Friday, February 3, 2012

How important is context in literature?

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Animal Farm by George Orwell is a great tale of revolt, idealism and ultimately the corruption of power. To the casual, uninformed reader it appears to be a face value story about a group of farm animals who overthrow their farmer with the intention of establishing an ideal society, but it finally results in its descent into a situation much like the one that they were faced with at the beginning of the book. A ten year old is perfectly capable of grasping the morals and characterisation of the story, although they are blissfully unaware of its intended parallels with the Russian Revolution. On second reading an extra dimension is added as similarities in the characters in the story can be seen with the major players in the Russian Revolution itself (the pig that puts forward the idea of the revolt at the beginning of the story clearly represents Karl Marx, the brain behind communism, for example). Undoubtedly this extra knowledge widens our appreciation of the book, but has it necessarily changed its key motive or made us enjoy the book more as a result? The fact that Orwell had previously been a member of a communist party in Spain and had left on the grounds that he saw that communism could not work in practice should also change our reading of the book. With this contextual knowledge it can be seen that Orwell was writing an attack on communist ideals. But how important is the author’s intention when surely the only important thing is the response of the reader? From this example it can already be seen that context in literature can have variety of effects on the reader.

An appreciation of the circumstances in which events occur in a book undoubtedly makes some of the aspects of the story clearer. Understanding the social or historical situation in the period that the book is set can often help the reader grasp the significance of the actions of the characters. In other modern works where the context is important to the story, such as Bravo Two Zero, the overall understanding of the situation is enhanced if one has an awareness of basic military conventions. With no knowledge of the army, the events told may not have as a dramatic impact on the reader as Andy McNab frequently talks in military terminology. The overall pace of the novel, and its excitement, is not altered by its context, however, but having said that any other context in which the events could have occurred other than wartime may not engage the full enthusiasm of the reader. Generally people can connect with the characters in a story if they can familiarise with their circumstance. Some of these circumstances will never change, and so people will forever be making the connection with certain characters, such as bringing up adolescent girls in Little Women. Clearly being familiar with the context of the story will enable the reader to be more engrossed within it that another reader with less knowledge.

People read for pleasure. Surely, if this is the case, knowledge outside the text cannot be expected for a book to be pleasurable to read. When reading classic novels, however, of course the social circumstances would be different to the ones today. For instance, if the story centres around a particular aspect of 1th century life, such as industrialisation, some knowledge of the period would undoubtedly be useful if studying the text thoroughly. If the book is impenetrable to the casual reader as a result of his lack of contextual knowledge, then clearly the writer’s ability as a story teller is limited. The reader should be able to pick up the minimum amount of detail required within the text itself to appreciate the main themes of the book. 1th century writers, on the other hand, may have had no idea that people would be reading their work 00 years on. To expect them to cater for the uninformed future reader may be too much to ask, but if the context plays such a vital role in the story then perhaps it may be wiser to read a history book about industrialisation.

Writers aim for a strong emotional response from the reader. Context cannot change this. It is only the writer’s skill in developing the story and the characters and the way that they interact that can provoke the reader. Simply setting the story in Tudor England is not going to be able to mask the writer’s ability (or inability) to make the reader fully engage with the text. Shakespeare is the master of provoking emotional feedback, which is why his plays are so adaptable. Although he sets his plays around his period (excluding his histories) modern adaptations, such as Romeo + Juliet have succeeded in maintaining the central messages and emotional themes whilst giving them a fresh, modern outlook. Kenneth Branagh’s musical version of ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’ shows just how versatile Shakespeare’s work is, as its style would be practically unrecognisable to the original version, but yet the key messages are there (just). The greed and treachery of Macbeth can similarly be applied to modern day situations. Julius Caesar has had several modern day adaptations, even though Shakespeare set it out of his own period, simply because its central idea of treachery is still such a sensitive issue and one that will draw heart felt response.

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There are some forms of literature in which its desired effect relies entirely on the context in which it is put. Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, is littered with satire on many aspects of Fleet Street society which can only be understood with an appreciation of the journalistic world. It also satirises other works of literature, including references to Shakespeare in entirely inappropriate contexts. Unless one has an impressive knowledge of Shakespeare, of course this satire cannot be appreciated, so in fact to an uninformed reader the reference would appear quite off key. Satire in most of its forms requires a good understanding of the satirised subject to appreciate it at all. Modern day satirists as a result, such as Rory Bremner and writers in Private Eye, will have short term appraisal for their efforts as their subjects will be soon forgotten.

Context, more than anything else, provides a flavour to the writing. Little details that are added in around the main skeleton of the story maintain the interest of the reader. Touching the Void by Joe Simpson is a good example of a story which is based around something quite technical, in this case mountain climbing, but is in fact really about friendship and inner strength. It is littered with details of rope systems, rock climbing manoeuvres and strategy, which although was beyond my understanding, nonetheless gave the story a certain ‘pinch of salt.’ These details do not prevent the story from being incredibly emotionally engaging, even though at times one does feel distanced by them. Contextual details without doubt give books credibility. If they contained incorrect details, or no context at all, the reader would not take the text as seriously even if it was well written. Similarly Lance Armstrong’s autobiography, It’s Not About the Bike contains technical details on cycling training and strategy, but its core message, which can be applied in any scenario, is that sheer iron willed determination can take you anywhere from any situation. In his case, it was recovering from cancer to win the Tour de France five times in a row.

One could argue that for a piece of literature to be great, it has to be timeless. For it to be timeless, one has to be able to imagine the situation that the book describes however abstract or long a go or far away the context is. It is up to the author to fill in the necessary details to make this possible. Of course some novels can be read at different levels, some where the context is irrelevant, and some where it changes the story entirely (such as Albert Camus’ The Plauge). It entirely depends on the preference of the reader to which level of detail they study it at. The great thing about literature is that it can be moulded to fit the abiltiy of the reader, the author’s intention is a non-entity.

Overall, context simply adds another dimension to the story and makes it unique. By no means should a story rely upon it. In some cases it can change one’s interpretation entirely, but that is not to say that the first uninformed interpretation was not valid. For people to say that one can only truly appreciate historical novels by understanding their context, are they saying that one has to understand future communities described in 184 and Brave New World to appreciate their true meaning? I am not aware of any further reading on Air Strip One.

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