how to write about context in literary analysis essays

How to write about context in literary analysis essays

In literary studies, it’s usually not enough for us to just read and analyse primary texts (e.g. poems, novels, plays etc.)

In order to do well in English Literature, there’s something else called ‘context’ that we must also consider.

What is context?

In general, context refers to “the surrounding circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be understood” (Lexico). 

In a nutshell, context is just a situation where many things happen. 

So, in literary studies, we can simply understand context as the historical background of a work, and by ‘historical’, that includes economic, social, political, cultural and biographical circumstances

Rarely do we come across great literary works which aren’t influenced by their wider contemporary currents, because most authors don’t live or write in a social vacuum, and so are necessarily impacted by the external events and ideas around them. 

For instance, Charles Dickens wrote Hard Times against the backdrop of a post-Industrial Revolution London where capitalist exploitation and urban pollution were rampant; Jane Austen wrote Emma in a society where women cared more about getting married than gaining independence; and Wilfred Owen wrote the poem ‘Dulce et decorum est’ to reflect the horrific conditions suffered by frontline soldiers in WWI. 

literary context charles dickens jane austen wilfred owen

There are, of course, writers like the Decadents and Symbolists who believed in ‘art for art’s sake’, such as Oscar Wilde and Charles Baudelaire, but even as they propounded the theory, their works still reflected social issues and embodied cultural ideas, and so were in no way divorced from the broader context, despite their aesthetic ideologies.

Why does context matter?

If you’re an English Lit student, context matters for two main reasons: 

First, context helps us gain a deeper understanding of the purpose, themes and messages of any literary work, because authors are always inspired by real-life occurrences, and usually, by significant socio-political events and cultural shifts (Yes, even for someone like Henry David Thoreau, who famously decided to live like a hermit in a log cabin by a pond – but it was only for 2 years). 

Second, showing contextual awareness is almost always required for exams. It’s an assessment objective in virtually all English Lit courses, from your I/GCSEs and A-Levels to IB, AP etc.

…You can watch me walk you through the process in the video below!

How to write about context in your literary analysis essays – 3 guiding questions

To incorporate contextual links in your literary analysis, I’ve come up with 3 guiding questions you can consider to navigate the process:

  1. Given what I know about the historical background of the work, what are some similar events, characters or patterns between the text and the time when the author was writing the text?
  2. Given the socio-political and/or economic conditions of the author’s context, what would a person similar to the character in the text most likely do, think or feel in that sort of environment?
  3. Why would the author be so influenced or impacted by what was going on around her to want to write a creative work about it? What is the historical significance of those events?

Let’s now apply these 3 questions to see how we can incorporate contextual links in an analysis.

Example – George Orwell’s Animal Farm

Here’s a paragraph taken from an essay titled ‘How is Napoleon the boar presented in George Orwell’s Animal Farm?’: 

Throughout the novella, Napoleon is portrayed as a menacing and dictatorial character. After the creation of ‘Animal Farm’, Napoleon engages with Snowball in a vicious power play, and plots a coup d’etat to overthrow his political rival. Napoleon’s plan of fostering a group of dogs as his loyal retinue also reflects his scheming personality, while his readiness to mobilise his canine sentinels against other animals on the farm also shows his cold-blooded and brutal nature. Upon the solidification of his power, Napoleon’s dictatorial colours truly come to light when “he announced that from now on the Sunday-morning Meetings would come to an end”, and that “in future all questions relating to the working of the farm would be settled by a special committee of pigs, presided over by himself” (Chapter 5). This mandate foreshadows the absolute erosion of democratic freedom on Animal Farm, and signals that all animals will eventually be subject to Napoleon’s authoritarian rule. 

In this main body paragraph, the student does a fair job of presenting a focused point (“Napoleon is portrayed as a menacing and dictatorial character”), backing it up with relevant textual evidence (the quote from Ch. 5), and analysing the use of a literary technique (foreshadowing). 

But there’s a missing piece, which is, of course, the contextual link. 

