What Is A Historical Context And Can Texts Be Explained Or Enriched By Considerations Of Context?

1626 words - 7 pages

What is a historical context and can texts be explained or enriched by considerations of context?A definition of the phrase 'historical context' is the historical 'circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully evaluated and assessed'1. In looking at the historical context of literature there are different strains that can be looked at; such as the writer's context, the text's context, the readings context and the language context.2 When applied to literature, this way of reading clearly opens up a great deal of information to consider. As a result, certain movements of literary criticism are out rightly opposed to reading texts with attention to context.Cleanth Brooks, an American formalist critic of the twentieth century believed that; 'Speculation on the mental processes of the author takes the critic away from the work into biography and psychology'3. He ascertains that the work itself should be studied, not the creation of it; examining the author's life 'describes the process of composition, not the structure of the thing composed'4. In other words, biographical information is surplus to requirements and gets in the way of analysing the text for what it is.Roland Barthes (1915-1980) was one of the leading figures in French structuralism and in his landmark essay, 'The Death of the Author' (1968) he attacked the act of examining the author's intentions as a means of understanding the text more thoroughly, 'The image of literature to be found in ordinary culture is tyrannically centred on the author.'5 Barthes believed that to attain the 'ultimate meaning'6 , the biography and psychology of the author should be cast aside by the reader and the focus should instead be on the text, 'It is language that speaks not the author.'7However, only subscribing to Barthes' and Brooks' theories limits our choices as readers. Ralph Waldo Emerson believed, 'We read often with as much talent as we write'8, recognising the onus on the reader. He thought that the reader was integral to the interpretation of the text. Later, John Paul Sartre wrote, 'The operation of writing implies that of reading as its dialectical correlative and these two connected acts necessitate two distinct agents. It is the joint effort of author and reader which brings upon the scene that concrete and imaginary object which is the work of the mind...The author guides him' (the reader) but 'the reader must unite them; (the signifiers) he must go beyond them. In short, reading is creation.'9 Each reader recreates the text as it is read because no reading is ever the same. This makes readers active, vital participants in the reading process, rather than mere recipients of accepted ideas. If readers are creating new meanings, then logically this means that the text cannot contain any single fixed permanent meaning. So, despite such celebrated opponents to reading literature with contextual considerations, as a way of reading it is...

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