Why context is important in studying literature

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Many students reading the course objectives on their own or with their professors during the first day of literature classes tend to dismiss the overarching importance of context.  It is a key aspect of learning literature, apart from studying craft and style and making elaborate guesses on that elusive meaning or insight.

It’s often a clear understanding of context that allows great literature to truly open up to us, as well as be both effective and affective.  As we accept that a writer’s socio-political, economic, and even simple geographical situations play a huge part in the power and impact of a literary piece, the richer our experience of the work becomes.

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It all boils down to interdisciplinarity.  No literary work exists without being driven by the writer’s context.  And context is informed by such factors as history, setting, and political climate.  For example, the Nobel Prize-winning Chilean poet Pablo Neruda is not merely a writer of love sonnets, but a former senator and exiled writer.  His works display a huge shift from the romantic notions of his childhood years to deeply human musings on poverty, displacement, and the plight of the maltreated, which manifest in latter collections like Canto General.

All in all, if literature is to be best understood, students must go beyond a pure analysis of craft and content.  While these are universal concerns, it’s equally important to know where one work is literally and figuratively coming from, as context ultimately makes any critique of the piece more generous and complete.

Hello, I’m John Eilermann, a St. Louis, Missouri-based student currently pursuing a degree in Comparative Literature.  The cross-disciplinary approach of the program enables students to take courses in philosophy, politics, and culture, while intersecting literature with history.  More of my writings here.

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