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English Literature
Texts and Contexts



The syllabus asks students to examine their interaction with literary form and content and to become aware of the many sorts of textual features that can be read as significant in constructing an interpretation of a text.* Advice from the 1994 Examiners' Report was for teachers and students "to discover, to define and to analyse the literary devices used in texts, and from there to go to see how those textual and generic devices shape the (cultural) meanings readers make..."


All three meaning systems identified by the syllabus - language, generic conventions and cultural codes may be utilised in a critical study. The area of Texts and Contexts - Representation and Issues, foregrounds the activity of reading itself (our reading practices). It invites consideration of the ways in which the theoretical and ideological assumptions (value systems) which inform our reading, are important to the meanings we make. In particular, study will focus on the context areas chosen by the teacher.


The contexts nominated in the syllabus-gender, class, cultural identity, race and/or ethnicity, can each be thought of as providing a focus for exploring the text. Ideally, representation and other issues arising during a study, would be considered across more than one context area. We are required by the syllabus to consider the historical and cultural position of both the reader and the writer, and to recognise that each has a set of values and beliefs which they bring to a text. Students should be aware of the cultural nature of ideologies. Just as the writing is shaped by its culture and time, so too is the reading process and meaning, shaped by the contexts of the reader.


However, texts for study should not be read as a simple 'mirror' of their historical and social contexts, but as constructions. The way in which a writer represents people, groups or behaviours provides a kind of social commentary. In this way texts can be said to be political sites, because they communicate values. The representation/s offered, should be understood as only one version of reality; others would be possible if a different ideology was operating in the text. Readers too, may adopt different ideological perspectives (and reading practices). To better understand these concepts, students should be encouraged to explore the discourse, examining how both privileged and alternative readings of their texts may be constructed and how these different readings may alter the meanings they come to see as significant.


As it is likely that a study will explore more than one context area, texts should be chosen with this in mind. It will be noted that specific concepts within a contextual area may be shared with another, and intertextual connections can often help students recognise patterns which are part of their construction of meaning. The location of power, the means by which it is achieved and the way it is exercised in the society of the text, is an important link across all context areas. Marginalisation and the cultural ideology of 'valuing' would also be studied as part of the representation of power offered in a text. Applying such concepts across several context areas such as class, race or gender, will help students foreground the values inherent in the reading strategies they bring to the text and the meanings they make.


The approaches to reading are necessarily broad in their application. However the Text and Context section is primarily concerned with the 'how' of the text. It focuses on those aspects of the writing which the reader has understood to be most influential on her or his sense of textual meaning and effect. This section of the subject also aims to make students more aware of their own reading practices and the contexts that influence their reading interpretation.



*             Adapted from comments by Andrew Lynch, Chief Examiner (1990/1) in Year 12 Assessment       Support Material, 1992.


                                       REPRESENTATION AND ISSUES OF GENDER


In the study of gender representation, the ways the lives and experiences of women and men are represented (constructed) will be the major focus. The understanding of the difference between sex which is biologically determined and gender which is culturally determined, is crucial to this area of study. So too, is the examination of gender roles in a given society and the links between gender and sexual identity. Reading 'gender' requires that we focus on representation and the issues it raises. The reader evaluates the representation through a contextualised value system.


Of central significance to this analytical focus is the understanding of:


*    gender as a locus of power - gender relations are power relations within particular societies.

Patriarchal power and ideas function to place women in an inferior position in patriarchal societies and to maintain the dominant social order. However women are not simply passive and powerless: they have power through their capacity to control and organise the domestic space, their capacity to bear children, and sometimes through their capacity for physical and violent action. Students should be encouraged to become aware of representations which offer constructions of men and women which do not support popular views and expectations of gender based on stereotypes.


*    gender as a social construction of identity including one's sexuality as masculine or feminine through the ascription of stereotypical roles, behaviours and social expectations to each sex.

