Historical Context Definition

Historical Context

When reading a piece of literature, especially older works, it can be difficult to see the relevance in prose from our 21st century perspective. Older novels or poetry can use language or references that escape our understanding because the context of the words and their meaning are unknown to the reader. Historical context is an important thing to consider when reading written work – it can change or amplify the overall meaning of the subject and reveal information or perspectives we otherwise would have missed. Today we’ll go over examples of how historical context plays an important role in writing and reading comprehension. Let’s get started.

Historical context is the social, political, cultural, economic, and environmental situations that influence the events or trends we see happen during that time. Therefore, if we are unfamiliar with the traditions, culture, thinking, or events happening at any time in history, we could misinterpret or lose the meaning of a piece of writing we are reading. Effective ways to consider historical context in writing is to ask the following questions:

  • Who is the author?
  • When was it written?
  • Are there any references or languages you don’t understand? Could they be specific to the time period?
  • Were there any religious, cultural, political, or economic events happening at the time that could have influenced the writer and their piece?

Let’s delve a little further into this by looking at George Orwell’s classic Animal Farm.

If you’re unfamiliar with the book, it’s a story about how a group of farm animals rebel against their farmer and decide to run the farm on their own. The story proceeds with the newly independent animals trying to decide how to rule and who will rule the farm. After much drama, the story ends with the pig, named Napoleon, ruling as the dictator and the farm deteriorating back to the old squalid conditions from before they rebelled against the farmer.

To some, the description of this book might sound like a lively fictional tale or spinoff of a children’s cartoon. But when you take historical context into consideration, you’ll see this story is heavily influenced by events leading up to the Russian Revolution of 1917 and tensions with the Soviet Union, its allies, and the western world at the time. Many people, the English author included, had very polarized feelings about Soviet Russia’s leader Joseph Stalin in the 1940s when this was written. Because of this, not only did Animal Farm have a difficult time getting published, but it didn’t receive the popularity it has now until the Cold War.

Without historical context, it would be a long shot for readers to assume this novel was a critique on the rising political tensions between 1917 and 1946 with Russia and the rest of the world. However, knowing the historical context of when this was written and by whom, helps the reader to understand the context and bias from the author and why Orwell and the rest of the world would have such strong feelings as projected in the book.

Another example of historical context can be seen in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. This book, written in 1884, has been deemed as a satirical classic by many and was a sequel of another Mark Twain novel. However, many today have criticized the book for its depiction of African-Americans and the racist language used freely throughout it.

Again, historical context is important in analyzing writing like this. The end of slavery wasn’t officially enforced in every state in the U.S. until 1865, just 20 years before the book was written. Racial tensions were still very prevalent and open discrimination towards African-Americans was still common. Though many then found the book distasteful, it was not surprising for African-Americans to be depicted in unflattering ways or treated poorly in real life. Historical context gives the reader a clearer perspective on the thinking and culture taking place in 19th century America and why Huckleberry Finn was still seen as acceptable reading during the time.

Historical context can add the missing pieces to the puzzle when analyzing a written work. Knowing the history and circumstances that influence what is written adds more meaning to what we read. Don’t be afraid to do research and explore the context of what you read. Doing so can lead to a more rewarding and informative reading experience.

Thanks for watching, and happy studying!

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by Mometrix Test Preparation | Last Updated: October 24, 2019