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8 contextual lenses for literature (or, what is context?)

Student: [politely] Sir, what do you mean by ‘context’? What is ‘context’? I mean, you keep telling us we have to include it in our essays – but what actually is it?

Me: Well, I’m so glad you asked…

How to use this list

This list is designed to help you build up better fluency and competence with contextual lenses for literature. Or, put simply…

… to help you brainstorm what ‘context’ might mean for the text you are studying – by giving you a series of prompts.

Illustration - Contextual Lenses for Literature
Adapted from: Girl Looking through a Telescope (Pietro Antonio Rotari) Nationalmuseum, Stockholm (Photo: Erik Cornelius)

If instead you would prefer to find out how to use contextual knowledge, you might want to check out my guide to that right here.

But first you need a good grasp of what ‘context’ actually is. And I think I can help with that:

Below is a list of my examples of contextual lenses for literature. The list is made up of prompts, and each prompt identifies a particular contextual angle from which, or ‘lens’ through which we can look at a text.

Lens… angle… whatever… they’re both metaphors. The point is this:

When you learn to look at literature in different ways, you get a better overall perspective.

In this post I’m not really dealing with ‘critical lenses’ (e.g. formalist, feminist, Marxist etc) – although really those too are a kind of context.

Because the context is everything that is outside but with the text: that’s what ‘con’ means – ‘with’.

So:

  • Grab a sheet of paper
  • Scroll down the list
  • As you go, jot down the questions or topics which feel relevant to your text.
  • You can then use this as a prompt list for a little bit of research.

Background

Look – it may seem obvious, but…

… you can write better literature essays in the long-run if you recognise the different possible meanings of the word ‘context’.

Question: How do I include context in my essay?
Answer: By first knowing what context is.

And yes. I know:

For lots of you…

it’s a requirement (or an expectation) that you do so.

And I’ll be honest:

I often read essays by students where their appreciation of what context is is too narrow or too fuzzy.

That can mean:

  1. It hinders you from doing effective research.
  2. It stops you from picking up some quick wins where you actually know more context than you realise.
  3. You try and bluff your way through it with bland generalisations about how things were in ye olden dayes.

So:

Here’s my list of different types of context in literature – to give you some ideas about how you can use context in an essay. Naturally, you don’t have to use them all – but:

I find that students tend to have a bias towards a couple of them…

… and I have left those ones to the end!

Let’s get to it.

1. Cultural context

Cultural Context

This is a huge topic – and it absorbs some of the topics below.

In other words, in the particular time and place you are thinking of…

What sorts of communities existed? How were they composed?
How do/did people think, express themselves?
How did they spend their time?
How did they perceive the world?
What kinds of stories had they heard?
How did they spend their free time (if they had any)?
What were their ideas about right and wrong?

2. Performative context

Performative Context

This one is especially important if you are studying a play – because the text was written for performance on a stage by actors, and that is how the text was received by its audience. By imagining how a particular scene might be staged and performed, and how it might be received, you are putting the text in context.

Mind you, this doesn’t exclude prose or poetry. Texts that are meant to be read privately still get performed in the theatre of your mind – and it is often relevant that a text was written so that it would be read in solitariness and privacy.

It’s often illuminating to use your imagination and think about how your text might typically be experienced. So give it a try.

Remember – by imagining and discussing how part of a text might be performed (or perhaps was performed) you are putting it in context.

3. Literary context

Literary Context

Students often neglect this one. This means other texts that were written before your text – or even since you text was written – and which form part of its context. That might mean:

  • Other texts written by the same author
  • Texts written by the author’s contemporaries or near-contemporaries
  • Canonical texts that loom large in the literary landscape – e.g. the Bible or the works of Shakespeare
  • Texts that share something else in common with your text – perhaps in terms of genre, form, mode, plot, or theme.
  • Texts that an author used directly as a source

4. Socio-economic context

Socio-Economic Context

In a nutshell this usually means ‘what daily life is/was like’ for individuals and communities in a particular time and place. That includes:

  • Poverty and prosperity
  • The composition and distribution of communities
  • The composition and structure of society
  • The kind of work that different people did
  • Settlement and migration
  • The effects of advances in science and technology.

5. Scientific context

Scientific Context

Advances in mathematics, medicine, physics, and so on form part of the context of all literature. Often this falls under cultural context, though, because for the literary critic what matters is not so much the science itself as how science is/was generally perceived and understood – not just by scientists but by other people. For example, Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species (1859) is a hugely important text in the context of practically everything that has been written since (and certainly a good deal of Victorian literature) – but what makes it important is that it caused a sensation and ultimately changed the way that ordinary people perceive the world and the universe.

6. Political context

Political Context

In the context of what political entity was your text written? A realm? A nation? An empire? A state? And how is/was it governed and administered? How much censorship was there? Were there hot topics of political debate? Was there public discourse about rights, laws, taxes, crime and punishment, or conquest and empire? Were there politcal rivalries or factions? Was there corruption? These are all the questions pertaining to political context which can shed light on a text.

7. Religious and Humanist context

Religious and Humanist Context

By the light of religious contexts, texts can become:

provocative and subversive,

or

conservative and affirmative

or

somewhere between the two!

‘Religious’ context arguably falls under ‘cultural’ context – though there are often political implications too.

Clearly, wherever religious faith – or at least religious observance and practice and affiliation – is widespread, it helps to determine and shape people’s point of view, their loyalties, and their understanding of the world – including:

  • moral codes
  • ideas about order and hierarchy
  • a sense of right and wrong.

8. Biographical context

Biographical Context

The story of the author’s life, his/her relationships, affiliations, beliefs, successes and failures – or the circumstances surrounding the writing of a particular text – can sometimes shed light on that text. But:

Be careful.

Biographical context has a tendency to elicit bad habits from essay-writing students, including:

  • Leaping to conclusions
  • Simply dumping biographical information because it is easy to find and to repeat.

Never underestimate an author’s ability to hold the reality of his/her life at arm’s length whilst imagining completely different circumstances, in the interests of telling a good story or writing a beautiful poem.

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