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In this lesson, we will learn how to interpret a written work in its context.

We will explore the historical context, biographical context, context of language and form, and context of the reader.

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What Is Context?

Texts are not created in a vacuum. Every piece of writing comes from a particular time, place, and author. Every piece of writing exhibits, at least in part, the language and form of its day.

Every piece of writing is approached by readers with their own set of experiences and beliefs. Together, these aspects form a text’s context.A text’s context is the situation in which it is written and read. Again, it includes the historical era in which the work is created; the experiences, culture, and beliefs of the author; the language and forms popular at the time of the text’s creation; and the experiences, culture, and beliefs of the reader who approaches the text in his or her own era.

In this lesson, we will explore all of these aspects of context and see how they affect the interpretation of a text.

Historical Context

Every author lives in a historical moment, surrounded by events and ideas that help shape his or her writing. When a reader is familiar with these events and ideas, which form the text’s historical context, he or she will better understand the message and details of a piece of writing.

Let’s look at an example. Dante’s Divine Comedy was written in the early 1300s in Italy. This was a time of great political conflict between various Italian city states, which were constantly striving for dominance and independence. Dante often found himself right in the middle of this strife, which often turned violent, and early in the century, he chose to support the losing side and ended up in exile from his native Florence.Dante’s writing reflects this historical situation. For instance, Dante populates the regions of hell and purgatory with his political rivals. Further, Dante’s entire outlook, and the structure of his work (the inferno, purgatory, and heaven), is shaped by the strong Catholicism of his era.

Knowing all of this historical context helps us to better understand the meaning and details of Dante’s greatest work.

Biographical Context

Writers also tend to put a great deal of themselves into their texts. Even if they try to avoid it, their beliefs, education, culture, and experiences usually shine through their words.

Knowing something about an author’s life and perspective, namely, a work’s biographical context, can help readers better understand and interpret a text.Let’s say we were going to read two books about the American Civil War. One of them was written by a southerner and the other by a northerner. These books, even though they cover the same historical events and characters, could be quite different. The southerner, for instance, might ascribe to the ‘Lost Cause’ idea that the South was simply overwhelmed by the North’s superior numbers and industrial capacity. He may also be more likely to glorify southern leaders and criticize northern ones, perhaps giving more pages to Confederate General Robert E.

Lee than to Union General Ulysses S. Grant. Further, a southern author might talk more about states’ rights than slavery when discussing the cause of the war.A northerner, on the other hand, will probably reject the ‘Lost Cause’ theory, even if he also focuses on the North’s advantages. He may also emphasize slavery as the cause of the war and might spend more time describing northern leaders.

Further, he may tend to be more forthright about the South’s lack of political leadership and internal struggles. In any case, the two authors’ backgrounds could significantly affect the arguments and descriptions they include in their books, and knowing this biographical context would certainly help readers evaluate these arguments and descriptions.

Context of Language and Form

Readers should also understand that language changes over time. The English that we write and speak today is quite different from the English written and spoken in the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, or even the 19th century. Knowing something about the context of the language an author uses in a text can help a reader better understand and appreciate that text. Readers should make a strong effort to identify and look up unfamiliar vocabulary, work through unfamiliar sentence structures, and identify rhetorical devices and figures of speech.

Reading Shakespeare, for example, can be quite a challenge because the Bard’s language can be daunting to readers not used to 16th century vocabulary and structures. Readers should approach Shakespeare’s works in editions that include explanatory footnotes or make good use of online resources like Shakespeare glossaries.Literary forms also change over time. Modern readers often find themselves uncomfortable with forms that were popular in the past, like lyric poetry, epic narratives, plays, and allegorical works. Knowing something about a text’s particular literary form helps readers better understand what they read.

For instance, before reading a 17th century lyric poem by Ben Johnson or Edmund Spenser’s highly allegorical poem The Faerie Queen, it would help to study the literary forms involved. Simply reading an entry in a literary dictionary or an online literature resource can be enough to teach readers about the characteristics of the form and thereby increase their understanding of the piece.

Context of the Reader

Finally, every reader comes to a text with his or her own experiences, culture, education, and beliefs. In other words, the reader also brings a context in which he or she reads a text, and this, too, affects a reader’s response to the text.

The Harry Potter series is a prime example of the importance of the context of the reader. Some potential readers judge these books to be evil because of their descriptions of fantasy magic and often refuse to read them at all. Even if they do give the series a try, they are determined not to like or enjoy the books and ready to criticize them to the extreme. Other readers, particularly those who enjoy fantasy literature, love the Harry Potter books and recognize their magic as a successful and meaningful literary and symbolic motif rather than a source of evil influence.

The various ways in which the Harry Potter books are interpreted often depend on the context the reader brings to them.

Lesson Summary

Let’s review. A text’s context is the situation in which it is written and read. Context includes a text’s:

  • Historical context, which is the historical events and ideas that surround an author and help shape his or her writing
  • Biographical context, which is formed by the beliefs, education, culture, and experiences of the author
  • Context of language and form, which helps readers understand the vocabulary and sentence structures of a text as well as its literary form
  • Context of the reader, in which the reader’s own experiences, culture, education, and beliefs contribute to the understanding and interpretation of a text

When you read, pay close attention to these aspects of context, and you will discover that you will better understand and appreciate what you read and draw more meaning out of every text you meet.

Learning Outcomes:

As you finish this lesson, you should have the ability to:

  • Acknowledge the importance of a text’s context
  • Consider the impact that historical context can have on a text
  • Recognize the importance of biographical context
  • Recall how language changes and discuss the context of language
  • Examine the impact that a reader’s context has on the material

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