Teaching context: definitions

Defining the term

Addressing the meaning of the word 'context' can provide students with a reminder of the breadth of ways in which it might  - or should be - considered, and encourage thinking about external factors that play a role in both the writing and reading of literary works. Such a notion has inevitable currency throughout the various elements of the course, but might yield particular fruit in relation to the 'Global Issues' aspect of the Individual Oral.


As one of the core concepts, as well as a motif that runs throughout the course - and indeed the Diploma Program in general, it is important to interrogate the meaning of the term 'culture' and the various ways in which it presents itself in the works chosen for study. One problem, of course, is that the word eludes any kind of precise definition. However,  broadly speaking it might be said to describe the practices, customs and values shared by a particular group of people at a particular time.  And these are factors that inform the context/s in which the work is written, as well as affect the ways in which it is read - sometimes by readers in very different places and times.  


Whether consciously or not, all writers - and indeed all artists - create works of art in relation to what has gone before, with knowledge or at least sensitivity to what has preceded them.   Sometimes overlooked as part of the ways in which 'context' is defined, but of course nonetheless important - the literary context of a particular work can therefore affect significantly the way in which its meaning is generated.  We cannot really claim to 'understand' poets such as Wordsworth, Shelley or Keats, for example, without reference to the characteristics of 19th century Romanticism.


The biographical circumstances of individual writers (and of course readers) can sometimes make a difference to the way in which works are read and understood.  Such an avenue does not of course come without controversy, however. On the one hand it might make sense to take specific 'real life' situations of this kind into account as a way to locate meaning and intention in literary works, but on the other such practices can encourage misleading, speculative readings  - as well as run counter to the notion espoused by T S Eliot when he says of poetry:  [It] is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.  


Many works of art can be seen to engage either directly or indirectly with the historical circumstances in which they are written. These circumstances are more often than not political ones with which a work may engage realistically - or in a more figurative, symbolic capacity. Consider, for example, the importance of the McCarthy trials to the writing of 'The Crucible' by Arthur Miller, the Gunpowder Plot to the dramatic power of 'Macbeth' or the allegorical presence of the Russian Revolution in Orwell's 'Animal Farm'.  We might also consider historical context in a wider sense to embrace such things as scientific or technological developments;  'Frankenstein', for instance, is a novel that speaks directly to the scientific revolution and 19th Century 'enlightened' thinking.   


Although closely connected to the above, there is nonetheless sometimes separate benefit to be gained from interrogation of the values and beliefs that inform particular times and places inside literary works, as as well as 'outside' them in particular paradigms held by the reader or the social context in which he or she exists.  The former is of course fixed, whereas the latter will change with time. Fundamentally, at this level, we are exploring the ways in which individual characters or the work as a whole look for, or find, meaning in their lives. Such consideration might address interpretation of morality and ethics, free will and destiny, love, friendship or responsibility  - indeed anything to which notions of meaning might be attached.

The questions below might help students to think more specifically about the contextual considerations summarized above. You might choose to project them for plenary discussion or perhaps download them for the students to add to their Learner Portfolio.

Context Guiding questions
  • How important or 'present' is the society or culture in which the work takes place?
  • In what ways does the work depict social or cultural issues e.g. through characters, situations, settings, themes or language?
  • What kinds of attitudes does the work express - through the voices of individual characters or through the summative effect of the work as a whole: is it one that praises or criticizes?
  • Who or what is praised or attacked - individuals, groups, attitudes and/or values? 
  • Does the work present cultural elements in a realistic or non-realistic manner -  one that is literal and direct or one that is more symbolic and figurative?
  • To what extent does the work reflect characteristics of a particular literary movement e.g. Renaissance, Augustan, Romantic, Modernist, Postmodern.
  • In what ways does the work deviate from, adapt or 'contradict' the characteristics associated with particular movements?
  • Is there evidence of influence from other literary works or individual writers?
  • Would you describe the work as 'traditional' or 'conventional'?
  • How important to the meaning of the work are aspects that relate to literary context?
  • When did the author write this particular work? What details from his or her life might be said to be important at that time?
  • Is there evidence (either direct or indirect) of these details from the author's life in the work?
  • How are these aspects depicted? e.g. through character, situation, action, setting or language.
  • Are events presented realistically?
  • Is the author's life manifest clearly in the work or can assertions about the relationship between them only be made tenuously?
  • What political or social events might be considered important to the period in which the work was written?
  • Does the work refer to such events?  If so, how direct are the allusions it makes?
  • Does the work depict events in a way that gives them importance or do they form only a backdrop to more significant matters?
  • Does the work, or characters within it, relay an objective or factual account of historical elements or is there implied or direct criticism?
  • Are historical events in the world of the novel specific to the time in which it is set or in which it was written - or both?
  • What questions are raised or asked in the work about the nature of the human condition?
  • Does the work present answers to these questions or is it inconclusive?
  • Does the work present characters in search of ways to find meaning outside themselves e.g. through religion, politics or society or in terms of their capacity to think and act independently?
  • How simple or complex is the manner in which questions of meaning are presented?
  • Does the author imply a particular world view whether through characters, events or the work as a whole  - or does s/he assume a more detached, neutral and objective stance?
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