The Importance of Historical Context

Library of Congress

Historical context refers to the moods, attitudes, and conditions that existed during a certain time. Context is the "setting" for an event that occurs, and the elements, conditions, and characteristics of this specific time will have an impact on the relevance of the event. Context is an important factor to consider when describing something in history.

Examples of Behavior & Speech and Historical Context

We can use a simple statement, taken from a moment in time, to understand the importance of historical context.

Consider this statement:

"Sally hid her hands behind her back and crossed her fingers before she answered."

This statement sounds innocent enough in the context of today's society. It wouldn't raise much of a response to read this in a book published in 2010.

Now imagine that you are reading this statement from a transcript of court documents in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692. Religious fervor was at an extreme, and villagers were nearly obsessed with the devil and witchcraft. For a young woman to tell a lie was fodder for hysteria and violent reaction. A reader would assume that poor Sally was a candidate for the gallows!

Another example:

Imagine you're reading a letter from a woman containing this sentence:

"My daughter will be heading for California shortly after she marries."

How much information does this statement give us? Not much, until we look at the date. When we discover that the letter was written in 1849, we realize that one sentence can sometimes say a lot!

A young woman heading for California in 1849 might be following her husband on a treacherous treasure-seeking expedition for the gold rush. This mother would be quite fearful for her child, and she would know that it would be a very long time before she'd see her daughter again, if ever!

The time period, prior events, and attitudes of any given time will impact any topic you study.

Historical Context in Literature

You'll be required to read many classic literature books over the years. It will always be important to take into account the time period that you are reading about. Great works of literature become great because they tell compelling stories while sending a hidden message of some sort in the form of a theme.

The theme of a book is often a lesson about life or some statement about life. Themes can be claims that you may or may not agree with, for example:

  • Physical beauty is temporary 
  • War is tragic
  • Humans are good at heart
  • Humans are naturally cruel at heart 

As you read a book for an assignment, you should educate yourself on the time period of the story. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein cannot be fully appreciated by a reader who is unaware of the romanticism that took place and the disillusionment that followed in the nineteenth century.

Similarly, a reader must know a little about the American Civil War period before reading The Red Badge of Courage and a little about the institution of slavery before reading Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Otherwise, it is easy to miss the full meaning of the texts.