What is context?
Context is information that is outside of the text that can be used in order to help us understand and evaluate the piece of writing more effectively. Whilst there is a school of thought that argues texts should be explored in total isolation in order to fully appreciate them on their own terms (called New Criticism), most teachers and academics recognise that it is not possible to truly understand the text if you do not understand its context. The examiners for GCSE and A Level English Literature want to see that students have evaluated the contextual factors and how they influence a reading of the text. However, students are often uncertain about how to include this context in their essays. It can feel like there are so many different elements to include in a literature essay, and just another box to tick to get marks. Yet when used properly, context can really illuminate an interpretation and help the student truly evaluate the effect the writer is creating. Here are a few tips on how to include context skilfully in your work.
- Sweeping Statements
This is a very common error when discussing contextual ideas. Statements that make huge and inaccurate generalizations about a whole period of history, for example, “all women in Victorian times were treated badly by men” can actually be counterproductive. A much better way to express the above idea would be to say “Victorian society was patriarchal, meaning the rights of women were often limited.” This shows a more nuanced approach, and will impress the examiners more. Making big sweeping statements suggests that you do not really understand the context properly, and you may therefore make generalised assumptions about what the writer was trying to do.
- Context is not just historical
When most people think of context, they tend to assume we mean either historical events or episode’s in the writer’s own life. However, there are other types of context that tend to be less commonly explored in essays, such as literary context. A writer may well be working on a particular genre, and be inspired and influenced by the features of the genre. For example, if a writer is writing in the Gothic genre, then he/she may use key features, or more interestingly, they may choose to subvert them. For instance, in Jekyll and Hyde, Stevenson moves from the traditional Gothic setting of a foreign country to the streets of London. By doing so, he is implying that the dark and disturbing elements that make up the Gothic novel are closer to use than we may think.
In drama, another important form of context to consider is performance. When we read a play script, we are only ever reading the blueprint of the text. It is not until it is put upon the stage that a text comes fully alive. The choices that directors and actors make can have a big impact on the way in which we view characters and actions. For example in Macbeth, the director’s choice of whether or not to actually have the ghost of Banquo physically appear on the stage can become very significant. If the ghost appears, we see that Macbeth is actually being haunted, but if the ghost does not, it leads us to question whether it is just a projection from Macbeth’s own mind and a sign of his growing insanity.
- Keep Biographical Context Relevant
Examiners tend to be less keen on biographical context, as it does not always really tell us that much about the meanings the writer is expressing. Writers do write about things they have experienced, but equally they research and write about topics that have no relevance to their everyday lives. Therefore, pointing out that Dickens’ father was sent to a debtor’s prison does not on its own constitute a meaningful contextual point. It may have given him empathy with those who spent their lives in the workhouse, but it does not mean this is the only way a writer could find out about this. Placing too much emphasis on biography can imply that a writer can only write about something if they have experienced it first hand. It can lead to points that feel very forced and can also lead us to make assumptions about their work, and to see connections where they do not exist.
This does not mean there are no links to be made, but we need to be careful about how we make them. For example. Christina Rossetti worked with prostitutes at the Highgate Penitentiary, helping these women to rebuild their lives. This attitude could be significant when analysing a poem such as “Goblin Market”, and looking at the presentation of the fallen woman. Rather than condemning the actions of Laura, Rossetti could be encouraging her to see her as capable and deserving of redemption. Making a biographical context point is effective, and helps to add more depth to the interpretation.
- Use the context to support the argument, not the other way around
Context needs to be used to support the points in your argument about the text. You should always start with the text, and the evidence that is there first. Your point should not just be a piece of information about the context; it needs to be a thematic point about the novel/poem/play. For example:
The audience can see that Eva Smith is seen as expendable by the Birling family.
In 1912, poor people were treated badly by the upper classes.
The first point will lead you far more naturally into analysing the text. Remember, first and foremost you are writing an English essay, not History. Once you have analysed your textual evidence, then it is normally the right time to bring in contextual points well. The contextual information helps to enrich your analysis, adding depth and showing evidence of a wider interpretation. The textual analysis is key, and not something that can ever be sacrificed in the interest of shoehorning in context.
If you would like further support with secondary English, I offer one to one and small group sessions. Get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org to find out more.