Traditionally, the political and cultural context of literary studies has been patriarchal in nature and this has determined the writing and printing of texts and the ways we read and interpret literature. Students could explore cultural notions of femininity and masculinity and the effects of these on personal and social behaviours. The way female sexuality is sometimes conveyed indirectly through the use of fantasy or the Gothic, or through the representation of female friendships could also be examined. Ways of constructing and naturalising male sexuality should also be explored.


*    the attitudes and values associated with gender and gender divisions in particular societies. The relative role(s) and place of women and men in various societies and the social importance accorded them.

The dominant values of any particular society determine the ascription of characteristics to gender. Students should be encouraged to recognise that certain representations privilege one gender over another.


*    how gender relations are constructed and conveyed in literature

Embedded in the structure of language are assumptions about gender which shape our consciousness and perceptions. Female is marked by difference from male. Frequently presented as the "other", she is often silenced or placed in opposition to male through the language of binary opposition. Readers may offer resistant readings to masculine ideology in texts. It is through locating opposites, that we often find what is endorsed or challenged in the text.


*    the ways in which the gender of readers affect the readings made

Traditional reading practices were part of the patriarchal system which positioned readers to accept readings of texts which were dominant. To offer a resistant reading, males must frequently position themselves in opposition to their own interests. Unless women challenge the dominant reading, they support a version of reality which often negates them. Alternatively, they must identify with characters of lesser importance and power in the text.


*    the relationship between gender and genre - that certain genres are associated with women and men readers and writers

Students could explore romance as women's fiction and science-fiction as primarily, the preference of men. The use of fantasy or Gothic elements in realist prose-and ways in which women have used lyric poetry, are further instances of what might be examined. As might be the apparent reluctance of women to write for the stage.




Class Discussion Questions:


1.   What does it mean to say that gender is socially constructed?


2.   Do people read and write differently? Is this difference in part related to their gender, and if so how does an understanding of 'difference' help us to construct meaning?


Text Study Questions:


1.   What qualities do people in positions of power in the text display? Are these qualities gender based? Does the text position the reader to make judgements on the basis of sexual stereotypes? What textual features supporting this positioning?


2.   How does the text represent women's and/or men's lives and experiences, in a fashion that either confirms or contests dominant notions of gender?


3.   How does a contemporary awareness of gender issues affect our reading of a text from another social/historical time and place? Did writers/readers of earlier times consider or have insight into gender issues? In what ways could an awareness or lack of it, be seen in the text?


4.   How does gender empower or marginalise characters in the text? How does this reflect or challenge the values of the writer's society and that of the reader?


Possible Essay Questions:


a)   "Women are always victims because masculine ideology determines social organisation." Consider the ways in which the representation of men and women in a text you have read supports or challenges this statement.


b)   Power can be recognised by identifying those who are marginalised in a society. Discuss how representation of gender in (this) text, offers a version of reality which supports the interests of one gender over another.


c)     Discuss the ways your gender has positioned you to endorse or challenge the representation of gender roles and relationships presented in (the) text.


                                        REPRESENTATION AND ISSUES OF CLASS


A study of 'class' issues will focus on the concept that class positioning is one of the elements in the construction of personal and social identity. Marxism has traditionally allowed us to understand class positioning. It contends that social reality is made up of an historical struggle between antagonistic social classes, determined through the type of production in which they engage. Other theories have added to our understanding and students are best advised to consider 'class' as a means through which a society differentiates between groups of people on the basis of wealth and the means by which it is gained. An identifiable set of political and social beliefs has traditionally been associated with each social class. Other factors used to identify class groups may include educational and/or professional status, ancestry, language and domicile location.


Of central significance to this analytical focus is the understanding of:


*    class as a conduit of power (or lack of it) - and class relations as power relations within any society

Class is determined by the application of a set of historical, social and cultural values, which enable groups within a society to be labelled. It is a form of social organisation as well as description . Stratification ensures that some are more powerful and better rewarded by their society than others. Marxism contends that people who control the resources that others value, or control instrumentalities of power such as the police and press, become those with most influence and power and are most rewarded in income and status. Class relations are therefore always oppositional in nature.


