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Literary Context

What is literary context? This article is about literary context, why it is used, and its importance when analysing literature. We will look at the types of literary context, taking into account how each type differs and what they can tell the reader about the literature. Context may be something that you overlook or take for granted, but it is important to be aware of how crucial it is to the understanding of any literary work!

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Literary Context

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What is literary context? This article is about literary context, why it is used, and its importance when analysing literature. We will look at the types of literary context, taking into account how each type differs and what they can tell the reader about the literature. Context may be something that you overlook or take for granted, but it is important to be aware of how crucial it is to the understanding of any literary work!

What is context in English literature?

The definition of context in English Literature refers to the descriptions of events, people and background information that offers the reader a clearer understanding of what is happening in the narrative.

Literary context - how does it work?

Literary context works to provide the reader with information about certain events and experiences in a piece of literature that would otherwise not be obvious. It helps to develop a deeper connection between the literary text and the reader, as they are more aware of the intentions of the author and/or the characters.

Without an understanding of the context, the meaning of the piece would be unclear and the reader may not be certain of its overall message.

Examples of literary context

There are lots of different examples of context in English literature, some of which include: historical, cultural, social, political, religious and biographical.

It is important to note that different contexts can overlap; the world is complex and not everything fits into neat categories! For example, historical context often overlaps with social context, as the attitudes and norms in society can change depending on events that occur at a specific time in history.

Let’s break down the types of literary context in more detail!

What is Literary context vs. historical context?

Is there such a difference between literary context vs historical context? Historical context refers to a certain period of time, events that occurred within that period, and the attitudes of the people at that point in time. This can relate to the social, political, religious and economic situation. Historical context is relevant in literary context as it provides historical settings or knowledge for the literary work.

Historical context in English literature is important as it lets the reader know what it is/was like to live in a different time period - allowing them to gain a deeper understanding of why certain events occurred in the narrative. It also gives the reader the opportunity to compare the experiences in different historical periods to current events and personal experiences, which shows how things have changed over time.

Example of historical context in literature:

The following example comes from F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Great Gatsby (1925).

The novel is set in the 1920s (the Roaring Twenties). Fitzgerald refers to this as the Jazz Age - a period in the US between the 1920s and 1930s in which Jazz music gained popularity. Fitzgerald uses historical context to describe the experiences of the people in 1920s US society, during which time there was a great economic boom. This led to the following:

The parties were bigger. The pace was faster, the shows were broader, the buildings were higher, the morals were looser, and the liquor was cheaper." - F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, 1925

Literary Context, flapper girl, StudySmarterFig. 1 - The Great Gatsby uses historical context to set the literary context for the narrative.

Cultural context

Cultural context in English literature refers to the traditions, beliefs and values of people belonging to a certain country or culture. Being aware of cultural context is key to the reader's understanding of what is considered normal by different cultures and why they practice certain things. It is also a good way to expand their horizons, as they can appreciate the diversity of different cultures!

Example of cultural context in literature:

The following examples are from Min Jin Lee's novel Pachinko (2017).

The novel explores the life of a Korean family that immigrates to Japan during the Japanese colonisation of Korea between 1910-1945. As with many literary works, the cultural context overlaps with historical and political context, as all of these aspects exist alongside one another within their lives. Pachinko explores many cultural aspects of daily Korean life, which lets the reader understand some of the traditions and customs specific to Koreans. An example is seen in the quote:

After each birth, Hoonie went to the market to buy his wife choice seaweed for soup to heal her womb." - Pachinko, 2017

This cultural context lets the reader know different foods eaten in Korean culture and their uses. In this case, we learn that seaweed soup is given to Korean women after they give birth to help them heal.

Also included in the cultural context throughout the book is the use of different names and terms specific to Korean language. These are romanised in the book for those who do not read Korean.

Some examples include:

'Baek-il' - refers to a celebration held on a baby's one-hundredth day.

'Hanbok' - refers to traditional Korean clothing.

'Ajumoni' - is the term used to refer to a middle-aged woman.

'Uh-muh' - means 'mum'.

Social context

Social context in English literature refers to the events happening in society at the time, and the ways in which elements of society can influence the attitudes of the characters. This often overlaps with historical context, as the attitudes and norms in society can change depending on events that occur in a specific time in history.

Example of social context in literature:

The following example comes from J.B. Priestley's play An Inspector Calls (1945).

