The Significance of Historical Context in Literature

When we read literature, particularly older works, it can sometimes be challenging to fully grasp the relevance and meaning from a 21st-century perspective. The language and references used in older novels or poetry can often escape our understanding due to the context and meaning of the words being unknown to us. This is where historical context comes into play. Understanding historical context is crucial when it comes to interpreting written works as it can not only change or enhance the overall meaning but also reveal valuable information and perspectives that we might otherwise miss. So, let’s take a closer look at some examples of how historical context plays a vital role in writing and reading comprehension.

Defining Historical Context

Historical context encompasses the social, political, cultural, economic, and environmental factors that influence the events and trends of a particular time period. If we are unfamiliar with the traditions, culture, mindset, or significant events of a certain historical era, we run the risk of misinterpreting or losing the true meaning behind a piece of writing. To effectively consider historical context, we should ask ourselves the following questions:

  • Who is the author?
  • When was the work written?
  • Are there any references or unfamiliar language that might be specific to the time period?
  • Do any religious, cultural, political, or economic events from that time period potentially influence the writer’s perspective and their work?

Examining Historical Context – Animal Farm

Let’s delve deeper into this concept by exploring George Orwell’s classic novel, Animal Farm.

If you’re unfamiliar with the storyline, Animal Farm revolves around a group of farm animals who rebel against their human farmer and decide to govern the farm themselves. The narrative follows the newly independent animals as they navigate the challenges of governance and power struggles. Ultimately, the story concludes with a pig named Napoleon establishing a dictatorial regime, leading the farm back into the squalid conditions they had revolted against.

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At first glance, one might perceive this book as a lively fictional tale or perhaps a children’s cartoon spinoff. However, when viewed through the lens of historical context, we realize that Animal Farm is heavily influenced by the events leading up to the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the subsequent tensions between the Soviet Union, its allies, and the Western world. During the 1940s, when Orwell wrote this novel, many people, including the English author himself, held strong polarized feelings towards Joseph Stalin, the leader of Soviet Russia. As a result, Animal Farm faced difficulties in getting published and only gained popularity during the Cold War.

Without the historical context, readers would be unlikely to discern that this novel serves as a critique of the rising political tensions that unfolded between 1917 and 1946, involving Russia and the rest of the world. However, knowing the historical context of its writing and its author’s stance enables readers to better understand the broader context and bias embedded in Orwell’s work.

Examining Historical Context – The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Another example that highlights the importance of historical context is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Written in 1884 as a sequel to another Mark Twain novel, this book has been hailed as a satirical classic by many. However, it has also faced criticism for its depiction of African Americans and the use of racist language throughout.

Once again, historical context sheds light on the analysis of such writing. Slavery wasn’t officially abolished in every state in the United States until 1865, a mere 20 years prior to the book’s publication. Racial tensions were still rampant, and open discrimination against African Americans remained prevalent. While some may find the book distasteful today, it’s important to understand that during that era, the unflattering portrayal and mistreatment of African Americans were unfortunately deemed acceptable. Historical context provides readers with a clearer understanding of the prevailing mindset and culture of 19th-century America, explaining why The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was considered acceptable reading material at that time.

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Understanding historical context fills in the missing pieces of the puzzle when analyzing written works. Delving into the history and circumstances that shape what is written adds depth and meaning to our reading experience. Don’t hesitate to conduct research and explore the context surrounding the works you read. Doing so will undoubtedly lead to a more rewarding and enlightening journey.

Thanks for joining me today, and happy reading!

Animal Farm
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

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