Context in English Literature

When you’re reading a new book, poem or play it’s always worth having a think about context before you start. The amount of depth you go into is up to you but there are three things you really want to investigate a bit:

(1) The time and place in which it was written. If you’re a student of history as well, you may find this easier to investigate, particularly if it’s from a period you study. If you’re not, don’t worry. Just check the front blurb about the author and look for the publication date. Even if you know nothing about 1955 (or whatever) go to that year in Wikipedia and see some of the things that were going on at the time. You’ll see references to the Cold War and Korea, to the recent Independence of India and the creation of Israel. You may see the slow collapse of the British Empire. It may be that none of these things are directly relevant to the story you’re about to read but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that you get a feel for the environment in which the writer is working. At the same time, see if you can listen to some music from the period, look at some art, generally get a feel for the culture of the time.

(2) The author. This is a little easier, a quick glance at their biography will give you the basics: their sex, race, sexuality, etc. If you decide to delve deeper, do try to keep in mind the impact of the society that they live in. Life choices that they made may well sit uncomfortably in the modern world but may have been considered perfectly reasonable at the time (of course there are a fair few writers who were just horrendous human beings as well – they tend to be my favourites). It’s worth looking at when they wrote the book you are reading and what point of their life they were in.

(3) The setting of the novel/play. Of course this isn’t always relevant but if a novel is set in the past, it is worth ensuring you have a good general understanding of what was going on then. If you want to read Wolf Hall, make sure you know the basic story of Henry VIII, his advisers and the religious controversies of the time. If you want to read Birdsong, have a look at what trench warfare actually meant and the types of weapons and tactics being used.

Once you’re clear on the context, themes and meaning suddenly become much clearer. You will be able to see the reasons for the author’s interests as well as the subtleties of their language choices.

For those who are really keen to dive deeply into the lives of the writers they are reading, try looking at reviews in publications such as The New Yorker, The Times Literary Supplement or the London Review of Books. Equally, if you are a student of history, use historical fiction as well as contemporary writing to help yourself build a fuller picture of the period you are studying. You'll discover that history that is more than just dates and names is far easier to understand and retain - cross-curricular learning at its best!

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