Placing Literature in Context

Imagine your editor asks you to write a literary critique of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. What factors would shape how you analyze the book? You might view the novel by today’s cultural values. You might have real life experience with some aspect of the story. Perhaps you are most interested in what the writer thought when he wrote the story. Maybe you are concerned with the political and social themes of the story. You might organize your critique according to course you took on literary analysis. You might even be thinking about what your editor’s expectations are. These all represent contexts you might use in your critique the novel.

Context is generally thought of as the social background of the story, but it is more complex than that. Societies usually don’t have one clear belief or value but rather a mélange of beliefs and customs. So, to generalize about values of a specific time and place can narrow rather than deepen understanding. For example, if we say, “All Martians hate Earthlings” we are discounting any Martians who actually are quite fond of Earthlings.

If we read Crime and Punishment within the context of the social background that existed at the time it was written, we get a different reading than if we used a modern social context. So, “context” encompasses both original and modern, and a range of beliefs that evolve over time. In other words, “…the text’s ‘context’ is always shifting, never stable.”

Schema Theory and Context
When experienced readers seek to discover meaning in a text they are not embarking on a virgin journey. In fact, a good reader stashes away valuable information in long-term memory every time they read a book. The reader then calls on this vast database to help grasp something new.
Schema theory sheds light on the importance of context in reading. According to experts, when we read, we pay attention to four or five elements at a time in our short-term memory. About every five seconds, one of those elements makes it through the bottleneck into our long term memory where it is stored forever. The more information that gets through to our long-term memory, the better reader we become. While short-term memories are unrelated, unorganized bits of information, long-term memory is a network that organizes incoming information in a way makes sense. The organizing framework of long-term memory consists of a series of schemata. By activating the right schema, we unlock the information that we need.

When a reader takes in new information that falls within the reader’s schema, the new knowledge is easily remembered and incorporated into long-term memory. If the new information doesn’t fit the reader’s schema the information might be ignored or forgotten. If the reader cannot ignore the new information, then the reader’s schema must be changed.

A schema is essentially like context. A reader uses three kinds of schemata:
• Text-to-self connections
o A reader first develops an ability to compare what they read with events in their own life.
“This reminds me of the time I…”

• Text-to-text connections
o More advanced readers will compare one text to another text.
“This book reminds me of a book I read when…”

• Text-to-world connections
o Text-to-world connections occur when a reader has prior knowledge about the issue in the text that allows them to make a connection between what the read and the outside world.
“This reminds me of that article I read…”

Example: The Diary of Anne Frank—Then and Now
I was a young girl when I first read The Diary of Anne Frank, and I identified strongly with Anne. Like Anne I was confused about boys and I thought my mother was horrid. I compared Anne to myself. What would I do in her situation? Would I have been attracted to Peter as Anne was? While I was horrified by what happened to Anne and her family, I thought living in the Annex was, in a way, an adventure. I was too young to grasp the full horror and impact of the Holocaust, though, and had no context for grasping a tragedy of this proportion.

When I reread the book with my son last year, my context had changed so vastly that it seemed as if I was reading a different book. I recognized the adolescent angst running through Anne’s diary entries and no longer compared her with myself. I had enough information stashed away by now to be able to use text-to-world schema to grasp meaning.

In this reading, the family’s fate hung over every page so ominously it made me want to crawl out of my skin. The book seemed sacred to me, as a relic from the past. I got mad at my son for fiddling with a toy while I read because it seemed disrespectful to Anne’s memory. I should have recognized that my son’s context was different than mine. My context had shifted because I had changed. I changed from an adolescent girl to a mother and an adult capable of understanding the Holocaust. I also noticed that my son’s context was quite different than mine as a girl. He was concerned that the negative comments Anne made about her mother would hurt the mother’s feelings and I like to think this is because he doesn’t hate his mother as much as I hated mine.

As a reader, this showed me that it is beneficial to reread books with an eye toward picking up layers of meaning I’d missed before. It also showed me I should be aware of the contexts I bring to new books. In practice, when I am exposed to new information, I automatically relate it to something I already know—I hang it on a coat hook. As a writer, I need to think about the contexts my readers bring to my writing so that readers respond and enjoy my writing.

Breaking the Context CodeAnalyzing the structural framework in a novel isn’t always clear cut. Sometimes the framework of beliefs in a novel is so subtly woven into the text that readers may not be aware that they are reading within that context. There is no grand conspiracy of writers. It’s just that much of what we process when we read is automatic. We make assumptions based on our schemata. Usually the assumptions are correct: we see a car slam on the breaks ahead of us, and we slam on our brakes in response because tucked away in long term memory is the piece of information that tells us how to respond. Sometimes, though, we can make the wrong assumptions. I saw a TV show recently that illustrates this point. The show was similar to the old Candid Camera Show, where the show’s actors try to fool unsuspecting people with humorous results. An actor, in a full beekeeper’s suit stood on a walking path with a lidded box. He tips the viewers off that the box is empty. When people pass by, the actor drops the box and the lid comes off. Without exception, the passersby began frantically fanning away nonexistent bees. The people made assumptions—beekeepers suit and spilled box—and their brains told them to swat the bees and run. Likewise, when a reader picks up subtle clues about a character or a social value, they may make automatic assumptions based on commonly held beliefs.

Context and Binary Opposition
One tool to analyze the structural framework of a text is binary opposition. “Binary oppositions are words and contexts that a community of people generally regards as being ‘opposed’ to each other.”
Black and white, male and female, physical and mental, rational and emotional are examples of binary oppositions.

Many texts are organized around a set of binary oppositions which form the framework of the story. Readers may be comfortable reading a text with patterns that fit into an established community belief structure. These frameworks can act to preserve the status quo or prevailing patterns of beliefs and values. This is particularly true when binary opposition is hierarchical. In other words, when one word in the pair is considered privileged and valued over the other word. Black and white, for example, are considered opposite colors, but if we pair a good guy wearing a white hat, and a bad guy wearing a black hat, the opposition takes on a tone of racial prejudice.

Here is another example:
Big— small
You might watch an old Western movie, for example, and find that the male character is defined by all the words on the left side of the pairs above, while the female is depicted as emotional, weak and small.

Readers can add layers to their understanding of the text by looking for the binary oppositions embedded in the text and by looking at the text from a range of contexts.

As writers, being aware of binary oppositions allows us more control over plot and character development. We may want to use binary opposites to point readers where we want them to go or move the plot in a certain direction. Or, we may want to bust up conventional beliefs in favor of a plot or character that surprises or challenges the reader.

I recently read Almost Moon by Anne Seaton. At the outset of the book, I learned that the main character murdered her elderly mother. In the context of our belief and custom structure, killing the elderly—especially a mother– is abhorrent behavior. The dissonance I felt between my schemata and the plotline created tension by forcing me to consider some of my beliefs in unexpected ways. I dealt with the dissonance by changing my schema. But if a reader is unable to fit the story with their schema or to change their schema to accommodate new information, the story likely won’t make sense to the reader, and the reader will not engage on an emotional level to the book.

Websites with More Information Literature in Context Online. Provides information the historical, social and cultural context of classic literature Includes primary sources and commentary. Social Context–American Literature provides links to a range of historical information covering different time periods in American literature, including music, art, politics, and culture. MIT offers a free download of the course Writing about Literature, as well as other literature courses.


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