The Importance of Historical Context in Analysis and Interpretation

"Evacuation day" and Washington's triumphal entry in New York City, Nov. 25th, 1783
Library of Congress

Historical context refers to the social, religious, economic, and political conditions that existed during a certain time and place. It is what enables us to interpret and analyze works or events of the past, rather than merely judge them by contemporary standards.

In literature, a sound understanding of the historical context behind a work's creation can give us a fuller appreciation of the narrative.

In analyzing historical events, context can help us understand what motivated people to behave as they did.

Put another way, context is what gives meaning to the details. Don't confuse context with cause. "Cause" is the action that creates an outcome; "context" is the environment in which that event occurs. 

Words and Deeds

Whether dealing in fact or fiction, historical context is important when interpreting behavior and speech. Consider the following sentence. Devoid of context, it sounds innocent enough:

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

But imagine that this statement comes from a transcript of court documents in Salem, Mass., 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.

Now, imagine you're reading a letter from a mother that contains this sentence:

"My daughter will be heading to 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 probably 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.

Historical Context in Literature 

No work of literature can be fully appreciated or understood without historical context. What may seem nonsensical or even offensive to contemporary sensibilities can be interpreted by considering the era it is from.

A good example is Mark Twain's "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," published in 1885. It is considered an enduring work of American literature and a biting social satire. But it is also criticized by modern critics for its casual use of a racial epithet to describe Huck's friend Jim, an escaped slave. Such language is shocking and offensive to many readers today.

But in the mid-1880s, when attitudes toward the newly liberated African-American slaves were often indifferent at best and hostile at worst, the casual use of such racial epithets wouldn't have been considered out of the normal. What is surprising given the historical context of when the novel was written is Huck's treating Jim not as his inferior but as his equal—something rarely portrayed in the literature of the time.

Similarly, Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" cannot be fully appreciated by a reader who is unaware of the Romantic movement that took place in art and literature in the early 19th century. It was a time of rapid social and political upheaval in Europe when lives were transformed by the technological disruptions of the Industrial Age. 

The Romantics captured the public's sense of isolation and fear that many experienced as a result of these social changes. "Frankenstein" becomes more than a good monster story, it becomes an allegory for how technology can destroy us. 

Other Uses of Historical Context

Scholars and educators rely on historical context to analyze and interpret works of art, literature, music, dance, and poetry. Architects and builders rely on it when designing new structures and restoring existing buildings.

Judges may use it to interpret the law, historians to understand the past. Any time critical analysis is required, you may need to consider historical context as well.