of behaving which are associated with certain institutional contexts and which then permeate ways of thinking and behaving in general(44).

History is the other word, plays a dominant role in Foucault’s ideas. Sara Mills explains that” for Foucault the past is not seen as inevitably leading up to the present, a view of history which renders the past banal; it is very strangeness of the past which makes us able to see clearly the strangeness of the present”(24). Then in The Archaeology of Knowledge Foucault develops the term episteme that is the body of knowledge and the ways of knowing which are in circulation at the particular moment. This study has been circulated around those Foucault’s ideas which are relevant to analysis of selected novels.


David Staines in his essay “Margaret Atwood in Her Canadian Context” introduces Atwood as a prolific writer and a hit with literary critics, who became internationally famous after the popular and critical success of her 1984 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. Atwood began her career in the 1960s, teaching English and at first publishing poetry, short stories and literary criticism. Her other novels include Surfacing (1972), Cat’s Eye (1988), Alias Grace (1996) and the 2000 Booker Prize winner, The Blind Assassin.

About the concept of history Atwood in one of her lectures on her first historical novel asked a fundamental question which she tries to answers in her later novels, she asked “What does the past tell us?”Then she answered, “In and of itself, it tells us nothing. We have to be listening first, before it will say a word; and even so, listening is telling and then retelling”( Coomi S. Vevaina 86. ) . Coomi S. Vevaina tries to explain how far Atwood believe the concept of history and how far she used this concept in her Novels; he declares that “in all her [Atwood’s] works, Atwood reveals a distinctly postmodern engagement with history”(87). He then continues that by recording some tapes “Offred becomes an elocutionary act and her narrative”(87); or better to say her story “status warning against moral dictatorship and atrocity is summarily dismissed in an editorial aside by the male professional historian how is interested in reconstructing his grand impersonal narrative of a vanished nations history”(87).

Howells in her essay regarding the dystopian vision in Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s tale asserts that “this novel might usefully begin with this statement, for Offred’s fictive autobiography come to us as a written text, and only at the end do we discover that, what we have been reading was actually a spoken narrative which has been transcribe from the old caste types and reconstruct for publication ling after the narrator is dead”(165). Thus by help of this story we recognize the episteme of the time which Atwood tries to criticize, episteme according to Foucault is:

“the total set of relations that unite, at a given period, the discursive practices that give rise to epistemological figures, sciences, and possibly formalized systems…The episteme is not a form of knowledge…or type of rationality which, crossing the boundaries of the most varied sciences, manifests the sovereign unity of a subject, a spirit, or a period; it is the totality of relations that can be discovered for a given period, between the sciences when one analyses them at the level of discursive regularities”(191).

Moreover Howells believes that the issue of language and power has always been crucial in construction of dystopias:”throughout the history of dystopian fiction the conflict of the text has often turned on the control of language” (166). and it is Offred’s attempt to “seize it [the language] to make it hers” (Cixous, Medusa. 343), which gives her narrative its appeal as one woman story of resistance against patriarchal tyranny. In both Edible woman and Handmaid’s Tale the efforts of heroin for resistance is obvious because both of them revolt against something and someone,” Such revolts about conditions, staff, practices, and treatments have at root been resistances against the very materiality of the prison and punishment as instruments of power, resistances against a particular technology of power exercised over both the mind and body of the individual” (Smart 74).

Identity is the matter which Atwood’s protagonist deals with and the great impact of society on them is not deniable, they are what the society likes to be, that’s why they are looking for a way to resistance. As the case in point Goldblatt in “Reconstructing Margaret Atwood’s Protagonists” asserts that “in The Edible Woman Marian’s body is also a battlefield. Unable to cope with her impending marriage to Peter, Marian finds herself unable to ingest any food that was once alive. Repulsed by her society’s attitude of consumerism” (275), On the other hand the story of Offred in Gilead society is the same, Goldblatt continues “Offred’s identity and value as a child bearer as well in The Handmaid’s Tale, are proclaimed by her clothes in her totalitarian city of Gilead, … she is no longer owns a name; she if Of Fred, the concubine named for the man who will impregnate her”(276).

Considering the new historicist approach according to Foucault’s ideas (especially those which are fit to selected novels) the researcher wants to proof that, the purpose of present study is to trace the fundamental and substantial elements of new historicism in Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale and The Edible Woman. In order to gain the purpose the researcher tries to answer the following questions:

  • Upon what social understanding do these works depends?
  • What other cultural events occurred surrounding the original production of these texts? How may these events be relevant to the text under investigation?
  • Why might reader at a particular time and place find these works compelling?
  • Do contemporary issues and cultural milieu of the time of the author operate together to create her novels?

Significance of the study

There are two main reasons, which make doing this research important. The first reason is the author herself who is the contemporary leading novelist. And the second one is that this research gives a chance to know how Foucault ideas as an approach applicable on Atwood’s selected novels.

What makes this research significant is that up to the present time there are so many researches and studies on Atwood’s short stories, poem or novels but in none of the researches deal with new historical approach.

