Literature is part of our cultural heritage, and that can enrich everyone's lives in many ways. Literary works can be entertaining, beautiful, funny, tragic, informative or meaningful. They take us beyond the limited experience of our lives to show us the lives of others, giving us experiences we may not face in our own lives. It leads us intellectually and emotionally, and deepens our understanding of our history, society and our individual lives. This connection between people and literature works both ways: as literature affects people, people affect literature. History plays a fundamental role in shaping literature: every novel, play or poem one reads is influenced by the political context in which it is written, the people that the author knows and the wider society that frames the entire work. How can we even consider reading literature without understanding the work through its historical context?
Roland Barthes, in The Death of the Author, acknowledges that an author is always a product of his time: the author 'can only imitate a gesture that is always anterior, never original'. Historicism argues that literature is a product of its age and the meaning of a text can only be discovered by fitting it around other discourses from the same period. The author writes only what he or she has learnt from that particular time in history, and the messages their work conveys are inextricably linked to the society in which it is written. Literature tells us about contextual society, widening what literature is: while formalists judge strict literary work on its aesthetic value, historicism results in literary and non-literary texts being given equal weight, unbiased and aware of all aspects surrounding a work. Consequently, Darwinian pieces on evolution may be compared alongside Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in order to gain a deeper understanding of the Victorian age.
One can gain a much wider and deeper understanding through looking at a piece from a historicist perspective. Although this may leave a little less room for interpretation, contextual exploration allows one to comprehend certain ideas that may not have been clear if one did not consider the time in which the text was written. For example, how can we fully read, examine and appreciate Orwell's works, such as Animal Farm and 1984, without considering the extreme political events that shaped twentieth-century society and Orwell's ideology? The allegory of Animal Farm is rendered pointless without considering Russia before and during the Stalin era, and any reading of 1984 is enhanced by an understanding of the politics of Europe and Orwell's personal experiences in Spain. Similarly, the feminist socialist writer Caroyl Churchill’s work feels somewhat irrelevant without the context of the Thatcher years. It was undoubtedly a successful exploration of the time, however, by formalist standards, we should disregard it as bad literature as it has lost relevance in needing its contextual setting to be understood.
In great writing from the past we find ancestors, and we not only see the country and the people as they were, but we also soak up the climate of the times through the language, characters, tones and settings. Chaucer is a brilliant social commentator, and his works provide one of the reliable sources of knowledge of medieval society that we have. Through it, we learn a lot about the estates in medieval society. If we were to read The Canterbury Tales from a purely formalist viewpoint, we would disregard this rich source of art and knowledge.
Literature allows us to understand the political, cultural and philosophical movements and ideas that dominated particular cultures at a particular times. In Shelley's Frankenstein, for example, we learn about the trepidation concerning man's overreaching ambition and the battle between science and nature that dominated Victorian Britain. This alone should prove that context is imperative in determining the meaning of a literary text. When one ignores context, one many completely disregard a particular influence or aspect of the text and consequently the true sense of the piece will be missed. It is possible to develop meaning from literature without context, but context can still be used on the same piece to create a different outcome. It is important to explore context, but not necessarily vital.