What It Is: And What It Isn’t
AQA make clear their ‘take’ on context which starts life in the DfE curriculum order of 2013: under the heading ‘reading comprehension and reading critically’ there are the following bullet points:
So we have context in its generally understood sense: ‘parts that precede and follow a word or passage and fix its precise meaning’ (OED) in other words its place in the scheme of things: and in the sense it has come to have in literary rubrics, ‘circumstances’. As described here by ‘social, cultural, historical’
It is the latter which is actually examined and is mainly the subject of this guide but at the same time it is important to remember a former, more general sense of the word which is a if not the critical part of reading, deciphering and responding to texts, especially unseen texts.
The golden rule is never to forget that we are dealing, always, with ways of responding to literary texts. There is no call for knowledge or information that is outside the text itself. Far too many candidates seem to believe that bolting on a paragraph here about the alleged history of any given period or a paragraph there about the writer’s early life will gain credit and can be a substitute for unremitting focus on the words on the page.
To take a straightforward example, consider this passage from Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck (copyright author, reproduced for educational purposes).
At that moment a young man came into the bunk house; a thin young man with a brown face, with brown eyes and a head of tightly curled hair. He wore a work glove on his left hand, and, like the boss, he wore high-heeled boots.
“Seen my old man?” he asked.
The swamper said, “He was here jus’ a minute ago, Curley. Went over to the cookhouse, I think.”
“I’ll try to catch him,” said Curley. His eyes passed over the new men and he stopped. He glanced coldly at George and then at Lennie. His arms gradually bent at the elbows and his hands closed into fists. He stiffened and went into a slight crouch. His glance was at once calculating and pugnacious. Lennie squirmed under the look and shifted his feet nervously. Curley stepped gingerly close to him.
“You the new guys the old man was waitin’ for?”
“We just come in,” said George.
“Let the big guy talk.”
Lennie twisted with embarrassment.
George said, “S’pose he don’t want to talk?”
Curley lashed his body around. “By Christ, he’d gotta talk when he’s spoke to. What the hell are you gettin’ into it for?”
“We travel together,” said George coldly.
“Oh, so it’s that way.”
George was tense and motionless. “Yeah, it’s that way.”
Lennie was looking helplessly to George for instruction.
“An’ you won’t let the big guy talk, is that it?”
“He can talk if he wants to tell you anything.” He nodded slightly at Lennie.
“We jus’ come in,” said Lennie softly.
Curley stared levelly at him. “Well, nex’ time you answer when you’re spoke to.” He turned towards the door and walked out, and his elbows were still bent a little.
George watched him out, and then he turned back to the swamper. “Say, what the hell’s he got on his shoulder? Lennie didn’t do nothing to him.”
The old man looked cautiously at the door to make sure no one was listening. “That’s the boss’s son,’ he said quietly.”
To understand and articulate the context we need to look closely at the text. Its place in the scheme of the book is that it is, as it were, Act Two Scene Two. It follows the awkward conversation with the boss who Candy insists is a ‘nice fella’’ and is followed by his warning about Curley and the entry of Curley’s wife into the bunkhouse.
This is very important but not, however, what will be directly rewarded by the mark scheme.
What will be rewarded, as above, is ‘show understanding of the relationships between texts and the contexts in which they were written.’
The scene presents a confrontation between the powerful (Curley, the boss’s son, established straightaway); and the powerless (the others who can be fired or worse without appeal or recourse of any kind.) This is not a familiar social context in the 21st century. We might want to note that Curley has not and does not expect to have authority or any kind of consent or agreement from the others: that is the role of Slim, elsewhere in the novel.
The confrontation is developed in the context of physical size (much more familiar) and the assumption of status (also, sadly, familiar.) Curley sees Lennie as a challenging potential victim whose defeat in a fight would be justified and bring him approbation because of the disparity in their physical sizes. We note that Curley wears ‘high heeled boots’ and we already have a detailed picture of Lennie’s physical dimensions.
The linguistic context then (and predictably for this novel) becomes one of animal predator and prey: Curley ‘stiffened and went into a slight crouch’. Lennie ‘squirmed’ and ‘twisted’ showing Curley’s instinct to bully and show off: and also perhaps the causes of that.
So that the atmosphere and context are ones of fear, anxiety, insecurity and inequality: and so on.
Whether or not that applied to John Steinbeck’s experience of farm work or his background or his married life is entirely irrelevant.
The context comes from the text.
Examiner Tip: there is no substitute for thorough reading in the examination: hasty reading will lead to superficial responses, which fail to establish the context of the passage appropriately.
Where It Fits: Generally and Specifically by Awarding Authority
Context, as implied above, is essential for informed reading in both the senses described.
Although we are primarily concerned with English Literature where it is described, quantified and rewarded it is also a key part of English Language where it is an element (if not the element) in deciphering unseen texts. All the set passages in each of the Board’s specimen papers require a thoughtful approach to the context in reading them carefully. All the Boards have somewhere in their comments on the specifications the injunction to use the context of the passage to work out/decipher/make an unfamiliar or obscure word or phrase.
In the Edexcel specification we get a sentence that stands for all four boards ‘Candidates should reflect critically and evaluatively on texts, use the context of the text and draw on knowledge and skills gained from wider reading.” Therein giving an important reminder of an essential element in the preparation for the examinations.
In English Literature each board examines social, cultural and historical context as Assessment Objective 3: ‘AO3’.
‘AO3 is the understanding of the relationship between the ideas in the text and the contexts of the text. The range of contexts and relationships that is most relevant as part of AO3 will depend on the text, the author and the task. In teaching and assessing AO3, teachers and students can consider context in a flexible way, depending on the text itself and whichever contexts are the most relevant for that particular text. These contexts may relate to the relationship between the text and the context in which it was written. However, the contexts may also relate to the context within which the text is set: location, social structures and features, cultural contexts, and periods in time. Context, where relevant, may also apply to literary contexts such as genres, and also the contexts in which texts are engaged with by different audiences, taking the reader outside the text, in order to inform understanding of the meanings being conveyed. Acknowledgement of the universality of a literary text is an integral part of relating to it contextually. Context is assessed throughout the paper. The strand in the mark scheme related to AO3 references ‘ideas/perspectives/contextual factors’. However, if a question requires a student to think about the text in its context, this is also reflected inherently through the response to task.’
In English Literature all Boards make the same point (because it comes from the DfE curriculum order quoted above) in slightly different ways. For example:
‘There are different kinds of or categories of context which affect authors’ work and the readers’ response to it. Teaching should include:
• the author’s own life and individual circumstances including the tone and place of writing only when they relate to the text
• the historical time, setting and location of the text
• its literary context; for example literary movements or genres
• the ways in which texts are received and engaged by different audiences at different times.
Examiner Tip: students should look for the context in terms of relating what they have been taught to what is actually said in the passage: don’t go outside what the passage raises, they don’t need to. A little of the right context goes a long way.
Examiners are instructed:
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