The present study wants to show, against so many critics who place Atwood in the list of feminist critics, there are others aspects rather than feminism in Atwood’s works that could be noticeable. Sawicki asserts that “Foucault emphasis on the sexual body as a target and vehicle of this new form of power / knowledge is reproduced in feminist analyses of modern form patriarchal control over women’s mind and bodies in the context of the emergence of the sciences of medicine, social work, and psychology”(290). From this stand point which most of the protagonist of Atwood’s Novels are women, to look at the overall pattern it is generally accepted these heroines are in search of knowledge in order to gain power for resistance but in contrast to the traditional definition of power, the power which Foucault talks about is totally different. Mark Robson in Routledge Critical Thinkers: Stephen Greenblatt indicates that:

Central to Foucault’s work is the notion that knowledge is always a form of power. Thus advances in psychiatry or in the treatment of illnesses also lead to new ways of controlling the people who are mad or ill. Such control tends to reinforce the power of those in a position to impose the categories. But this does not mean that power is simply exercised from the top down. As Foucault puts it:”power is everywhere; not because it embraces everything, but because it comes from everywhere” ( 55).

To sum up, the present study tries to insist on the element of new historicism specially Foucaltian approach on Atwood’s selected novels which are believed that would be fully applicable.

Review of Literature

This study is a library research and all the information is obtain through different books, whether directly or indirectly discussing the materials, essays, electronic sources and many other possible sources in which the related materials can be found. This research is mainly focused on the original text of selected novels which are published, and also secondary sources, which explain and criticized these Novels, are used in order to help elaboration of the novels. The primarily concentration is on those studies which are related to the conception of new Historicism.

Coral Ann Howells in The Cambridge Companion to Margaret Atwood tries to gather essays by Twelve leading international Atwood critics, provides the most comprehensive and up to date account of Atwood’s novels. These essays consider Atwood theme, language, humor and narrative techniques. As a case in point Somacarrera’s essay”Power politics: power and identity” or Vevaina’s “Margaret Atwood and history” with many other essay from this book could help this study to move up in a better way.

The Greenblatt Readers which is edited by Michael Payne makes available in one volume Greenblatt’s most important writing on culture, Renaissance studies and Shakespeare. It also features occasional pieces on subjects as diverse as storytelling and medicals, demonstrating the range of his cultural interests. Taken together, the text collected here dispel the idea that new historicism is antithetical to literary and aesthetic value. By the help of this book the researcher would like to reveal the progressive process of new historicism from Greenblatt to Foucault. Especially part one of this book which dedicate to culture and new historicism, could be highly useful for present study.

Rutledge Critical Thinkers are some books which offer introductions to major critical thinkers who have influenced literary studies and humanities. Each book will equip the reader to approach these thinkers original text by explaining their key ideas, showing the reader why they are considered to be significant; Stephen Greenblatt by Mark Robson is the one of these series which not only introduce Greenblatt as a leading figure of new historicism but also ties to explain exactly what new historicism means and the relevance of new historicism to all aspects of literary criticism this book will help the researcher to find the dominant similarity and contrast between Greenbelt’s new historicism and Foucaltian new historicism.

Various articles which make use of the theories of Foucault are referred to, such as Saundra lee Bartky’s “Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power,” in which the author exclusively examines the discursive pressures upon the female body.

In The History of Sexuality, Volume I: an Introduction Foucault provides much useful information on the origin, definition, and the treatment of the sexual body. This information is also useful in discussions concerning body and resistance.

Gary Gutting in The Cambridge Companion to Foucault tryes to present a systematic and comprehensive overview of Foucault’s major theme and texts from his early works on madness through his history of sexuality, and relates his work to significant contemporary movements such as critical theory and feminism. This book consist of several articles by different thinkers such as “Foucault mapping of history” by Thomas Flynn , “Power/Knowledge” by Joseph Rouse and “Foucault feminism and question of identity” by Jana Sawicki, which help the researcher in this study.

Lisa Downing is Professor of French Discourses of Sexuality and Director of the Centre for the Interdisciplinary Study of Sexuality and Gender in Europe at the University of Exeter. her book The Cambridge Introduction to Michel Foucault provides ways in to understanding Foucault’s key concepts of subjectivity, discourse and power. The book also explores the critical reception of Foucault’s works and acquaints the reader with the afterlives of some of his theories, particularly his influence on feminist and queer studies.

Each of these books represents fully the term of new Historicism which can be good theoretical bases for present study.


