What is context?
Context is the preceding and succeeding circumstances of an event, statement, idea, person or place. These circumstances often have a direct or indirect effect upon the subject in question. Therefore, it is reasonable to say that all things are shaped by context in one way or another.
Why is it useful?
While context is a fascinating concept in itself, as the reader of this resource your question is naturally this - how does context help me with HSC English?
As a student of English your task is to understand how ideas can be expressed through various forms. Analyzing these ideas through deconstructing textual techniques and features specific to that form is how an essay is written. However, the question of where do these ideas come from leads one to the concept of context.
Whether it be a war, cultural dance or political regime, composer's seek to take inspiration from and comment upon the world around them. It therefore makes sense to mention these pieces of context in your essay, even if they are not explicitly contained within the text. This is because they are the primary factors in forming the ideas which you are seeking to write about in your essay.
Fundamentally, if you can link the influence that context has on a composer's way of thinking and the ideas present in a text, your response will become not only more sophisticated, but more profound in its meaning.
Remember, over 65,000 students sit HSC English each year - your response has to stand out somehow.
Types of context
There are two ways in which to dissect context. The first is to consider the personal context of the composer, the context in which the text was produced and the context in which the text is set. The second method is to view context through a more categorical lens i.e. political, social, cultural and literary influences. Between the two is a large amount of crossover, yet it is beneficial to learn the difference. This is because HSC questions can focus on any type of context and being able to choose the relevant pieces of information will be crucial in an exam. Both frameworks are explained in respective tables below:
|Type of Context||Explanation||Example|
|Composer's Context||This is the personal context of the composer - the world in which they were directly related to and effected by. Often pieces of information mentioned include family relationships, places of living, traumatic events, daily occupation and significant people.||Judith Wright, a poet whose work is prescribed in Standard Module C, is a composer who has an intense relationship with nature. She often writes intimately about where she lives and shares personal grievances, apprehensions and joy through the metaphor of nature.|
|Background Context||Background context is the general socio-economic-political climate during the composer's life. These are often responsible for the underlying themes in the text and can be either explicitly or implicitly represented.||If you were studying the works of Shakespeare and Al Pacino in Advanced Module A, examining the attitudes to masculinity and religion in contrasting contexts would be essential. Contextual influences such as providentialism and secularisation arise as relevant examples that can be mentioned in an essay.|
|Textual Context||In some cases, composers choose to set their texts in different contexts to when they were conceived. This forces the responder to research the relevant context while also considering why the composer chose this setting.||In the Common Module, Anthony Doerr's novel 'All the Light We Cannot See' (2014) is set during World War II. The chaos and death which surrounded France during this time provides the perfect juxtaposition to the piercing clarity and humanity of Marie-Laure LeBlanc.|
|Type of Context||Explanation||Example|
|Political||Political context relates to the governing institute which the composer lived under or that which is represented in the text.||In the Common Module, 1984' by George Orwell (1949) is a dystopian vision of the future. Many parallels can be drawn to the Second World War which Orwell just lived through, especially the concerns of unprecedented state control.|
|Cultural||Cultural context is what makes up a group of people - their song, dance, sport, fashion, literature etc.||Within Standard Module A, Rachel Perkins' film 'One Night the Moon' seeks to reveal how the culture of Indigenous people, particularly their connection with the land, is undervalued by white settlers. The history of culture clash between these two groups is immense and extends to modern examples such as the work of William Stanner and the 'Change The Date' campaign.|
|Social|| Social context is the norms and mores which determine a society and thus influence how a text is both produced and received. |
Changes in social context can lead to shifts in the perception of both the value and meaning of a text. Conversely, the continuity of certain social values can highlight the timelessness of a text.
|The poetry of T.S. Elliot expounds the emptiness and hopelessness which had begun to engulf society in the late 18th to early 19th century. Yet recently, a renaissance in appreciation for modernism and Eliot has taken hold as people realise the effects of personal technological devices (such as TVs, smartphones and computers) and the threat of self-inflicted extinction (global nuclear warfare). This is seen within Advanced Module B.|
|Literary||Literary context is a unique angle to consider. Composer's are often influenced by each other's work and so considering the similar contemporary texts of your chosen composer's context can be a worthwhile method to explain where certain ideas came from.||An example of this would be if you were studying Ray Bradbury's 'The Pedestrian' in Standard Module C. Researching the works and ideas of his contemporaries such as Issac Asimov and Ursula Le Guin would let you develop what were the central concerns to sci-fi of that time, such as anxieties surrounding artificial intelligence and space exploration. To extend on the Eliot example, he was shaped by his political and historical context, the First World War, which in turn shaped the literary movement of Modernism, of which Eliot was a pioneer. We can see, then, that different aspects of a composer's context can complement each other and help us gain a more wholistic understanding of the relationship between context, meaning, and language.|