After you’ve given a straight answer to the question in your thesis statement (if you’re confused about this, read the last blogpost about it here), English markers often like to see something relevant about context. It just shows that you know some stuff about the text that didn't come from Shmoop.
Three types of context
Historical context – Stuff the text takes from current events, culture, or society
Literary context – Stuff the text takes (or rejects) from trends in literature and art
Personal context – Stuff the text takes from the writer’s life
What is context NOT?
1. Telling them random historical trivia
2. Flashing buzzwords about genre or, God help us, ‘postmodernism’ around the place
3. Telling us about the writer’s private life
Like everything else in an essay, you should only put it in if it’s relevant. Keep everything else for a Pub Trivia Night / impressing undergraduate girls.
1. Here’s the question we were looking at:
Through the telling and receiving of stories, we become more aware of ourselves and our shared human experiences.
Explore this statement with close reference to your prescribed text.
2. Here’s the thesis statement for two possible texts:
In Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice several characters tell stories of oppression in order to convey the unique experience of a life, and also to show what elements of life are common in a community.
In Arthur Miller's The Crucible the act of storytelling is used to reveal the core values of the main characters, and to reflect how these values remain constant over time - for good and ill.
3. Pretty obviously, something about social and cultural values from the 1600s (for Shakespeare) or the 1950s (for Miller) is going to be relevant. Stuff about literary ideas of comedy (for Shakespeare) or political allegory (for Miller) is also going to be relevant. The fact that Queen Elizabeth had a Jewish doctor probably isn’t very relevant. Nor is the fact that Miller was (kind of) Jewish. If you brought these in (in a 40 minute essay) you’d be in danger of going really off-track.
Here’s a good rule of thumb for relevance: If you can relate your next sentence to a specific phrase in your previous sentence, it’ll likely relate. If not, drop it.
4. OK, here’s an example of a thesis statement + context for 1984
In Orwell’s 1984, attempts to tell stories lead Winston to understand how broken and distorted his experience of being human really is, and how the Party deliberately undermines the basis of shared human experience for the purpose of control. The novel reflects contemporary dictatorships which used ordinary people’s desire for stability and direction; Russia, Germany, Italy, Spain (in which Orwell fought), and Japan all used people’s preference for political simplicity to destroy the shared humanity of those under their control.
And for Past the Shallows
Favel Parrett’s Past the Shallows shows a boy attempting to reconstruct the story of his mother’s death and the reasons for his father’s cruelty to him, and in this attempt we see his growing awareness of the forces of masculine violence which have shaped his life, and what he shares with others in his community. Reflecting the power of rural poverty and violence to affect human experience, Parrett’s use of a fragmented and expressionistic style conveys how children shape narratives about their own, sometimes tragic, lives.
Geddit? Don't bring it to the party unless you can make it talk to the question.
Look at our sample answers to see great context statements in action