*    class as a construction of social identity through the ascription of roles which are assigned value by the society in which they operate.

Social life and identity are determined by the cultural codes or meaning system operating within a given society. Readers may challenge the validity of the representation of a particular class group. They may explore the reading/interpretation which is being 'normalised' or naturalised by a particular representation. They could examine whose interests are most served by such constructions and how class defines or limits social behaviour.


*    assumptions about class which a textual representation may be seen to support or challenge

A writer may 'take for granted' aspects of character or setting or events which are culturally associated with class. In the process of exploring the gaps and silences in a text, students may see that the reader often accepts the implied 'truth' (what is naturalised) in a representation, because they share the same cultural meaning system.


*    the ownership of literature traditionally being claimed by an elite class - in this sense its role has been to maintain a system which has served certain interests over others.

The writing and publishing of literature and further its elevation into a literary canon, has traditionally been the province of the most literate and powerful in society. Historically, the most literate were those of a privileged class and it was in the interest of this class to control through language and modes of communication, the cultural meaning system. Marxism challenges the notion that literature and 'culture' are the social property of the elite. The concept of literature now embraces wide forms of discourse. Students could explore the ways in which a traditional literary canon might be seen to perpetuate attitudes and values toward class groups and the way this supports certain class interests.


Class Discussion Questions:


1.         In what ways could 'literature' be said to be a social construction, dependent on a cultural and historical time and place?

2.         What social function does the concept of class and its differentiating features, serve within a society?


Text Study Questions:


1.         How are class relationships represented in this text? Are the views of one class presented as a 'norm'? How does this affect the representation, or our reading, of any other class present in the text?


2.         How do expectations of social class in the culture of the text affect the actions of characters? How might readers' attitudes toward class issues affect their reading of the characters' actions?


3.         How does class empower or marginalise characters in the text?


4.         Are there any connections between gender, class and power in the text?


Possible Essay Questions:


a)         Discuss how the writer of (this) text positions the reader to endorse or criticise the way 'class' operates on individuals in society.


b)         To what extent can power, based on class, be seen to deny justice to all in society? Discuss with reference to your reading of a text studied this year.


c)              Discuss how various social classes have been represented in a text you have studied and what this reveals about the ideology informing the text. You should address the role of language and other features used to identify class, in your discussion.




Racial identification is determined by shared hereditary, biological characteristics, found in groups of people located within broad geographical areas. (Where identity of a national sub-group is articulated through any or all features of race, religion, language, place or history, the term ethnicity is applied). Race as an aspect of social construction, enables the visible characteristics of a racial group to become the basis for value judgements. When worth is ascribed to groups of people on the basis of cultural value judgements, the interests of some groups are often promoted over others. The study of race and ethnicity will look at the representations of racial groups in the discourse of the text and our readings of them. It should also explore the ideologies informing such representations.


Of central significance to this analytical focus is the understanding of:



*    race as a social construction - a set of cultural beliefs which may act as a mechanism for a society to justify differences in treatment of different groups.

A dominant group can regard itself as the norm against which others who are different in some way, are measured. They are accorded the status of 'other' and can be marginalised on the basis of 'difference' where difference means 'lesser'. It may lead to behaviour and policies ranging from paternalism to the overt exclusion and segregation of apartheid.


*    the fact that race is never promoted in a 'neutral way' in texts -a ll readings carry the values of the writer, the reader and the societies in which the text is produced and received.

Texts which may not noticeably foreground racial relationships may nevertheless present the reader with an image which both carries and invites value judgements. The dominant race may have total narrative voice and the perceptions and positioning of a second group may be ignored, giving a sense of 'normalcy' to the dominant view. By exploring gaps and silences in the text, students will become more aware of whose interests are served by the representation offered.


*    race/ethnicity sometimes offered as justification for dispossession and/or suppression of a particular culture.

