Cultural Contexts in Literature: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:04 Literature & Culture
  • 0:39 My Antonia & The Early…
  • 1:14 The Novel
  • 2:02 The Culture
  • 2:44 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Damon Barta

Damon has taught college English and has an MA in literature.

This lesson discusses the significance of cultural context in interpreting works of literature. It provides a notable example of American literature, Willa Cather's novel ''My Ántonia'' (1918) that reflects the particular concerns of the novel's place and time.

Literature & Culture

Books are written by individuals, but they are also influenced by that individual's society. Therefore, it is important to consider a work's cultural context. Culture can refer to the beliefs, customs, values, and activities of a particular group of people at a particular time. Objects produced by a given culture express these values in both overt and unconscious ways. Works of literature are particularly good indexes of these values, in that they often engage the culture in depth. Let's look at an example of a famous literary work that illustrates this engagement.

My Ántonia & Early Twentieth-Century American Culture

Willa Cather's novel, My Ántonia, was written in the United States in 1918. It depicts the youth of Jim Burden and his Czech friend Ántonia in rural Nebraska. The novel relates a nostalgic picture of the developing friendship of the two, their separation, and their reunion. It also contains themes of belonging and nationality that resonate with ideas about immigration and race that were of great concern to Americans in the early twentieth century. Cather's novel tells a very personal story of loss and remembrance that relies on her imagination, but it also responds to the time and place in which she created it.

The Novel

For example, Cather describes a rural community in which various immigrants have settled and into which they attempt to varying degrees to integrate as they make their living in their new home. Her depictions of these immigrants reflect perceptions of these immigrants in two ways: Cather, aware of a suspicion of certain immigrants, particularly Czechs, seems to deliberately portray them as hardy and industrious people who make good Americans.

On the other hand, Cather describes other groups of immigrants and African Americans in less flattering terms. While it's likely that Cather meant to counter Americans' negative attitudes towards Czechs, she may not have meant to denigrate these other kinds of Americans. Both her conscious responses to national attitudes about immigrants, race, and America, and her unconscious ones are easier to interpret if we have cultural context.

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