The importance of context in Literature!

Elly Twomey

June 2, 2016

Literature

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Literature is probably one of your hardest VCE subjects. If it’s not, then go you! (please tell me your secrets).

However, if you’re anything like me, then you probably look a bit like this when you begin considering the overall meaning of a text, the author’s views and values, and how any three passages in the text create the meaning.

When I became awash with confusion, like our old pal Ryan Gosling, the first thing I did (after eating a whole block of chocolate), was ensure I understood the context of the text. Without a clear understanding of the context of your text, you cannot fully comprehend the views and values of the author, nor the overall meaning of a text (it’s also part of the criteria for literary perspectives)!

So if you want to be feeling like this after you write a piece for literature:

Consider the following:

AUTHOR’S CONTEXT VS. READER’S CONTEXT 

Austen was hunched over her small writing desk in the village of Chawton during England’s Georgian era as she wrote Persuasion. You are more likely reading it in a cozy bed, listening to Taylor Swift and half considering what you’re going to watch on Netflix later. Remember, your current social and cultural context can have a great influence on how you read a text, so it’s always important to imagine the author’s own context – whether this be very similar, or very different from the context of their text. It’s as easy as a Google search!

SOCIAL CONTEXT

The social context of a text is the way in which the features of the society it is set in impact on its meaning. There are two aspects to social context: the kind of society in which the characters live, and the one in which the author’s text was produced.

Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre was set in the same social context she herself lived in. It was one in which women were seen as the lesser sex, there was a great divide between the wealthy and lower class, and strict class boundaries were enforced. All of these societal features are key in determining Brontë’s views on the importance of social inclusion, and her championing of the strength of women. Or just listen to Phoebe:

HISTORICAL CONTEXTS

The historical context of a text is entangled with its social context, as underlying norms and convention are historically specific. The historical context is important to note especially when large changes have occurred between the time the work was produced, and our current day, so it is not assessed by our own concerns alone.

Aeschylus’ Agamemnon was first performed in 458BC, in Ancient Greece, a time vastly different from our own. Therefore, it is important to be aware of how the play was delivered, at the festival of Dionysus as part of a trilogy. Also have an understanding of the myths surrounding the Trojan War as well as those surrounding Agamemnon, Cassandra and Clytemnestra.

CULTURAL CONTEXTS

Culture refers to a particular ‘way of life’, involving religion, race and nationality, as well as things like food, dress code and manners. Furthermore, culture can relate to art, music, writing and literature itself. Cultural context, which is similarly linked with social, historical and ideological context, is especially important to note if the author is attempting to make a comment on an aspect of culture, or the clash of two cultures.

Cross cultural contact between an Indigenous tribe in Western Australia, and the British colonizers of this land, is explored by Kim Scott in his novel That Deadman Dance. He reveals aspects of culture largely unknown to current members of Australian society, as well as explores whether assimilation can be seen as a harmonious sign of friendship, or an intrusive loss of culture. The evolution, damage and protection of culture is an important context in this novel, and has a large bearing on the overall meaning of the text, as well as Scott’s views and values.

IDEOLOGICAL CONTEXTS

Ideology refers to the systems of beliefs and ideas that underpin our attitudes and behavior. Such ideology may be valued by society as a whole, or be the basis of conflict. Ideology is a context that is in many ways ‘invisible’. This is because our own is largely internalized and normalized, we act accordingly to our assumptions and social norms.

Many texts explore ideological context, either challenging or championing it. In his play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Edward Albee challenged perceptions at the time of the family unit, portraying a couple that symbolizes the immense dissatisfaction caused by idealistic portrayals of marriage, and the fallacies of the American Dream. He illuminates how George and Martha escape from meaningless by creating fantasies and illusions, but how these eventually lead to the breakdown of their mental health.

So next time you’re struggling to get started on a literature piece, remember to think deeply about the different aspects of your text’s context!

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