Context – ‘historical, cultural, or social – can have an influence on the way literary works are written or received. Discuss with reference to at least two works you have studied. The three novels, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, 1984 by George Orwell, and The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien can all be received in different ways, read in historical, cultural and social context. And, likewise, these three contextual factors may have had an influence on the way in which the novels were written; that is, the contexts of production. In the case of One Day in the Life, the protagonist, Shukhov, is a prisoner in one of Stalin’s labour camps, called gulags. This occurs in 1950s Russia, in the period where Solzhenitsyn wrote his novel, and he became good friends with Russia’s current president, Vladimir Putin, as a consequence of his work. Solzhenitsyn’s work exposes Russia for what it really was in the 1950s, given that, in the period, many prisoners were placed in gulags unjustly, such as being the child of a wealthy father. Thus, Solzhenitsyn’s novel is, in its production, an accurate representation of life in the gulags and, for readers uninformed of the horrors, a shocking portrayal of social reality. This example reveals the ways in which social and historical factors influence both the production and reception of literary texts. In this essay, I will discuss this further, comparing and contrasting Solzhenitsyn’s work with O’Brien’s and Orwell’s.
In Orwell’s 1984, written in 1948, the writer imagines or anticipates the kind of life people would live by the year of the title, 1984. The novel, through the voice of a third person omniscient narrator, follows the daily life of the protagonist, Winston Smith, who lives in the imagined state of Oceania. Smith’s name is significant in that this is the most common of British surnames. Orwell’s naming of Winston Smith may in itself be a significant cultural response to the time in which Orwell wrote. Smith is, in a sense, an ‘everyman’ and readers – particularly British readers – may find that they are able to identify with and develop sympathy for physically decrepit anti-hero. Written only three years after World War 2, Orwell identified tendencies in society, suggesting that the world was polarising into large-scale totalitarian states. In Oceania, the ruler of the state is called ‘Big Brother’. Big Brother, bares an uncanny resemblance to Stalin. Orwell, no doubt, intended to establish this similarity and would have assumed that readers in the period would sufficient contextual awareness to identify the likeness. Orwell’s novel, like One Day in the Life, serves to raise awareness of the brutality of Stalins’s Russia, but also implicitly warns readers of global movements towards totalitarianism. As I contemporary reader, I can see and be grateful of the fact that Orwell’s novel bares little relevance, in most regards, to my own society. However, it is not difficult to recognize that aspects of Orwell’s totalitarian state have materialized in various ways and, unfortunately, it may be claimed that modern-day North Korea bares an uncanny resemblance to Orwell’s imagined Oceania.
In his novel, Orwell reveals something of human nature, showing how individuality is displaced by rigid social conformity. Room 101 is used to conduct torture, striking fear into the lives of citizens, revealing an individual’s worst fear, and to prevent citizens from engaging in any act of rebellion. In this way, it is shown that any human can be made to conform despite their best intentions. This aspect of the human condition is made clear when Winston says “Do it to Julia!”. Based on Orwell’s own experiences of war, he became convinced that selflessness could be extinguished as a particularly human trait if the ‘right’ circumstances could be created, and this is shown in Winston’s betrayal of Julia. Also, Orwell reveals how easily an enemy can be manufactured in the ‘Two-Minute Hate’. Again, the catalyst for the idea comes from Orwell’s own wartime experience, where he witnessed the ways in which individuals are often manipulated by higher authorities. The ruthlessness and brainwashing of the Nazi’s during World War 2 influenced Orwell’s ideas, where media manipulation was often used to persuade individuals of particular views and behaviours. This is an idea that Orwell extends in the idea of ‘Newspeak’, a kind of auxiliary language that restricts the ability of the individual to engage in anti-establishment thoughts.
Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life is similar to Orwell’s novel in that it draws attention to the context of dictatorship in which individuals are punished for any deviant action. The historical and social context of the work encompass the full extent of the horrors of the gulags in Stalinist Russia. However, the reception of the novel may differ greatly depending on the cultural background of the reader. For example, an American reader in the 1950s may very likely Anti-Stalinist in contrast to a Communist reader who may agree with certain ideals presented in the novel such as the camaraderie of gang 104, and appreciate the appropriateness of punishments being given out to those who attempt to take more rations than others. This is similar to the way that cultural context may affect a reader’s perception of both 1984 and One Day in the Life. Ivan himself is a good Communist. He respects the traditional ideals when the gang are to help build the power station, sentiments perhaps shared by a Communist reader. However, Solzhenitsyn closes with a troubling line: “this is one of the days out of 3,654 of his sentence.” This shows the ultimately gruelling position of being a prisoner in a gulag, and Solzhenitsyn captures this hardship in one line of text.
The Things They Carriedby Tim O’Brien depicts the Vietnam (American) War of the 1960s, and shows the horrors experienced in that conflict. The novel is a good example of post-modern literature. Given the advent of television, which displayed the visual horror of the war to American families, it could be suggested that The Things They Carried left readers dumbfounded to a lesser extent than if they had read Solzhenitsyn’s or Orwell’s novels years previously. However, this does not detract from the sheer power of the novel. The text focuses around team alpha, an American squadron fighting with South Vietnamese forces against the Northern Vietnamese Communist threat. Communism is an ideology that links all three novels, an interest that reflects the relative proximity in time in which all the works were written. Despite very different cultural backgrounds and experiences, Solzhenitsyn, Orwell, and O’Brien develop ideas around the suppression of individual identity and autonomy. However, O’Brien’s novel is more focused on the act of war itself. The Things They Carried expresses a strong anti-war sentiment, reflecting the spirit of the times in which it was written. The war, and the atrocities carried out were very unpopular amongst many in the US. Ironically, O’Brien states “I was a coward, I went to war”. The rainy river is a key turning point in the novel, as O’Brien has the choice of deserting his country for peace, or going to war. He does what many members of the army did at the time and went to Vietnam out of “fear of embarrassment”. Here, O’Brien is criticizing his society, suggesting that our choices are made for us, and that we are inclined to act in accordance with societal demands rather than individual choice. O’Brien’s belief that society is flawed influences the writing of his novel.
Additionally, O’Brien introduces the character of May-Ann, to show how war can corrupt even the purest of human being, symbolized in the case of Mary-Ann by her (initially) pink clothing. However, Mary-Ann’s character undergoes change, and her transformation into a “greenie” reveals the twisted ‘logic’ of war and its impact on human society. The anti-war sentiment of the novel is further revealed through the idea of “sand swallowing you up” with the death of Kiowa in the sewage fields. Kiowa’s death symbolizes the death of the voice of reason within team alpha, suggesting that war is devoid of logic and compassion.
O’Brien’s purpose in writing The Things They Carried was to perhaps relieve some of the horrors of war. In the chapter “The Man I Killed” he details how he ended a man’s life. The “star shape in his eye” depicts a star on the American flag, suggesting that America is guilty and complicit in the man’s death. This is a powerful sentiment, probably not lost on the reader, irrespective of cultural background.
The similar historical context shared by all three novels provides links to the motivation their authors may have had. All three novels criticize aspects of society – war, gulags, and totalitarian systems. The broader idea of power overlaps each of these discrete emphases. Each text is written at a time in the 20th century where there was considerable conflict, and it may be that each of the authors writes in response to these conflicts to express frustration or opposition with forces that limit individual choice.
The context of production affects the writing of the texts in other ways too. Solzhenitsyn writes as a Communist figure in the gulags, someone who broadly agrees with the ideals of the society that is impacting him. Had Solzhenitsyn openly criticised the Stalinist regime he would almost certainly have been executed. In The Things They Carried, there is a clash of values. Men were compelled to go to war. There was a social stigma if they did not. However, against this, America regarded itself as a beacon of freedom. Given this, what right did America have to become involved in Vietnam? O’Brien brings out this tension in his novel. In Orwell’s novel, Winston and Julia are lonely figures who try unsuccessfully to break free of their unjust dictatorial family. Here, Orwell was reflecting what he had witnessed in all societies that are totalitarian, and perhaps warning of a general tendency towards totalitarianism in the middle of the 20th century.
All the novels discussed were written in specific and similar social, cultural, and historical contexts, influencing how they were written. But readers still need to read texts and decide what these texts mean. The understanding a reader comes to will be, in part, shaped by their own social and cultural circumstances.