Relevant vs. Irrelevant Context in Literary Analysis
Literary texts are products of specific cultures and historical moments.
In literary analysis, it’s important to be able to distinguish between relevant and irrelevant context, because it impacts your ability to effectively analyze a text. The bottom line is that a literary text is best understood as a product of its own historical and cultural moment.
Beginners often expect to see the literature they read reflecting what they understand about themselves and their place in the world. They want a literary text to speak directly to them and their day-to-day concerns, and they can get irritated or bored with texts that are too alien to them. One of my most important jobs as a teacher of literature is to transition my students away from a self-centered interface with literature and toward an other-focused interface. That is, I try to get them to realize that their personal experiences aren’t always relevant context, and I try to convince them that it’s going to be useful to them to be able to inhabit multiple points of view.
At the most basic level, nearly every literary text expresses ideas about what it means to be an embodied human individual that is distinct from other individuals and the environment. Complications arise from the fact that there are so many different ways to exist — so many different ideas about what existence should mean and so many complications arising from our need or desire to coexist with others. As students of literature gain more experience, that human context that they thought was centered on their own sense of self explodes outward.
The most common error in judgment I witness students make is assuming that a word that they read in an old text means what it means to them today. Students are likely to think of “physic” as a misspelling of “psychic,” to think of a clown as a person with a painted-on smile and floppy shoes, or to think of “bigamy” as marriage to more than one person at once. Using a dictionary may not help, especially with older texts. A well-edited version of a text should give you working definitions for archaic or outdated usage, so even though it can be tedious and distracting, it’s important to read the marginal notes and footnotes if there are any.