How Important is Context in Determining the Meaning(s) of a Literary Text?

An essay looking the importance of context in a literary text using critical approaches.

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“When we do English, do we study literary works for their pure artistic merit or because they reveal things about the world and their authors?” asks Robert Eaglestone in Doing English. This question has been the route of exploration in many books besides Doing English and indeed the question of many different literary critics. Two main schools of thought dominate critics’ answers to this question; formalism and historicism, which are examples of intrinsically and extrinsically approaching a text respectively. While formalists and intrinsic readers take meaning solely from the text itself, historicists and other extrinsic schools believe the contextual background to be imperative in finding the true meaning of a literary text. Today, most who study literature lie somewhat in-between the two concepts though the difference each approach can make to the meaning of the text is often unrealised.

“Literary-ness makes a text a valuable work of art, which is worth studying in its own right” argues Robert Eaglestone reflecting one side of the formalist argument. If Literature is indeed a form of art, we should therefore be able to appreciate it outside its historical context. As many appreciate paintings as a purely aesthetic sensation, so should we too be able to appreciate literature for nothing more than its strength of writing. Furthermore, when we have no knowledge of when a piece is written, studying it contextually is not an option so a formalist may argue that it therefore cannot be literature to a historicist.  Most of even the most well known ballad poetry, for example, is anonymous and therefore unaccountable to a particular period or person. Passed on for generations by word of mouth, ballads were slowly changed over time often producing numerous versions of the same story; “The Twa Corbies” being a Scottish derivation of “The Three Ravens”, both of which telling of the same event as an example. A formalist could also argue that these poems were not recorded in writing until the late eighteenth/early nineteenth century by various antiquarians, poets and scholars and so even knowing conventions of ballads, any particular time date could be fitted to them. With no associated author or period, therefore, it would be impossible to give the work anything but a formalist approach. The context these anonymous ballads were created in is there for unimportant as we physically cannot explore the contextual details. So too is this the case for many other works, particularly from the Middle Ages. However, the formalist argument extends beyond this; it is not simply concerned with identifying literature but understanding it. The less we know about the context a piece of literature is created in, the more ambiguous and so more personal to the reader it becomes as they are able to take their own view on it. A good piece of literature, or so a formalist believes, should be transcendent of time highlighting universal themes making context therefore, irrelevant – the reader can gain their own interpretation from a ‘good’ piece of literature which doesn’t represents human existence rather than a period.

This idea is deepened in Roland Barthes’s essay, “The Death of the Author”, which suggests that the meanings of a literary text should come from only the readers’ own interpretations. Any knowledge of the author remains completely irrelevant as “to give a text an author is to impose a limit on that text” and prevent the reader from making the piece their own. A piece of work does not belong to the author, they have been influence by others before them and no work is purely their own, “the birth of the reader” he concludes “must be at the cost of the death of the Author”.  To Barthes and formalists alike, context is not only unimportant to the interpretation of literature, but actually detrimental. With no contextual or authorial knowledge a piece can belong to each reader rather than the simple property of the creator just like many paintings can belong to the viewer rather than the artist.

However, while Barthes may share the formalists’ vision of free interpretation, he does suggest that, unlike the universal truths formalists believe in, an author is always a product of his time; the author “can only imitate a gesture that is always anterior, never original”. This idea is much closer to that of new historicists who argue “We are the only ones who are willing to admit that all knowledge is contaminated, including even our own”. Historicism, in its broadest context, argues that all literature is a product of its age and the meaning of a text can only be discovered by fitting it around other discourses from the same period. Often associated with Marxist and other political theory, historicism does not study literature simply to see how ‘good’ it is like formalism, but concerns itself with what the literature tells us about the contextual society relates it to different events; “historicism is the view that literature is not for all time, but of an age” states Laurence Lerner. While formalism is purely intrinsic in its approach to a text, the extrinsic approach of historicism “considers the job of criticism to move from the text outwards to some other…object or idea” revolving around social, political and cultural themes. The approach therefore widens what literature is; while formalists judge strict literary work on its aesthetic value, historicism “practises a mode of study in which literary and non-literary texts are given equal weight and constantly inform or interrogate each other”. Therefore, Darwinian pieces on the evolution of man could be compared alongside Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in order to gain a deeper understanding of the Victorian age by a historicist with neither being favourable over the other in worth.

