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Historical context is an important part of life and literature, and without it, memories, stories, and characters have less meaning. Historical context deals with the details that surround an occurrence. In more technical terms, historical context refers to the social, religious, economic, and political conditions that existed during a certain time and place. Basically, it's all the details of the time and place in which a situation occurs, and those details are what enable us to interpret and analyze works or events of the past, or even the future, rather than merely judge them by contemporary standards.
In literature, a strong understanding of the historical context behind a work's creation can give us a better understanding of and appreciation for the narrative. In analyzing historical events, context can help us understand what motivates people to behave as they did.
Put another way, context is what gives meaning to the details. It's important, however, that you don't confuse context with cause. Cause is the action that creates an outcome; context is the environment in which that action and outcome occur.
Words and Deeds
Whether dealing with fact or fiction, historical context is important when interpreting behavior and speech. Consider the following sentence which, devoid of context, sounds innocent enough:
"Sally hid her hands behind her back and crossed her fingers before she answered."
But imagine that this statement comes from a transcript of court documents in Salem, Mass., in 1692, during the famed Salem Witch Trials. Religious fervor was at an extreme, and villagers were nearly obsessed with the devil and witchcraft. At that time, if a young woman were to tell a lie, it was fodder for hysteria and a violent reaction. A reader would assume that poor Sally was a candidate for the gallows.
Now, imagine you're reading a letter from a mother that contains this sentence:
"My daughter will be heading to California shortly after she marries."
How much information does this statement give us? Not much, until we consider when it was written. Should we discover that the letter was written in 1849, we will realize that one sentence can sometimes say a lot. A young woman heading for California in 1849 might be following her husband on a treacherous treasure-seeking expedition for the gold rush. This mother would probably be quite fearful for her child, and she would know that it would be a very long time before she'd see her daughter again, if ever.Bettmann/Getty Images
Historical Context in Literature
No work of literature can be fully appreciated or understood without historical context. What may seem nonsensical or even offensive to contemporary sensibilities, might actually be interpreted in a completely different manner by considering the era it is from.
A good example is Mark Twain's "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," published in 1885. It is considered an enduring work of American literature and a biting social satire. But it is also criticized by modern critics for its casual use of a racial epithet to describe Huck's friend Jim, an escaped slave. Such language is shocking and offensive to many readers today, but in the context of the day, it was the commonplace language for many.
Back in the mid-1880s, when attitudes toward the newly liberated African-American slaves were often indifferent at best and hostile at worst, the casual use of such racial epithets wouldn't have been considered unusual. In fact, what is actually more surprising, given the historical context of when the novel was written, is Huck's treating Jim not as his inferior but as his equal-something rarely portrayed in the literature of the time.
Similarly, Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" cannot be fully appreciated by a reader who is unaware of the Romantic movement that took place in art and literature in the early 19th century. It was a time of rapid social and political upheaval in Europe when lives were transformed by the technological disruptions of the Industrial Age.
The Romantics captured the public's sense of isolation and fear that many experienced as a result of these social changes. "Frankenstein" becomes more than a good monster story, it becomes an allegory for how technology can destroy us.
Other Uses of Historical Context
Scholars and educators rely on historical context to analyze and interpret works of art, literature, music, dance, and poetry. Architects and builders rely on it when designing new structures and restoring existing buildings. Judges may use it to interpret the law, historians to understand the past. Any time critical analysis is required, you may need to consider historical context as well.
Without historical context, we are only seeing a piece of the scene and not fully understanding the influence of the time and place in which a situation occurred.