Context is crucial for the reader’s understanding of the writer’s plot and intended themes. There are several different types of context, discussed below, and writers can use all or a few of them in their work. Depending on when and where the story is set, historical and cultural context might be more important. Context sheds light on the relevance of the text and the reasoning behind events on a broader and personal level.
Definition of Context
Context is important in literature. It’s the information the writer provides for the reader so that they can understand why something is happening. It includes the character’s personal history, the cultural history of a place, and more. The four main types of context are explored below.
Types of Context
- Historical: the time period and contemporary events that affect the context. They can set a very important tone for the story and be crucial for a reader’s understanding of why characters do what they do. If a story is set in the Victorian era, events are going to unfold differently than if it is set in the Stone Age.
- Cultural: concerned with how beliefs, food, customs, and other cultural elements affect the context. These elements may be more or less important to understand a story. Writers also consider whether their audience is going to be familiar with these cultural elements and how that’s going to affect their reception of the work. Will it be more or less interesting depending on how well they know a place or people?
- Physical: the features of the setting that inform how the events unfold. It is concerned with the environment the characters are in and how that influences the choices they make. For example, if a story is set in Antarctica, characters are going to have to face different challenges than if it is set in the Bahamas.
- Situational: this final type of content is concerned with why something is happening. It is based around the event itself, and the audience has to understand why something is occurring based on other events. For example, why someone gets upset when another criticizes their music taste or why one person makes the decision they do in a moment.
Examples of Context in Literature
Austen’s best-loved novel, Pride and Prejudice, tells Elizabeth Bennet’s story and her love affair with Mr. Darcy. The novel’s setting, Elizabeth’s personality, history, and her family’s financial situation are all important pieces of contextual information that readers have to understand. Without these pieces of information, one will miss out on a great deal. Here is a quote from the novel that demonstrates Elizabeth’s complex emotions:
Elizabeth feeling all the more than common awkwardness and anxiety of his situation, now forced herself to speak; and immediately, though not very fluently, gave him to understand, that her sentiments had undergone so material a change, since the period to which he alluded, as to make her receive with gratitude and pleasure, his present assurances.
In this quote, Austen depicts the changes Elizabeth has undergone throughout the pages of the novel. She’s changed her opinion of Mr. Darcy entirely.
Explore Jane Austen’s poems.
Easter 1916 by William Butler Yeats
Yeats’ ‘Easter, 1916’ is a perfect example of how important context can be to understanding a poem. The poem is a reflection on the events surrounding the Easter Rising in Dublin, Ireland, in April of 1916. Without this crucial piece of information, the poem would not have the impact it should. Here are a few lines:
I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
I have passed with a nod of the head
Or polite meaningless words,
Or have lingered awhile and said
Polite meaningless words,
During the Easter Rising, a small number of revolutionaries and labor leaders occupied buildings and proclaimed the beginning of a new Irish Republic. Many of these leaders were later executed by the British.
Read more of William Butler Yeats’ poetry.
In order to fully understand George Orwell’s popular novel Animal Farm, it’s important to have some understanding of the effects of communism and the Russian Revolution. Orwell satirizes the latter within the lines of Animal Farm. He uses the power-hungry and controlling pigs to symbolize the leaders of this movement. Here are a few lines from the novel that demonstrate his writing:
Man is the only creature that consumes without producing. He does not give milk, he does not lay eggs, he is too weak to pull the plough, he cannot run fast enough to catch rabbits. Yet he is lord of all the animals. He sets them to work, he gives back to them the bare minimum that will prevent them from starving, and the rest he keeps for himself.
This is only one of many important quotes in the novel. It breaks down the animals’ issue with human rule.
Discover George Orwell’s best books.
Why Do Writers Use Context?
Writers use context to define a story’s parameters for readers. Without context, readers would be left in the dark in regard to when and where a story is taking place. In addition to why a character is acting the way they are, what the cultural rules of their society are, how influential those rules are (consider Pride and Prejudice as an example), and what possible paths lay in front of that character. Context makes a story readable and gives it the depth needed to keep a reader’s attention.
Related Literary Terms
- Prologue: the opening to a story that comes before the first page or chapter. It is used to establish context or to provide necessary details.
- Symbolism: the use of symbols to represent ideas or meanings. They are imbued with certain qualities, often only interpretable through context.
- Plot: a connected sequence of events that make up a novel, poem, play, film, television show, and other narrative works.
- Anachronism: an error in the timeline or chronology of a piece of literature. This can be a purposeful or accidental error.