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English Literature ‘Frameworks’ 14: Context

Steph Atkinson | Thursday February 10, 2011


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  1. Close Reading & Textual Analysis
  2. Close Analysis
  3. Openings
  4. Characters and Characterisation
  5. Setting, Places and Scenes
  6. Atmosphere, Mood, Tone and Foreshadowing
  7. Dialogue
  8. Description, Imagery, Figurative Language
  9. Irony
  10. Alternative Interpretations
  11. Narrative
  12. Verisimilitude
  13. Time
  14. Symbolism
  15. Context
  16. Genre



The fourteenth in the EnglishEdu series on ‘frameworks’ for A Level English Literature.

This guide explores how to help students analyse the context of novels, short stories or prose extracts in order to allow them access to the highest grades.

Context: On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

The most straightforward way of demonstrating how to analyse a text closely in terms of context is to exemplify it. The extract below is followed by a series of bullet points which demonstrate how to analyse closely using carefully chosen quotations in a variety of ways. These bullet points also include commentaries which aim to explain how and why such sections have been analysed and what they could highlight within the main text, contextually and thematically.

There are, of course, many more things that could be said about each extract, but it’s hoped that it will prove useful in your initial teaching stages to model it using the examples and then to ask students to find other things that they could analyse themselves as well as to consider ‘alternative’ interpretations and to derive possible contextual aspects.

From On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

Between Edward and Florence, nothing happened quickly. Important advances, permissions wordlessly granted to extend what he was allowed to see or caress, were attained only gradually. The day in October he first saw her naked breasts long preceded the day he could touch them — December 19. He kissed them in February, though not her nipples, which he grazed with his lips once, in May. She allowed herself to advance across his own body with even greater caution. Sudden moves or radical suggestions on his part could undo months of good work. The evening in the cinema at a showing of A Taste of Honey when he took her hand and plunged it between his legs set the process back weeks. She became, not frosty, or even cool — that was never her way — but imperceptibly remote, perhaps disappointed, or even faintly betrayed. She retreated from him somehow without ever letting him feel in doubt about her love. Then at last they were back on course: when they were alone one Saturday afternoon in late March, with the rain falling heavily outside the windows of the disorderly sitting room of his parents’ tiny house in the Chiltern Hills, she let her hand rest briefly on, or near, his penis. For less than fifteen seconds, in rising hope and ecstasy, he felt her through two layers of fabric. As soon as she pulled away he knew he could bear it no more. He asked her to marry him.

As texts by their nature arise from context (being a combined product of author and context), a consideration of context should be a revealing and useful part of any textual analysis.  In fictional literature, context becomes complex as the effects of the author’s own cultural context are combined with the author’s ‘created’ context within the narrative. On Chesil Beach is a case in point and an extract is analysed and discussed below.

The novel was written in 2007 but set in 1963. It is almost defined by this early 1960s setting: its raison d’être seems to be the illumination of the importance of this social context in the disintegrating marriage of its two protagonists. Certainly, the fact that the events only just precede 1963 – the defining year for Larkin when, apparently, sexual intercourse began for everyone but him (‘Annus Mirabilis’), and the beginning of the time of The Beatles – must be significant. It seems barely credible that McEwan did not deliberately choose this particular context to intensify the pathos of the newlyweds’ situation and the realisation that, had they been more experienced or able to communicate on sexual matters, their marriage would have continued.

This extract depicts Edward’s proposal to Florence and foreshadows the painfully intense lack of communication that the pair suffer on their wedding night when Edward suffers from premature ejaculation and Florence is so repelled that she flees the claustrophobic marital hotel room to escape to the nearby beach.

  • The accentuated slowness of the relationship between Edward and Florence in the opening to this extract immediately implies that, as nothing happens ‘quickly’ it is almost painfully measured and deliberate, markedly lacking in the stereotypical spontaneity and intensity of the sexual revolution of the 1960s.

Importantly, it does not seem that McEwan is trying to suggest that this partnership will inevitably end in failure, rather, it seems that he is trying to emphasise the significance of the social context in which it is beginning, and how its apparent disconnection with the ‘spirit of the age’ (or zeitgeist) could be its undoing. This is why context is important here: it is the difference between the protagonists and the context in which they are operating which is key to the narrative.

  • The fact that ‘advances’ and ‘permissions’ (words inevitably redolent of war and bureaucracy respectively) are granted ‘wordlessly’ emphasises again their lack of communication. This is not to say that, in the 1960s, couples are supposed to have expressed themselves earnestly, discussing at great length the wider social significance of their sexual unions; rather that their sexual unions were a form of communication, and, that by eschewing this initially, Edward and Florence will find later communication difficult. ‘Granted’ and ‘attained’ again remind the reader of war and bureaucracy, implying that this relationship is, thus far, founded on rules and procedures, rather than lust or sexual attraction.
  • The extended temporal measurements (October…December…February…May…) suggest a drawn out and almost ‘timetabled’ courtship, devoid of passion and, most importantly here, consummation. Edward and Florence may live on the eve of the sexual revolution; but, clearly, someone forgot to tell them.
  • Florence apparently sees her increasing sexuality as a battle – but with herself, rather than with Edward. It is ‘herself’ she allows to ‘advance’ across Edward’s physique (and the emphatic pre-modifiers ‘his own’ stress the fact of his ownership and her encroachment). Heaven forbid that they should do anything ‘sudden’ or ‘radical’, she seems to think – both terms which she seems to see as pejorative when many, at the time, considered them to be ideas essential to progress.
  • The phrase ‘months of good work’ makes Edward and Florence’s relationship sound like a rather dull project. Florence’s ‘remote[ness]’ following her viewing of the sexually exploratory and explosive A Taste of Honey is somewhat to be expected. It seems impossible that she could be stimulated by a film so redolent of the 1960s sexual revolution. The adjectives ‘frosty’ and ‘cool’ suggest her frigidity here, although McEwan claims that she was neither of these things; however, the fact that the narrative denies she was frosty or cool rather seems to confirm that she was.
  • Again, the language of battle resurges as Florence ‘retreat[s]’. The issue here is that Edward is eager but inexperienced and Florence is repelled and equally naive. It seems little consolation that Edward has no ‘doubt about her love’ – love exclusively does not necessarily make a good union, particularly in the absence of fulfilling sex and/or good communication.
  • The relationship is ‘back on course’, like a ponderous steam ship running out of fuel. Yet the ambiguity of Florence placing her hand ‘on, or near’ Edward’s penis reiterates the key to their problems; Edward is so eager for sex that he feels compelled to propose so that he can have it, whereas Florence can barely admit what she is doing as she pulls away after fifteen seconds.

  • Edward and Florence are ‘constricted by the times in which they live’ (http://januarymagazine.com/fiction/onchesilbeach.html). Without the clearly established social context, this extract would have less cultural and emotional resonance and the ultimate conclusion of the novel would be, in its literal sense, less pathetic.