Context (KAHN-tekst) is the circumstances that inform an event, an idea, or a statement. It is the detail that adds meaning to a text. Readers can study internal context—details included by the author, such as backstory, characterization, or setting—as well as external context—the time period of the work’s publication, the author’s literary influences, and even their personal history.
Imagine context as a bridge between the writer and the reader that clarifies a text’s meaning and purpose. Authors provide these details to ensure a story is richly developed and true to life, and readers consider external context to understand a story’s broader significance.
Types of Context
There are several types of literary context, but the following are the most common applications.
A writer’s experiences inevitably inform their writing, from content to style. This biographical context can refer to an author’s life history, a text’s place in an author’s body of work, the author’s success, the circumstances in which a text was written, current events at the time of publication, and even an author’s motivation for writing a text.
Literature is often influenced by history. Historical novels are directly grounded in past events and circumstances, but historical context also encompasses how literature reflects or responds to the society in which it was written. This can manifest as intentional criticism, in which an author addresses a social issue and perhaps argues for change (e.g., Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” his satirical indictment of the aristocracy). However, literature can also unconsciously reflect attitudes or beliefs predominant at the time of composition. Gone with the Wind is a beloved classic, but modern audiences often criticize its sanitized portrayal of slavery.
Literature addresses age-old questions of metaphysics, ethics, and morality. It ponders the purpose of life, the nature of God or the universe, right versus wrong, death, time—the list goes on. Philosophies go in and out of style, and the great literary movements were influenced by philosophies that waxed and waned over time. Romanticism was followed by realism, which was followed by transcendentalism and then naturalism, modernism, postmodernism, and so on. Each of these movements was influenced by contemporaneous philosophical thought, and readers can learn much about a text by researching those concepts, the associated philosophers, and the author’s stance on the issue.
Allusion is a common demonstration of literary context, in which one text indirectly references another. But literary context can include several different things, such as an author’s role models or the way one text influences another. Literary context also considers how a text fits into broad categories of literature, such as the aforementioned literary movements.
How Writers Use Context
Writers use context to engage, inform, and entertain readers. These details establish the narrative’s setting and the author’s motivation for writing, and they help propel the action. Context adds authenticity, helping a story reflect readers’ experiences and securing their investment in the text. Like most literary tools, moderation is essential when it comes to context. Too much of it can burden a story, rendering it boring or incomprehensible.
Context can be conveyed through just about anything—characterization, setting, backstory, memory, dialogue, and so on. If a detail informs readers’ understanding of the text, engages their intellect or emotions, or hooks their interest, then it can be used as context. However, specificity is key. By choosing what context to include, and when and how to do so, writers can guide readers’ interpretation of a text. They can also incorporate specific details to better anchor a story in a particular time or place. Consider the HBO miniseries Chernobyl. It is ostensibly about the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Pripyat, Russia, but the show’s true focus is government lies and corruption. The show uses the context of Soviet Russia to elicit nostalgia and cultural memory, emphasizing how modern politics echo that of the Cold War era.
Context can also inspire. A writer might reflect upon their life and realize they have a unique point of view worth sharing. They can use the context of their lives to communicate that perspective to the world. When a writer does this well, they spark understanding within readers, helping them make new connections and realizations.
Context and Literary Analysis
Publication opens a work up to criticism, including literary analysis, which dissects and evaluates literature to make connections that general audiences may have missed. Literary analysis hinges on context. Scholars and critics engage in close reading to discover deeper meaning, identify narrative patterns or themes, and detect influences, then analyze and synthesize their findings. They bring these disparate details together like puzzle pieces to explain why and how a text is significant and how it fits into culture and literature in general.
Writers’ Vernacular and Context Clues
When a reader encounters an unfamiliar word, they study the surrounding text to discern its meaning. This process of gleaning connotation is called using context clues. These are details that directly or indirectly suggest information about a word, phrase, or situation.
There are several types of context clues, the following five being the most common.
- Definition and explanation: There’s nothing subtle about these context clues, as the author clarifies the word’s intended meaning directly in the text.
- Inferences: When a word or idea is not explained within the same sentence, readers must decipher the writer’s implied or indirect meaning from the surrounding text.
- Synonyms and comparison: Synonyms draw comparisons that clarify, refine, or emphasize a writer’s meaning.
- Antonyms and contrast: Antonyms convey an opposite meaning to underscore contrast or disparity.
- Punctuation: Writers can use punctuation to several effects, such as conveying emotion (e.g., using exclamation points to express anger) or implying meaning (e.g., using parenthetical asides to suggest confidentiality).
Examples of Context in Literature
1. Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale
Set in a dystopian near-future, The Handmaid’s Tale follows Offred and other subjugated women who strive to reclaim their independence after a theonomic totalitarian state called Gilead usurps the US government. This quote comes from Chapter 6, as Offred and fellow handmaiden Ofglen observe the corpses of people murdered by the state:
Ordinary, said Aunt Lydia, is what you are used to. This may not seem ordinary to you now, but after a time it will. It will become ordinary.
Gripped by horror, Offred recalls these words, which suggest that “ordinary” is a matter of perspective and that, in time, Gilead’s atrocities will seem normal. Aunt Lydia’s assurance that murder, oppression, and subjugation can become commonplace, even routine, reveals the depth of Gilead’s power and depravity.
2. Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
This novel, set before and during the French Revolution, tells the story of Doctor Alexandre Menette, who is imprisoned in the Bastille for 18 years then moves to London to reunite with his daughter Lucie. Dickens contextualizes the setting in the very first paragraph:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
This passage immediately establishes that the novel’s main conflicts revolve around binary extremes, such as good and evil or wisdom and folly. This signals that the story is rife with contradiction and controversy, and that the setting is full of tension but also hope.
3. Tim O’Brien, “The Things They Carried”
This is the eponymous short story in a collection of tales about the Vietnam War. The story reflects on the things soldiers carry with them into war:
To carry something was to hump it, as when Lieutenant Jimmy Cross humped his love for Martha up the hills and through the swamps. In its intransitive form, to hump meant to walk, or to march, but it implied burdens far beyond the intransitive.
The opening phrase is a context clue that directly explains the author’s meaning. The passage further explains that although hump has alternative meanings, such as “to walk” or “to march,” in this context it means something more abstract, something heavy and grim.
Further Resources on Context
This Writing Cooperative article explains how context builds trust between the writer and their audience, and why that relationship is so important.
ThoughtCo provides a more thorough look at context clues—and their limitations.
This resource from Roane State Community College teaches students how to use textual elements (including context) to analyze literature.