Literary context refers to the literary environment and influences surrounding a written work that shape its style, meaning and importance. The writers and texts that influenced or inspired the author. This provides insight into the author’s vision. These references are made to other well-known works or literary figures, which show how the work connects to the broader tradition of literature. Examining these contexts provides insight into the author’s creative vision, ideas, approach to developing themes and the text’s connections to the broader literary tradition.
3 Types of Literary Context
Here are 3 types of literary context:
- Historical Context
- Literary Movement Context
- Biographical Context
Let’s discuss these types one by one:
1- Historical Context
The historical context refers to the social, political, cultural and intellectual climate during the time period a literary work was written. It includes the understanding what real-world events/ideas may have inspired the author or shaped their writing. For example, how did World War 1 impact the themes in the poetry of Wilfred Owen? How did colonial expansion appear in 19th century British novels?
2- Literary Movement Context
Literary movements have core styles, techniques, ideologies that writers associate with. It situates the work within a movement, helps identify motifs, stylistic qualities and beliefs the author adopted or rebelled against from that movement. For example, knowing characteristics of Romanticism, Realism and Modernism helps determine their influence on authors from different eras.
3- Biographical Context
An author’s personal experiences often informs their writing. Their place of birth, family background, beliefs, encounters with events, education all could manifest in their literary works. For example, how Emily Dickinson’s reclusive nature is reflected in the themes of her poetry. Or how Virginia Woolf’s gender impacted her promotion of feminist ideas through novels and essays.
Here are some examples of different types of context:
Historical context Examples in Literature
Here are some examples of historical context in literature:
1- “Hard Times” by Charles Dicken
“’Twas the spring of the year. There had been cold weather, north and east winds, biting everything; but the spring came at last.”
This quote situates the novel’s setting in Victorian England during a specific time of year and references the biting cold winds and hard climate, reflecting the grim industrial backdrop of Dickens’ fictional Coketown.
2- “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston
“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others, they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time.”
This quote cleverly alludes to the despair of dreams deferred for many African Americans in the 1930s facing racial injustice and the Great Depression. The socioeconomic context shapes Janie’s story.
3- The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
“The cold creeps in from the window frames and the door, drafts blow on me even at midday.”
This establishes the chilling atmosphere of the theocratic dictatorship of Gilead, which deliberately suppresses women. The historical context of the rise of totalitarianism in the 1900s underpins this dystopia.
Literary context Examples
1- “The Waste Land” by T.S. Eliot
“April is the cruellest month, breeding Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing Memory and desire…”
This quote references Chaucer’s famous line “Whan that Aprille with his shoures sote” to establish intertextuality. The literary allusion to canonical works helps situate Eliot’s complex poetical themes on post-war disillusionment within a broader literary tradition.
2- “Beloved” by Tony Morrison
“She walked out of the house, out of the yard; stepped over the low stone wall and into the pasture. Walking toward the stream.”
The central themes resonate with older African-American slave spirituals and the literary trope of finding freedom across rivers. Morrison grounds her neo-slave narrative within these long-standing literary contexts in African-American culture to shape deeper symbolic interpretations.
3- “Daddy” by Sylvia Plath
“Every woman adores a Fascist, The boot in the face, the brute Brute heart of a brute like you.”
Plath employs literary devices like rhyme, rhythm, and provocative metaphors that defiantly subvert traditional poetic conventions, reflecting her Confessional style. Situating “Daddy” in the context of post-war Confessional poetry gives more meaning to Plath’s radical style and intimate yet intense subject matter.
Biographical context Examples
1- Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
“I returned to my book—Bewick’s History of British Birds: the letterpress thereof I cared little for, generally speaking…”
Bronte herself as a child was known to be fond of the book mentioned. Her personal experiences as a governess also echo in Jane’s storyline. These autobiographical touches enhance analysis of key themes.
2- “Daffodils” by William Wordsworth
“I wandered lonely as a cloud That floats on high o’er vales and hills, When all at once I saw a crowd, A host, of golden daffodils.”
The poem is based on a real incident when Wordsworth came upon golden daffodils while walking with his sister near Ullswater Lake. The biographical memory lends realistic detail and personal emotion to his quintessential British Romantic poem.
3- “The Color Purple” by Alice Walker
“…I know folks say I’m a tramp or maybe even a hussy…”
Walker’s epistolary novel depicts struggles of African American women facing racism and sexism in 1930s Georgia. Her own upbringing facing racial discrimination and becoming a single mother at a young age provides critical biographical context.
Political Context in literature
Political context in literature refers to the political environment, circumstances, ideologies or governmental factors that may influence a written work and the writer. Some aspects of political context in literature include:
- Form of government: A work written under an authoritarian system may show signs of censorship, rebellion, or propaganda themes. For example, dystopian novels like 1984 by George Orwell emerge from a context of growing totalitarian regimes before and after World War-II.
- Issues of the day: Political issues that were pertinent at the time, such as social injustice, women’s rights and colonialism etc. For example, the feminist plays of Henrik Ibsen address 19th century gender norms in Norway.
Religious Context in literature
Religious context in literature refers to the religious environment, beliefs, practices, texts and influences that surround a written work and writer. Some key aspects include:
- Religious affiliations – The specific religion or sect the author was part of or writing for. Knowing religious terminology, concepts and texts associated with that religion can provide deeper meaning. For example, influence of Catholicism in works of James Joyce.
- Mythology and folklore – Use of mythological references or folkloric elements from ancient belief systems or scriptures that have religious underpinnings. Like references to Greek myths in works of Toni Morrison, or Hindu epics in writings of RK Narayan.
Cultural Context in literature
It refers to the cultural and societal influences that shape a work of literature. It encompasses the beliefs, values, customs and practices of a particular society or time period. Cultural context influences the writing style, themes and characters in a literary work.
Here are some key aspects of cultural context in literature:
- Historical period: The historical period in which a text was written can significantly impact its cultural context. For example: a work written during the Renaissance may reflect the cultural values of the time, like humanism and classicism.
- Ethnicity and race: The cultural context of a literary work is also affected by the ethnicity and race of the author and the characters in the story. For example, the experiences of black Americans during the Civil Rights movement might be reflected in the works of African American authors.
- Social class: It is governed by the social class of the author and the characters in the work. For example: the works of Charles Dickens often reflect the social Class issues of Victorian England.
What is literary context vs. historical context?
Historical context refers to the real-world historical situation surrounding a literary work. It provides background on the time period’s events, attitudes and conditions that shaped the text. Looking at historical context lets readers understand different time periods and see how things have changed over time. This contrasts with literary context – the artistic and written influences on the text. Historical and literary contexts together allow deeper analysis.
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