The social context highlights the inequality between social classes (upper, middle, lower) in pre-war Britain (in 1912). The norms of society at the time affect how characters are treated. During this time, there were clear distinctions between the upper and lower classes. The upper classes were wealthy and able to live comfortably, whereas the lower classes had little money and lived in poverty. In the novel, the character of Mrs Birling (an upper-class woman) looks down on the lower class. This is especially evident when she speaks of Eva, a working-class woman:

"As if a girl of that sort would ever refuse money!" - An Inspector Calls, 1945.

This lets the reader know of the social hierarchy and the attitudes of people at the time - the lower classes were not treated with the same respect or humanity as the upper classes.

Do you think the unfair treatment of the lower classes is still happening in today's society, or have things changed?

Literary Context, A man in suit looking down on another man sitting, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Social context in literature can highlight the differences in social classes between different characters.

Political context

Political context in English literature concerns the political climate and political views held at a certain time, and how they influence the characters and the world around them.

Example of political context in literature:

The following examples are from Chimananda Ngozi Adichie's novel Purple Hibiscus (2003).

The novel is set in Nigeria during a time of political trouble and corruption in the late 1960s. The political climate is described throughout the novel, which gives the reader an idea of how the country is being run and the values of those in power:

...the politicians were corrupt, and the Standard had written many stories about the cabinet ministers who stashed money in foreign bank accounts, money meant for paying teachers' salaries and building roads." - Purple Hibiscus, 2003

The political context also helps the reader to understand how such political events affect the lives of the characters. For example, the effects of colonialism (from 1914 - 1960) are evident when the character of Papa stops his family from speaking their native language:

We had to sound civilised in public, he told us; we had to speak English." - Purple Hibiscus, 2003

Religious context

Religious context in English literature concerns the beliefs and customs of certain religions, and how religion affects or influences other aspects such as the characters and the plot.

Example of religious context in literature:

The following examples are from Victor Hugo's novel Les Misérables (1862). The religious context in this novel helps the reader to understand the actions of the characters and the influence religion has over their lives.

For example, the character of Marius is a religious person who goes to a Roman Catholic church from a young age. The hold religion continues to have over him is evident:

Marius clung to the religious habits of his childhood." - Les Misérables, 1862

This religious context allows the reader to be aware of how his adulthood has been affected by his religious upbringing and how it will affect his future actions.

There is another example in the middle of the novel, where information is revealed about nuns in a convent. Through religious context, the reader is given an insight into how dedicating one's life to religion can affect daily life and interactions. In particular, being a nun and choosing a holy life in France meant that you were not able to talk face to face with family members:

In the case of a woman permission might be granted and they might talk through the closed shutters, which were opened only for a mother or sister." - Les Misérables, 1862

Biographical context

Biographical context in English literature refers to the information given about the experiences of the author. This helps the reader to understand the intentions and opinions of the author, as they are aware of different aspects of their life. Biographical context is particularly important in biographies or memoirs, as the main focus of the work is the life of the author!

Example of biographical context in literature:

This example comes from Jeanette Winterson's memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (2011):

"I was born in Manchester in 1959. It was a good place to be born... Manchester was the world's first industrial city; its looms and mills transforming itself and the fortunes of Britain. Manchester had canals, easy access to the great port of Liverpool, and railways that carried thinkers and doers up and down to London. Its influence affected the whole world."

- Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? 2011

What can the biographical context tell us here?

  • The time period in which the author was born

  • Where the author was born

  • What the author's birthplace was like

  • The influence the author's birthplace had on other areas in the country and the world

  • Gives a positive overview of Manchester in that particular time frame

Literary Context - Key takeaways

  • Literary context refers to descriptions of events, people and background information in literary texts that gives the reader a clearer understanding of what is happening.
  • Literary context works to provide the reader with information about certain events and experiences that would otherwise not be obvious.
  • There are different types of literary context, including: historical, cultural, social, political, religious and biographical.
  • Different contexts can often overlap!

Frequently Asked Questions about Literary Context

The types of literary context include: historical, cultural, social, political, religious and biographical.

The importance of literary contexts refers to how it helps the reader gain a deeper understanding of what is happening in the narrative through the description of events, people and background information. In turn, this helps them understand the meaning of the literature and the intentions of the characters and/or author.

Literary context refers to descriptions of events, people and background information in literary works that gives the reader a clearer understanding of what is happening.

Historical context refers to the information given about a certain period of time, events that occurred within that period, and the attitudes of the people at that point in time. Literary context refers to the information provided to the reader so that they can understand fully the events of the narrative.

An example of context would be providing the reader with information about when and where a character was born. For example: "Sally was born in 1992, in the small French town of Gordes."

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

Literary context gives the reader extra information about what happens.True or false?

Which of the following is not a type of literary context?

Different contexts cannot overlap.True or false?

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