Sunday, 6 May 2012

Context in Literature

by Fay Davies

In the study of English Literature, we rarely just read a poem or novel. Rather, we draw on external information to further our analyses. In many cases this might be the author's biography, the historical background of the text, and the links to other literary works. All sorts of things can be revealed about texts when we consider them within a wider scope. Yet, the average book reader will not research into the context of what they are reading, or make enlightening comparisons between other pieces of writing. It is crucial, therefore, that a text can exist as an isolated object, successful for what it is – the words on the page.

Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes provide a fine example of how a work can be appreciated alone and in relation to other factors. They have both published poems called 'The Rabbit Catcher'. It is widely accepted that Hughes' version, the later, is a kind of 'response' to the first; indeed, in his final stanza he references Plath's very act of writing: 'those terrible, hypersensitive /Fingers of your verse'. Plath and Hughes were in fact married, and Plath's 'The Rabbit Catcher' tells of their relationship. She compares it to rabbit snares, 'tight wires between us'. Her husband's poem is an account of the time she ripped rabbit snares from the ground in a fury. More than this, it is a comment on Plath and their relationship, and reveals something of their differing attitudes. Where Plath's poem is intensely – oppressively – emotional, Hughes' is almost ruthlessly rational. Her plight, in his eyes, becomes trivialised: 'my own domestic drama'.

The relation between these poems allows the reader to witness two views of the same idea, delving deeper into the psyche of the poets. There is a symbiosis at work: a question and an answer. But of course, this is only one way of looking at the poems. Even if we knew nothing of their connection, it would not lessen the sickening pathos of 'Your doomed self, your tortured, crying, /Suffocating self' in Hughes' poem, for example. They are self-contained, and fantastic on their own. So do we need to know the context of the poems in order to fully understand them, or is our perception refreshingly unique without it? Essentially, how far does contextual knowledge distort or aid our analyses?

The French literary theorist Roland Barthes argued that we should not incorporate the intentions and biographical context of the author into our readings of a text. In his 1967 essay 'The Death of the Author', he wrote that 'to give a text an author is to impose a limit on that text'. Reports on the AQA English Literature B examinations reveal how an obsession with context can indeed limit and falsify our readings. For example, some of the Thomas Hardy poems on the syllabus are concerned with the death of his wife, Emma. Unfortunately, this particular contextual factor leads some readers to forcibly impose Emma onto every single one of his poems. A few of them were written before he met her – but this doesn't stop them. Having been taught of Emma's importance, we tend to read every word waiting for something to link to her, however tenuously. It becomes impossible to make arguments that are intelligent and original.

Occasionally, though, a text is reliant on external information. A few weeks ago I undertook the task of reading T.S. Eliot's 'The Waste Land'. Naively, I intended to form my own opinions of the poem, unspoiled by the interpretations of others and without any contextual knowledge. This method is known as practical criticism: the reader focuses simply on the words on the page, so as not to be swayed by preconceptions about a text. It was pioneered by the Cambridge critic I.A. Richards in the 1920s, and its position on the current English course of the University of Cambridge shows that it remains a highly valued way of reading. However, 'The Waste Land' proved not to be wholly compatible. The passages written in Greek, Latin and Sanskrit formed an unfortunate obstacle to my understanding, as did the multiple allusions to other literary works. As it happens, the text of the poem is usually followed by extensive pages of notes, in which Eliot explains the references to the works of Homer, Virgil, Shakespeare and multiple others. He also provides translations for the foreign phrases. I don't, therefore, believe 'The Waste Land' to be an utterly self-contained poem. Although much of it can be read without issue, extensive contextual information is required to fully make sense of the text. Context becomes an integral part of the work itself. In some ways, this is what defines it: a 'wasteland' of literary fragments.

A closely related issue, which Barthes addresses in his essay, is how far we should try to observe what the author intended. Like context, it is simply another method of understanding a text – and can indeed restrict our interpretations. At the time of reading, all that exists is the unique, transitory relationship of the reader to the text, and the author's intentions are subordinate to this. In fact, once the text is written it is arguable that the author diminishes into insignificance. All that remains is their legacy: the particular message that, through their work, they have imprinted on the world. A study of context can help us to find new angles, gain insight into the psychology of the author and give the work historical relevance. But it is always optional: inferior to the actual words on the page. Sometimes we are restricted by what is external to the text, and it becomes impossible to go beyond it.  

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