The Importance of Historical Context

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I’m often asked “Hey, what do you think of [insert book title] and why do your eyebrows look like two hairy caterpillars on meth?”.  I wish I had an answer to the second question, I really do. Regarding literature though, my answers are rarely that vague. If you want my honest opinion on any book/short story/poem/work of art, you will have to tolerate my historical, social and cultural analysis/summary of the historical time of the book. Once, somebody asked me my thoughts on Shakespeare’s Othello. In a parallel universe I’m still talking…

Historical context is a wonderful notion. You cannot read, understand, study or teach literature while ignoring history. Each novel or poem is a reflection of its time, it’s a mirror to the world (and I’m going to stop with the mirror analogy because I feel I just stepped into Oscar Wilde territory and I’m too sober for this…).

To understand how important the chapter “History” is (along with its sub-chapters “Wars”, “Assassinations” and “Misunderstandings that somehow caused War”), allow me to give you an excellent and extremely creative example: imagine that the novel/poem/work of art is a country. The history of the country is the climate. Scotland is Scotland because of its weather, its miserable, wet, wonderful weather. It makes sense to associate rain and gloom with Scotland, right? In the same way, it is impossible to separate the literary content from its historical context. At this point, I would like to pause and applaud myself for putting the words “content” and “context” in the same sentence. If you’re not applauding with me and, more importantly, for me, the joke’s on you, I do this every time I put together similarly sounding words!

There are some stories that cannot be told outside their historical frame, but there are also stories that have history on mute. The beauty of Shakespeare’s Richard II can only be understood if there is knowledge of the historical events of Shakespeare’s time. If we read the play as just King Richard’s story, then it’s the story of a King who gets betrayed, is reckless and gets murdered, basically what happens in EVERY.PLAY.BY.SHAKESPEARE. If we historically frame the play, however, Richard II is a powerful warning to Queen Elizabeth I and it sets the tone for the famous Essex Rebellion. By the way, I’m using Shakespeare for two reasons: his plays stand the test of time. Also, every English literature graduate is obliged by law to use Shakespeare in whatever we write. For instance, I wrote my dissertation on Dickens and I used Shakespearean references four times. I also somehow quoted the Tenth Doctor, but that’s a story for another time…

Why bother with history then? I want you people to enjoy your literature, but also conceptualize its specific place in history. As an example, let’s pretend that we’re in Victorian London, there is a hint of post-industrial, pre-colonial prosperity in the air, a funny chap named Dickens writes wonderful stories and war is a threat, but a distant one. And then, out of the blue, this bastard Darwin comes along and our religious belief system collapses to the ground. Also, this weird anatomist Huxley has made a name of himself. Suddenly, it’s okay to doubt God’s existence and believe in dinosaurs! Anarchy in the UK! Now that we have a historical background, we can take a look at two novels that span from the beginning to the end of the nineteenth century.

Frankenstein is a great example of how important historical context can be. Chronologically, Frankenstein is a late Romantic and early Victorian creation. In 1816 (when Mary Shelley started writing the story) Frankenstein could be read as a tale of post-romantic and pre-modern anxiety, an allegory of the struggle and failure of man to dominate nature. Frankenstein describes the then-current fascination with gothic knowledge, the tendency to question God and the romantic idea of individualism. If we place the story of Frankenstein in Renaissance England, for instance, I suppose the story would be completely different. Frankenstein would be a Faustian figure and the creature would be the physical embodiment of a demon sent to torture and hunt Victor. Today, Frankenstein would be an experiment gone wrong: Victor is a Tony Stark/Bruce Banner scientist who plays with his science toys and accidentally creates a psychotic robot who turns against him and humanity in general. So…basically…Age of Ultron

Another great example is H.G. Wells. Wells is the author of the The War of the Worlds, The Time Machine and The Island of Doctor Moreau. The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) is one of the creepiest books I’ve ever read (the movie is really different from the book, but I definitely recommend it just for the sake of seeing Marlon Brando give one of his most “I’ve really given up and I’m not paid enough money for this” performances). The story is this: Moreau performs cruel experiments on animals and plays God. It’s impossible to read The Island of Doctor Moreau without immediately thinking of late Victorian, fin-de-siècle anxiety. Moreau can play God all he wants, especially now that Nietzsche has declared that God is dead (although Darwin set the foundation for that declaration some decades ago). It makes sense for the late Victorians to feel uncertainty for the new century that is about to come. Moreau is a mad scientist, but Darwin was probably mad to them as well.

My favourite part of every literature class was the short historical introductory info the professor gave us before teaching each novel/poem. Let me make this clear: you should not separate history from literature. Essentially, every literature class is also a history class. Try to alienate a book from its historical time. The book simply changes. Now, I’m not referring to books like Harry Potter, where there is sufficient fictional world building within the book. The Lord of The Rings is a very different story, as history helps explain the allegorical nature of Tolkien’s trilogy. Even today, historical context is important. Post-apocalyptic and society-collapses scenarios are on the rise (Hunger Games, Divergent etc.) and they definitely reflect the general social and political consensus of our time. So, I assume that five years ago when the hottest trend was vampires, we were going through our neo-gothic phase…

The point of this article (although I’m pretty sure so many of you are thinking “this is pointless, please stop”) is this: technically, you can read a book while ignoring the history behind it, but just because you can doesn’t mean that you should. Next time you get your hands on, say, a novel by D. H. Lawrence, spend five minutes to google him and what was happening in the world when he wrote the book you’re about to read. The worst thing that can happen is that you learn something new, for instance, did you know that D.H. Lawrence was obsessed with simultaneous orgasms? Yup, you probably didn’t need to know that, but you kind of need to be aware of the political and social conditions of the three first decades of the 1900s, so that you can appreciate Lady Chatterley’s Lover for its political message rather than its borderline pornographic content.

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