Perhaps the biggest advantage of looking at a piece from a historicist or indeed any extrinsic viewpoint is the understanding one can gain. While it may leave less room for interpretation, complex or unnerving ideas in a piece become more comprehendible through contextual exploration. For example, The Caucasian Chalk Circle by Bertolt Brecht may seem somewhat absurd on a purely intrinsic view due to Brecht’s theory of performance (creating the ‘Verfremdungseffekt’) and his political beliefs both tuned in to the play text. As a Marxist, Brecht wanted to rouse his audience in to communist ideals and so constructed his work in a way to achieve this. Knowing the contextual political climate of 1944 in America where Brecht wrote the play as well knowledge of Brecht’s own ideas gives the play its resonance particularly as Brecht was not concerned with creating emotional attachment with his audience. And similarly, the feminist socialist writer Caroyl Churchill’s work feels somewhat irrelevant out of the midst of the Thatcher years. It was undoubtedly a successful exploration in to the time but by formalist standards, it is not good literature as it has lost relevance in needing its contextual setting to be understood.

Perhaps what begins to become apparent from these ideas is the importance of context in how one views a text. Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, for example, would have been viewed particularly bold to a degree we cannot imagine in our society and without knowing the context the book was written, a reader would not be able to understand this level of the text. The difference in an extrinsic and intrinsic reading is indeed often quite staggering. Historicist Nicolas Roe looks at Keats’ ‘To Autumn’ with a dark, unpleasant view of the poem with his relation to dark religious imagery from the context, this is compared to the subjective glory of “Keats’s truest imagination” gained by Christopher Ricks intrinsically. The “dreadful, sanguinary ‘last oozings’” of the winepress are compared to blood and ghosts from Revelation 14 in Roe’s study while Ricks comments on the way the imagery “delights” the reader. It seems ironic that such different opinions could be made from the same poem but behind pleasant imagery and language, it appears one can find dark and unpleasant undercurrents.

This and the other comparisons show context is imperative in determining the meaning of a literary text, not in the way that extrinsic readers believe but in the idea that were the same text looked at intrinsically and extrinsically, the outcome can be completely different. Some pieces can remain valid looked at in either way, Keats’s ‘To Autumn’ an example yet others could not be at all relevant outside their contextual stories. “It is in literature…that our self-images are fashioned with the greatest complexity and where exploration of the constitutive images of moral and social life is most obvious”; it can be from literature that we learn or that we help others to learn. In ignoring context, a piece can develop many meanings each untoward to the reader; however for some pieces context is important to gain a true sense of the piece. It is possible to develop meaning from literature without context, but context can still be used on the same piece to create a different outcome. It is important to explore context, but not vital.




Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002.

Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author”. From Image, Music, Text. (Accessed from University of Westminster Blackboard)

Culler, Jonathan. Literary Theory A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Eaglestone, Robert. Doing English. (2nd Ed) Oxon: Routledge, 2008.

Graham, Gordon. Philosophy of The Arts: An Introduction to Aesthetics. (3rd Ed). Oxon: Routledge, 2007.

Ricks, Christopher. Keats and Embarrassment. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976.

Roe, Nicolas. John Keats and the Culture of Dissent. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997.

Dean, William. “The Challenge of New Historicism”. 1986 (accessed from JSTOR, 21 April, 2009).

Lerner, Laurence. “Against Historicism”. 1993 (accessed from JSTOR, 21 April, 2009).

Moore, Arthur K. Formalist Criticism and Literary Form. 1970. (accessed from JSTOR, 21 April 2009).

Myers, D. G. “The New Historicism in Literary Studies”. <> (accessed on 21 April, 2009)

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