Five Types of Context for Literary Works
By definition, anything not contained within the literary text itself is potentially context. However, not all types of context will be germane to any particular literary work. Here are the broad categories of context we will consider in this class.
1) Authorial context

Another term for this is biographical context. To say that authors write from their own experiences is an exaggeration (imagination is important, too), but their lives always influence their work in some way. That does not mean, however, that the author identifies with the main character or even the narrator in a novel or the speaker in a poem, or that the events or experiences he or she describes actually happened and the author is just reporting what he or she has witnessed. Authorial context connects a particular work to the author’s life. Did it come at the beginning of his or her career, in the middle, or at the end? Had that career so far been successful or not? In some cases, one book represents the entirety of the career. Consider the circumstances under which a work was written. What was going on in the author’s life? What personal circumstances, or specific event, either at the time of composition or in the past, motivated the author to write it?  In short, how does this work fit into the author’s life and what influence did that life have on it? While exploring biographical context, useful sources include biographies of the author, autobiographies or memoirs by the author or by people who knew him or her, and critical works that give close attention to the author’s life.

2) Socio-historical context

Literary works often respond in some way to the society in which they were written, and most often (though not always) that response takes the form of criticism. Think about how this particular work depicts society. With what societal issues is it concerned? What seems to be the author’s attitude toward society? If you detect criticism, at whom or what is it directed? How do you think the author would like to see society changed? Where in the work do you see evidence of this? Does the work describe real events, or some that are strikingly similar to real events? Sources you might investigate include works (books and articles) of history or sociology that talk about the strengths, weaknesses, and changes occurring in the society during the period in which the work is set or the author lived, and critical works that emphasize the connection between the society and the work.

3) Philosophical context

Contemporary authors consciously or subconsciously address the same questions that have captivated humanity’s attention ever since we became prosperous enough to have the time and energy to think about them:  “What is the nature of the universe?” and “What is the individual’s proper response to the universe? Included in the first category (metaphysics) are secondary questions about whether it has a purpose or meaning, if it ever didn’t exist or if it will ever stop existing, if it had a creator and, if so, whether he or she or it is still involved or interested and whether benign, malefic, or indifferent, and any other questions you can imagine by replacing the word universe with something else (humanity, life, death, thought, love, God, nature, time, and so on). Included in the second category (ethics) are all questions of morality and behavior, pleasure and pain, fate and free will, kindness and cruelty, and anything else concerning human actions. How does the author attempt to answer these questions in this particular work? Since the world a literary work creates is less complex than reality, and absolutely did have a creator, you can more easily ask what the nature of the work’s universe is, and what the characters’ proper relationship to that universe should be. And while everyone answers (or elects not to answer) the big questions in his or her own way, philosophy tends to develop trends and fashions just as music, painting, and clothing do. To consider philosophical context, determine which philosophical trends the author admires, and which he or she is rejecting. How does the work demonstrate this? Critical sources that explain the relationship between the work and philosophy are important here, but once you find out which philosopher(s) influenced the work, you also need to find at least one work that explains the philosopher’s ideas, whether it is written by the philosopher or by someone else (but this person should not be writing about the literary work).

4) Literary context

To whatever else literary works respond, they also respond to other literary works. Authors respond to other authors positively, negatively, or both. Consider some of the following questions. How does a particular work fit into broader categories of literature? Can it be characterized by a particular “-ism” such as Romanticism, Realism, Naturalism, Existentialism, Modernism, or Postmodernism? If so, how does it fit into — and help us define — the larger category, and how can we tell? How is this work different from what came before it? What other works or authors influenced it? What other works or authors did it influence in return? Often, authors of fiction and poetry also write essays explaining their own theories of literature and why they believe authors would write in one way and not in another. Did this author write something like that? Or did someone else write an essay like that with which the author either strongly agreed or disagreed? How does the work reflect or react against these principles? Those essays are your best sources here. Of course, critical works that attempt to answer some of these questions are useful, too.

5) Critical context

Once any work is published, it begins to attract criticism — if it is noticed at all. That is, critics begin to write about it, expressing what they admire and what they dislike about it. Early criticism typically takes the form of book reviews, which are usually brief and concentrate mostly on explaining to prospective readers what a work’s subject matter, theme, tone, and style are, and whether it is any good. Over time, however, critics begin to reflect more deeply. They are no longer concerned with recommending that people read a work; rather, they assume a significant number of people have already read it, and they attempt to explain something about it that the average reader might not have noticed or considered. They point out hidden meanings, influences, and patterns, and they make connections between this work and others, and between this author and others. This is the realm of serious literary criticism. For any paper for this class, critical works are essential, but you need to distinguish between contemporary reviews and later, deeper reflection. On the other hand, once deeper critical reflection has begun to appear, nothing guarantees progress. In the humanities something written in 1900 or 1940 may well be more perceptive and exciting to read than something written in 1990. And because time tends to weed out inferior critical works (just as it tends to weed out lesser literary works), something written fifty years ago that you can still find in print may well be better than something published last week.

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