Why Study Literature in Context?
Why study literature in the context of art, music, history, and worldview?
Context — the history, art, and music related to a particular piece of literature — helps to bring a book to life and make it more understandable, especially if the book was written in a different time, place, or culture.
It isn’t hard to enter whole-heartedly into a novel set in a familiar geographical location and in one’s lifetime, but it can be a challenge to cross centuries and understand all that was going in Antigone, Hamlet, or even Pride and Prejudice. Study literature in context, and suddenly the unfamiliar becomes familiar, and you are able to see or hear what the author or characters might have heard in their lifetime.
When you see, hear, and read about some of the art, music, and historical events that were happening as the author wrote, you are likely to better understand what inspired the story and characters. As we are reminded in the Handbook for Writers, each of the academic disciplines is connected with all the others.
Developing intelligent comparisons between different works is one of the great tools of criticism, informed discussion, and cultural enrichment. Learning to develop such comparisons will also help to remind us that just because we have finished with one work and are moving on to another, that is no reason for setting the first one aside. As we progress through Liberal Studies, English, and Theology or Philosophy courses, we are continuing and enriching a life-long conversation with and about our culture, a process which will include more and more material for comparison and argumentative discussions.
(From the Excellence in Literature Handbook for Writers* by Johnston and Campbell, Section 10.2)
* At 400+/- pages, the Handbook includes detailed instructions for crafting arguments and writing essays, as well as a basic style and usage guide. It is designed to be useful for both teacher student and teacher all the way through high school and into college. The Handbook is available as a print book, ebook, and print/ebook bundle. Read more about it on the Handbook for Writers page.
Another resource you might find helpful: The Excellence in Literature curriculum provides a complete five-year classic literature and writing curriculum for grades 8-12. It’s self-directed and college prep, and it will introduce you to books that you’ll remember for life. EIL teaches literature in context and students can jump in at almost any level.