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How Important is the Knowledge of a Works Historical content in Understanding it?

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How Important is the Knowledge of a Works Historical content in Understanding it? Eco, Umberto, ' Interpretation and Overinterpretation' 1992 This book is a debate between Eco and three of the best-known names in philosophy, literature and criticism. They mainly concentrate on what the title suggests: weather the criticism of literature has gone too far; however there are a lot of very good and valid points throughout the book about the historical background to a text in relation to understanding it. Eco, who writes the majority of the chapters, tends to go along with the idea that a text can be over interpreted, and in making this point he also makes it clear that he believes a text and its historical context should remain separate. There is in fact a general agreement between the four, Jonathan Culler does argue both ways but seems to conclude in the same way as the others, that New Criticism is the correct way to analyse a book; not so much because everybody should make up their own minds about a book without the help (or hindrance) of history, but because of the fear that to go into the history behind the book might also be to over interpret it. Bennett, Andrew and Nicolas Royle, 'An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory', 1999 (110-121) ...read more.


Central Argument: To start with I will concentrate on how the background knowledge to a text can help the reader understand the piece better, and that the knowledge of the authors lifestyle, age and era can also help. In Bennet and Royle, out of the four points they put forward to show the relationship between a text and its history, only one of them goes as far as saying that history should be ignored ('the historical context...has no bearing on the literary work' (Bennett and Royle 110). I shall use this to help me put forward the point that surely if the reader knows the background to a book they are able to pick up points that they have made that are only obvious to those that know about the times it was set in. There is also the point that, in believing that the author intends to put his view across in writing something, which the majority do; then surely those people also have to believe that the period the author chose to set his work in is just as important. If that is the case then the reader needs to know what happened during that period in order to understand firstly why it was set then, and secondly if it was set at that date for a reason then the events of that time must be very important in understanding the book. ...read more.


If the full historical context behind a book is known then this is not possible. What the author shows as the setting for a book may even be inaccurate; 'Who commandeered the job of rewriting history?'(Rushdie 88). I will use this to explore that question further, because it is purely based on trust that anybody believes a historical fact; so how do we know that the historical background we are looking at to help us understand a book is even true? Conclusion: There is in fact no correct answer to this question. Every book and every reader is different, which means it varies from book to book and from person to person weather or not the historical context behind a book should be known. Generally the more complicated the book is, then the more likely it is for the history to help the reader because it may reveal parts that would not have been understood otherwise. However perhaps if the author wanted us to know the background to the book, or even to them, then they would write it as an introduction to their work. I do not think that it is all that important to know the historical context because the text itself should be enough for the book to be fully understood; if not then surely '...we who can look back across centuries of the continuing struggle for freedom of thought' (Gallie 138) are intelligent enough to figure it out for ourselves and in doing so draw our own conclusions. ...read more.

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