Saturday, April 28, 2012

A New Historicist Critique of Kafka's 'Metamorphosis'

"Literary Theory Week" is almost through... so be happy (or sad).  In my English 2600 class taught by Professor Albrecht-Crane at UVU, we began by reading the short story "The Metamorphosis" by Franz Kafka.  Then we applied every theory we discussed (one a week) to that short story.  This one is a bit different because instead of applying the approach to the story ourselves, we instead discussed an essay written by another scholar.  Here is my paper on the theory of New Historicism:

While many literary critics might consider the historical context of a piece, none do history in the manner that a new historicist would.  New historicism argues that history itself is unattainable, leaving behind solely the written text from that day.  Therefore, the historicist approach would be to put literary and non-literary texts into a dialogue.  I will first summarize this philosophy of new historicism as explained by Peter Barry in the third edition of his book Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory.  After this summary of new historicism, I will discuss an essay by Iris Bruce to demonstrate how this method is used in critiquing Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” alongside various Jewish folktales.

While a historical reading focuses on actual events in history, Barry explains that new historicism believes that history itself is “irrecoverably lost,” therefore all we have to work with are textual traces of the event (168).  In regards to the notion that words are separate from the thing they represent—or in this case, historical texts are separate from history itself—Barry argues that new historcism is essentially poststructuralist in theory (169).  In fact, Barry informs us that new historicism embraces Derrida’s view that the text is “thrice-processed”:  first through the ideologies of its own time, then through the ideologies of our own and finally processed through language itself (169).  It is clear that “historical” and “historicist” are not the same thing.

To further explain new historicism, Barry writes, “A simple definition of the new historicism is that it is a method based on the parallel reading of literary and non-literary texts, usually of the same historical period” (166).  The term “parallel,” as used by Barry, implies that the non-literary texts are given the same importance as the literary text (166).  For example, rather than mentioning a few historical aspects to better support a discussion of a literary text like “The Metamorphosis”—and thus clearly favoring “The Metamorphosis” over the other texts—new historicism would consider the non-literary texts not merely supporting players but stars of the show in their own right.  Rather than simply being “context,” Barry suggests that the historical documents be considered “co-texts” along with the so-called literary canon (167).

To better illustrate the theory of new historicism, I would like to discuss an essay written by Iris Bruce which is included in the Norton Critical Edition of “The Metamorphosis” by the editor Stanley Corngold.  In Bruce’s opening paragraph, she writes, “Kafka was familiar with the metamorphosis motif from Jewish literature.  In the following discussion of The Metamorphosis, I will highlight intertexts from the Jewish narrative tradition” (107).  Here Bruce clearly states her objective and it is very definitely a new historicist approach.  She isn’t privileging Kafka’s work, but instead highlighting or giving attention to the intertexts—or as Barry would call them, co-texts—of non-literary writing.  Bruce also makes it a point to say “narrative tradition,” and not just refer to Jewish tradition as such but rather the narration or textual evidence of the Jewish tradition.  Such a move is poststructuralist and highly indicative of the theory of new historicism.

The body of her essay discusses four different aspects of the theme of metamorphosis found in the writings of Jewish folklore also found in Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis.”  Once again, in relating these four aspects—humorous, punishment for transgression, exile and liberation/atonement—she refers to various folktales just as frequently as she mentions specific passages in Kafka’s work, giving all the texts equal weight.  For example, when discussing the humorous take on the idea of metamorphosis, Bruce begins by quoting an amusing Yiddish story by A. B. Gotlober about a man who transforms into a horse, fish, donkey, leech, dog and finally a pig with an “unkosher snout” (112).  This is the main topic of discussion for two pages before ever mentioning Kafka’s story.  And even then Bruce quickly switches to another text by Mendele Moicher-Sforim (115).  Her focus on “textual history” as Barry called it and the equal treatment she gives all of her sources are the perfect example of what new historicism does to history.

So while other approaches bring up historical references solely for the purpose of building up the primary literary text, new historicism is an approach that gives equal value to both literary and non-literary texts and recognizes that written historical documents are not the same thing as the historical event itself.  This focus on language as written places new historicism firmly within the realm of post-structuralism, with the focus of seeing text in a whole new light.

Works Cited

Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. 3rd Ed. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2009. Print. 

Bruce, Iris.  “Elements of Jewish Folklore in Kafka’s Metamorphosis.”  The Metamorphosis.  Trans. and ed. Stanley Corngold.  New York: W.W. Norton, 1996.  107-125. Print.

Kafka, Franz. The Metamorphosis. Trans. and ed. Stanley Corngold. New York: W.W. Norton, 1996. Print.

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