Cultural context means the world of the text, the setting that the characters inhabit. However, it is much more than just the geographical location. It also includes the attitudes and values of that society, as well as the customs, traditions and habits. Things to consider include:
1. The society itself:
- Are there strong class divisions in that society? Is there a large gap between rich and poor?
- What gives people power in that society? Is it acquired through hard work and initiative or is power obtained through family status, wealth, politics etc.?
- What kind of work do people participate in? Are they traditional low skilled and low paid jobs or is there a wide arrange of employment opportunities available? How valued is education in society?
- What is the role of men in society? Do they have basic traditional roles or do they contribute more to both their families and society? Do they occupy some or all of the positions of power in the society?
- What is the role of women in society? Are they restricted to the typical tasks of rearing children and keeping a home, or do they have the freedom to participate more in the external workplace? How much power and influence do they have in wider society?
- What kind of family structure do we see in the society? Is it very traditional or are a variety of different family structures apparent? Are dysfunctional families rare or typical of that society? How are children and young people treated?
- Is violence a big part of the cultural context? Is it so common as to be socially acceptable? What effect does it have on the character’s lives?
- What kind of social rituals do the people in the society engage in? Do they revolve around leisure activities or are they based around religion?
- How big a role does religion play in society. Is it a multi-faith society or does one religion dominate? Perhaps there is a strong secular (non-religious) aspect to that society. How much influence does religion and religious figures have over the lives of the characters in the text?
- Is race an important factor in the society? Are people all of the one race or are there different races living in that world? How well integrated are they? Is racism an issue?
*It is important to remember that these points are just some of the possible aspects of the various cultural contexts that you will find in your texts. There are many others that you might also encounter and go on to write about in your exam. The key is to find and analyse aspects of the cultural contexts that are important to at least two of the text that you have studied. This will give you a good basis to answer any exam question. Each aspect can become a paragraph/point in your answer.
2. The effect of the cultural context on the lives of the central characters
- What kind of influence does the society and its expectations or values have on the characters lives? Is it positive or negative? Does it inhibit the development of their individual personalities and lives, or does the character thrive within that cultural context? What restrictions are there for a character living in that world? How does the cultural context influence what happens to the character? How does the cultural context influence what has become of the character(s) by the end of the text? Are there differences in how characters respond to their society?
3. How the cultural context is established by the author
- What is the setting for the narrative? What kind of descriptions/shots are there of the way people live their lives? Is the narrative set in a significant location or at a particularly important or relevant point in history? What is happening in the background as the plot develops?
- The role of the plot in the narrative. Does what happens in the story tell us a lot about the type of cultural context that exists? How is the conflict resolved? Is the outcome influenced by the cultural context?
- The opening section of the narrative might be important in helping the reader to get a sense of what the cultural context of the text is like.
- The role of the various characters in giving the reader a sense of the cultural context. Their ambitions/ expectation and how their lives develop can tell us a lot about the cultural context.
- Language and imagery are often used by the author to give us a sense of the cultural context of the text. In a film, the backgrounds of the scenes, as well as the costumes, may play a role in establishing the cultural context of the text. Sound effects might also be used. The author of a novel might similarly describe backgrounds and clothes in a way that gives us a sense of the cultural context of a text..
4. What is your personal response to the cultural context?
- What were your initial feelings about the world of the text? What were your feelings by the end? Is it a place that you would like to live? Why/ why not? Did it make you appreciate your own cultural context? How did you feel about the expectations for men/ women?
- How different was the cultural context of the text to modern Irish society? Are there any parallels? Did studying the cultural context make you appreciate your own or were there values and traditions that you admired?
- How were the values of that society different to your own?
- Did you feel that studying the cultural context helped you appreciate the text more? In what way?
* It is, of course, essential to have prepared at 2-3 key moments for each text that you feel really highlight the cultural context.