So how can we relate Napoleon’s characterisation to the novella’s historical context? 

To start, we should know that Orwell wrote Animal Farm as a satirical allegory of Stalinist totalitarianism, and that Napoleon is most likely based on Joseph Stalin, who ruled the USSR in a tyrannical fashion at the time when Orwell wrote his book in 1943. 

With that, we can make further use of our 3 guiding questions to help formulate our points:

  1. Given what I know about the historical background of the work, what are some similar events, characters or patterns between the text and the time when the author was writing the text?

Both Napoleon and Stalin are tyrannical characters who require absolute subservience from their subjects, and they command authority mostly by spreading mass terror. Like Stalinist Russia, Animal Farm is subject to totalitarian rule with a strong personality cult centered on the supreme leader. 

  1. Given the socio-political and/or economic conditions of the author’s context, what would a person similar to the character in the text most likely do, think or feel in that sort of environment?

If someone gained absolute power over a group of obedient followers with no need for moral or social accountability, he would most likely maximise such outsized authority for his own benefit, in addition to suppressing all voices of opposition as a means to secure his rule. 

  1. Why would the author be so influenced or impacted by what was going on around him to want to write a creative work about it? What is the historical significance of those events?

As a staunch believer in socialist democratic ideals of freedom, liberty and equality, Orwell would have been outraged by the Soviet Union’s blatant suppression of these values (and he was).

In the face of British support for the USSR as a WWII ally, however, Orwell could not have written an explicit critique of Stalin without meeting considerable pushback, which perhaps explains why he had chosen an allegorical format and anthropomorphic approach to characterisation for Animal Farm. 

Now that we’re equipped with all this knowledge, let’s try weaving in the contextual information to upgrade our paragraph: 

Throughout the novella, Napoleon is portrayed as a menacing and dictatorial character. He carries strong echoes of Joseph Stalin, the 1924-1953 Soviet leader who adopted a style of rule known as totalitarianism – a centralised and oppressive government requiring mass subservience, which Orwell, being a socialist democrat, was staunchly opposed to. After the creation of ‘Animal Farm’, Napoleon engages with Snowball in a vicious power play, and plots a coup d’etat to overthrow his political rival. Napoleon’s plan of fostering a group of dogs as his loyal retinue also reflects his scheming personality, while his readiness to mobilise his canine sentinels against other animals on the farm also shows his cold-blooded and brutal nature. Upon the solidification of his power, Napoleon’s dictatorial colours truly come to light when “he announced that from now on the Sunday-morning Meetings would come to an end”, and that “in future all questions relating to the working of the farm would be settled by a special committee of pigs, presided over by himself” (Chapter 5). This mandate foreshadows the absolute erosion of democratic discussion on Animal Farm, and signals that all animals will be subject to the boar’s authoritarian rule. Napoleon’s obsession with absolute power and expulsion of Snowball also mirror Stalin’s purge of Leon Trotsky, who had initially fought alongside Stalin during the Bolshevik Revolution, but was later persecuted and stripped of all government positions by his former comrade-in-arms. 

Notice that in this version, we demonstrate at the very start of the paragraph our awareness of the wider political context which had inspired the novel. 

Specifically, we do this by bringing in the reference to Stalin and drawing an association between the Soviet tyrant and the anthropomorphised tyrant, Napoleon.

This is followed by a point about Orwell’s anti-totalitarian political views, but note that we’re not asserting that Orwell is definitely criticising Stalin via his characterisation of Napoleon. 

Instead, we’re simply suggesting this by stating a piece of contextual fact, i.e. Orwell was a socialist democrat, and socialist democrats hold opposing ideological views to authoritarian fascists. 

At the end of the paragraph, we wrap up with another contextual link that connects Napoleon’s expulsion of Snowball from Animal Farm with a similar political event in Stalinist Russia, which was Stalin’s expulsion of Leon Trotsky from the USSR in 1929. 

Want more study tips on English Lit? Check out my other blog posts below:

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