New historicism study is a divergent field with numerous ideas, theoreticians, articles, and branches. One prominent flow of this kind of criticism is limited to Foucault’s Ideas regarding power, identity, episteme, history, sexuality, knowledge, discourse and culture. According to Gearhart in “Cultural Analysis and Its Discontents The issue of culture has been at the center of critical and literary-critical studies for quite some time now, and nowhere has it been more prominent than in the influential form of literary criticism that has come to be known as the new historicism”. Colebrook in his book New literary Histories: New Historicism and Contemporary Criticism asserts that new historicism, a term applied to a trend in American academic literary studies in the 1980s that emphasized the historical nature of literary texts and at the same time (in contrast with older historicisms) the textual nature of history. As part of a wider reaction against purely formal or linguistic critical approaches such as the new criticism and deconstruction, the new historicists, led by Stephen Greenblatt, drew new connections between literary and non‐literary texts, breaking down the familiar distinctions between a text and its historical background as conceived in established historical forms of criticism. “Inspired by Michel Foucault’s concepts of discourse and power, they attempted to show how literary works are implicated in the power relations of their time, not as secondary reflections of any coherent world view but as active participants in the continual remaking of meanings”(Baldick 227). New historicism is less a system of interpretation than a set of shared assumptions about the relationship between literature and history, and an essayistic style that often develops general reflections from a startling historical or anthropological anecdote.

The framework of this study is Foucault ideas but before that the reader should become familiar with the concept of new historicism form Greenblatt to Foucault in order to understand its process and changes; so the chapter two has been devoted to this notion. Therefore, one principle aim is to know how literature of the specific time could be read according to new historicism.

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Following this new historicism methodology, chapters three and four argue the dominant concepts of new historicism according to Foucault’s definition of this notion and their application to selected novels. These concepts could be the episteme of the time of the author which influence her work of art, power circulation and the role of body in this circulation, challenges of protagonist for gaining knowledge and identity and so on. And chapter five could be a conclusion and sum up of this study.

Limitation and delimitation of study

The present study is concerned only with Margaret’s two selected Novels, rather than her poetries or short stories. The choice of novels was also difficult because Margaret Atwood has variety of novels which more or less deal with different subject matters, therefore it is not possible to cover all of them in this study. As a result, the researcher concentrates only two novels which are most famous ones and suit the capacity of the content of the study.

These selective novels can be studied from different approaches but the researcher is not going to say what other have said, so she chooses to examine the notion of new historicism according to Foucault definition of this term because this notion has variety sub branches. According to present study the new historicist elements such as Apparatus, Discipline, Discursive Practice, Episteme, Ethics, Identity and Power will be discuss fully in the shadow of Michel Foucault definition of these terms. In this study, the researcher will use the philosophers and theories which are related to her discussion and help its progress.

Tentative outline

The Concepts of Identity, Power and Knowledge: A Foucaltian Study of Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale and Edible Woman.



Chapter I. Introduction

General Background

The Argument

Literature Review

Thesis Outline

Approach and Methodology

New Historicism

Definition of Terms

Chapter 2. New Historicism from Foucault to Greenblatt

Chapter 3. Foucaltian study of Handmaid’s Tale

Chapter 4. Foucaltian study of Edible Woman

Chapter 5. Conclusion

Summing up

Findings and implications

Suggestion for farther reading


Definition of the Key Terms

The below key terms are among many which may use in the present study:

Andocentric: centered on the male. The term has been coined by feminist theorist wishing to describe a habit of mind and set of attitudes which are based upon a male perspective and which ignore female experience and interest (Hawthorn 10).

Apparatus: Foucault generally uses this term to indicate the various institutional, physical and administrative mechanism and knowledge structure, which enhance and maintain the exercise of power within the social body (Hawthorn 12).

Bio-power: Numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugation of bodies and the control of populations (History of Sexuality, Foucault 77).

Confession: an important component of bio-power. People are taught that their liberation requires them to “tell the truth, “to confess it to someone who is more powerful and this truth telling will somehow set them free (Dreyfus and Rabinow p. 141, History of Sexuality, 58-65).

Discipline: The methods, which make possible the meticulous control of the operation of the body, which assure the constant subjection of its forces and impose upon it a relation of docility-utility (Discipline and Punishment, Foucault 137).

Episteme: a term coin by Foucault and widely used by Derrida, to indicate the totality of relations and laws of transformations uniting all discursive practice at any moment of time. Episteme established rules by the dominant power in a social body that effect individual and their knowledge of true or false (Mills 28).

Historicism: a means of working with the problem that all “history” is history from the perspective of the historian. “Historicism is a means of validating for itself the perpetual critical relation at play between history and human sciences” (The Order of Things, Foucault 372).all knowledge is rooted in the life, a society and a language that have a history; and it is in that very history that knowledge finds the element enabling with other form of life (The Order of Things, Foucault 372-3)

Language or discursive practice: this term refer to historically and culturally specific set of rules for organizing and producing different form of knowledge. It is a matter of rules, which, a bit kind the grammar of language, allow certain statement to be made (Mills 53).

Power: power is not a thing but relation, it is not simply repressive but productive, and also it is not simply a property of the state, but exercise throughout the social body (Mills 34).

Subject: Foucault uses the term ‘subject’ in place of the ‘individual’, which is structuralism’s preferred term for the ‘self’, in two ways: He uses the ‘subject’ as both the grammatical subject, and subject as a verb (Mills 1617).


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