Since ancient times, scholars have sought to understand literature as a form of art. Philosophers have propounded theories from different angles and perspectives, wanting to capture the essence of good literature.
It is interesting that much of the theoretic groundwork has not changed much since ancient times; Aristotle is still a standard reference in literary theory. Traditionally, literary theorists have followed two main directions: those who want to see the text in its socio-cultural context, and those who want to understand a text by an isolated and in-depth study. Both directions have their devoted followers among scholars and literary critics. It is, however, not possible to discard one theory in favour of the other; they may both be adequate approaches to studying and understanding literature.
The Socio-Cultural Perspective
A literary text does not emerge on its own accord. Even though the text is an independent work of art, the writer is there somewhere in or behind his text. Hence, to comprehend the universe of a novel or a play, one has to take in the full picture – the writer’s personal frame of mind and his contemporary cultural environment. The idea behind a text comes through the author’s personal experience or emotional sensation. In a blunt way, it may be correct to claim that all literature is about the author himself. So if we want to understand his work, we must understand the writer. If we look at e.g. Dickens or Hemingway, this seems to be an applicable approach; these two authors are very much present in their works. Without his reporting practice and experiences from the court of law, Dickens probably would not have been able to create his literary universe of ordinary people victimised by political misrule and aristocratic foolishness. And Hemingway’s affinity to hunting, weapons and death is clearly reflected in his literature. The same goes for Mark Twain, whose childhood experiences along the Mississippi river and his own career as a pilot on the river gave him material for his great books. Like everybody else, the writer is a child of his times. What separates him from other people is his talent for transforming the elements that formed him into literature; that is – to put his own identity on paper.
The Text Perspective
Once the text has left the author, it is dead until its universe comes alive in the encounter with the reader. The full appreciation of a literary text is completely separated from its social context and its creative process. The only thing that matters is how the reader responds to the literary universe the text unfolds. The author has absolutely nothing to do with the way his work is perceived by the reader. The writer has done his bit; the rest is up to you. To fully understand and appreciate a literary work, one must study it carefully and read it over again to grasp all the details in technique, composition, atmosphere, and structure. It is essential to understand how the text works on you as a reader, and why it works like that. To achieve this, the reader must wear blinkers to block out possible disturbing elements that can come between him and the text, such as e.g. the author, his background, and the social circumstances around the writing process. The point is not to try and find the writer’s intention with his work or his thematic focus. It is like observing an abstract painting – the point is not what the painter has meant it to look like; the point is what it looks like to you. This isolated or vertical study opens up for the personal experience that reading actually is: a private affair between text and reader.
To make the point, these two perspectives are presented in a somewhat extreme manner. It is, in fact, quite possible to support both aspects, because one of them does not rule out the other. To some extent, it is important to be aware of the cultural background of a literary work. For example, when one reads feminist literature from the last half of the 19th century (e.g. Kate Chopin or Amalie Skram), it is important to know a bit about the status of women in society at the time. And some information about the social conditions in Victorian England may enhance the understanding and appreciation of Charles Dickens. One may still read the text vertically and cherish all its literary qualities; because at the end of the day, what counts is how the text comes alive in the mind of the reader.
- Which of the two directions do you think works best for an understanding of a literary text?
- What does it mean that "the writer is a child of his times"?
- What is meant by "vertical" as opposed to "horizontal" reading?
- Follow the link and read what the old philosophers Plato and Aristotle said about the nature of good literature. Old Ideas Still Rule Compare with the information in this article. Are their theories relevant today?
- Can you think of other examples where knowledge of the writer's socio-cultural background is important for the understanding of his text?
- Follow the links and read more about the life and times of Ernest Hemingway Charles Dickens and Mark Twain