British Literary Traditions Reflective Essay
May 4, 2015
Importance of Cultural Context in Understanding British Literature
On January 14, the first day of the Spring Semester I defined culture as “people’s way of life defined by their way of speaking, common daily habits, sense of community and nationalism and government.” Even though I said this and believe it, I didn’t fully understand its relevance to British Literature. To my surprise, culture played a huge part in this course especially focusing on an individual’s mental and emotional health and the importance of feeling part of society.
Dealing with issues of a person’s mental and emotional well being appeared often in British Literature. This has unintentionally been a topic in my analyses since the start of the semester. After completing Mrs. Dalloway, I wrote a paper focusing on Virginia Woolf’s statement on mental health care. Woolf spent a lot of her novel implying the ambiguity of mental healthcare in the early 1900’s. Mrs. Dalloway portrayed the “empathy to welfare” of mental health patients (Assignment I). In my 5-point fact sheet for the Modern period, I mentioned the “shock” induced by WWII all across Europe, especially Britain. Men, like Septimus, who volunteered, unaware of what was ahead, returned to their homes shell-shocked and with a plethora of emotional baggage. Woolf did well to portray the phenomenon of dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression.
I also discussed sanity in my analysis of Frankenstein. It is up for discussion whether Victor Frankenstein is a genius, certifiably insane or both. In discussing the ties between the characters and David Colling’s “Psychoanalytic Perspective, I concluded that Victor reached adulthood “slower than a normal person” (Assignment II). Similar to Septimus, Victor experienced a large amount of trauma in a short amount of time and was unprepared in dealing with it. In both stories, the narrator never dove directly into the thoughts of these challenged characters. My insight of the characters’ internal deficiencies came from their described behaviors and connecting them with cultural context and expert perspectives.
Shakespeare’s tragedy, Othello which was created in the Renaissance Era, also focused on mental stability. In the midst of class discussion, I took note of a point made by LTC Ticen. Although I always saw Shakespeare as a romantic who used love as a common theme in his stories, LTC Ticen brought to my attention that he often affiliates this love with tragedy. In the Renaissance period, couples were starting to fall in love and chose each other rather than arranged marriage deals by family for political ties. Shakespeare used extreme tragedies as a hyperbole of the negative effects of falling in love. In Othello he portrayed this by making Othello extremely vulnerable and mentally unstable at the thought of Desdemona being unfaithful. Othello reacted with “abuse” and “outburst” as he slowly lost grasp of his sanity and mental stability (Assignment III). As falling in love became more common in the Renaissance Period, Shakespeare chose to write about how this cultural change was negatively effecting the mental state of love’s victims.
This course and literature read within also taught me the importance of being part of society in Britain. In Frankenstein I found that Mary Shelley excluded both the Monster and Victor from society. The Monster illustrated “the human need for companionship” (Assignment II). He begged and pleaded to be included in human nature, even invaded a home of people he had never met in hopes to join in on their lives and society. By making a huge deal over companionship and isolation from society, Shelley was portraying the abnormality of avoiding society and wanting to be an outsider. This is a very British outlook.
The British culture is built off classes and accepting ones place. In Mrs. Dalloway I found embracing social class to be a major theme. In a brief response to Mrs. Dalloway I described Clarissa as a character who “attempts to impress people and build connections to heighten her reputation” (Why do women…). Though I still see Clarissa as a materialistic character, in retrospect I see more cultural reasoning to her obsession with hosting parties. She constantly threw parties, and made a huge deal about them because hosting is her role in society. Whether or not she wants more excitement or purpose in life, she embraces her role as an elite wife. Woolf includes Miss Kilman to show how society reacts to individuals that do not follow their place in society. Miss Kilman is a young, unmarried teacher. Young women in England were meant to marry and live a domestic and social life, whereas Miss Kilman is not married and is well educated and vocal in her opinions on society. This story line highlighted the changes in social roles in the Modern Era and the uneasiness it left on some more old-fashioned individuals.
Before this course and even after being assigned my first 5-point fact sheet, I did not see the importance of knowing the cultural context of a work, however as the semester went on I realized how much easier it was to understand what I was reading and its significance. Because I was ignorant to the value of culture in literature, I dislike Mrs. Dalloway and had virtually zero interest in reading or writing about it. Now looking back I understand why Woolf set the story in a period of one short day, why she included the seemingly random characters, and even why she titled her novel Mrs. Dalloway as opposed to Clarissa. Understanding the cultural context of the modern, romantic, renaissance and mediaeval eras helped explain why societal isolation and mental health were so vividly displayed in the various works of literature we focused on in this course.
Emma Quirk. Assignment I: Woolf’s Statement on Mental Healthcare. February 2015.
Emma Quirk. Assignment II: Frankenstein Collage. VMI. March 2015.
Emma Quirk. Assignment III: Analysis of…and Original Script. April 2015.
Emma Quirk. Why do women…other people? VMI. January 2015.