Traditionally, western literature has rarely offered an avenue for the voices of minority racial and ethnic groups. Students should explore the features of the text to identify the ways in which the dominant ideology suppresses or silences minority voices.


*    the alienation from, and/or challenge to, dominant western values in the literary voices of minority-group writers.

Western literature has traditionally been dominated by white, male, European, and Christian ideals. Students should explore how the voices of writers outside this framework offer challenges to the dominant value system which most of us share. As readers we can explore the ideology of racial superiority and the issue of its power operating in the text. We could explore its role in behaviours from dispossession and marginalisation to exclusion and genocide. Importantly, students should consider the voices of minorities within the dominant culture, as well as writers whose perspective is located within another culture and which may offer an alternative value system.


Class Discussion Questions:


1.         To what extent is our reading of racial groups in the text activated by the particular version of them offered through the language used (ie. are there words or phrases which trigger our expectations and allow us to fill gaps in the text)?


2.              What does it mean to say that texts are never 'neutral' in the representation of a racial group? What textual features could be focused on to explore this? Consider such aspects as setting, selection of detail, imagery, narrative voice, conflict and its resolution.



Text Study Questions:


1.         What values and attitudes toward major issues in the text, are attributed to different racial groups? Is one normalised and the other given description, or are both given equal voice and equal description?


2.         To what race or ethnic group do the people with power in the society of the text belong? What qualities do they display?


3.         Is there any evidence that the writer is inviting the reader to challenge the privileging of one race in the text, over another?

4.         Explain how and why the reading you have constructed of significance in this text, might differ from that made by an audience of an earlier time or different culture.


Possible Essay Questions:


a)         Some representations of race in literature, may be read as racist. Explore how the representation of race offered by a writer you have studied, can be seen to be racist from your reading.


b)         Two issues prominent in literary works, are "innocence" and "corruption". Discuss how your reading of the relationships of race and/or ethnicity in a text, offers comment on one or both of these issues.


c)              When considering who is marginalised by a society, readers come to see a society's strengths and weaknesses. Assess the strengths and weaknesses in the version of society offered by a writer you have studied.



Cultural studies assume that literature can be understood as a medium through which a culture explores and reproduces itself. Central to this assumption is that through the study of representations of cultural identity in literary texts, students will recognise that a set of practices, beliefs and values operating in a community of people, helps to provide its social organisation and the ways to produce cultural meanings which function to sustain it. No culture can be considered as completely unified, but patterns of thinking and behaving lead to some features being thought of as characteristic and a way of distinguishing it from other cultures. These privileged features may be more mythical than actual and result in a representation that focuses on a narrow set of practices and beliefs. The image produced becomes legitimised as 'real', while excluding other positions equally valid within the culture.


Of central significance to this analytical focus is the understanding of:


*    cultural identity as a form of social organisation which functions to maintain the balance of power within a society.

It might be suggested that a feature of Australia's cultural identity is egalitarianism. However, a closer investigation may reveal that many of our political and social structures promote sharp cultural stratification. Notions of masculinity in our culture are identified through images ranging from the independent bushman to the carefree and sexist 'ocker'. The representation of a different, more sensitive Australian male is not favoured in the popular perception of our cultural identity. Only some images of 'self' or country are given legitimacy in the dominant construction of cultural identity. Notions of nationalism and patriotism inherent in the ideology of the text could also be explored.


*    cultural identity as a means of locating one's self within a community of shared values and beliefs - a part of personal identity which is shaped by the political, social and intellectual conditions of one's experience.

Students could study the ways in which the text constructs a sense of a culture's consciousness and its impact on those who are part of that culture. This would include values and attitudes associated with a sense of place or legitimate ways of 'being' within a culture. Questions about the 'voice' and 'stance' of the writer might also be considered.


*    the ways in which cultural myths operate to legitimise behaviours of dominant cultures

British and European imperialism relied on certain dominant cultural beliefs and attitudes, to explain the founding of their political, social and economic outposts in other countries. For example Australia's colonisation requires a particular picture of the Aborigines' way of being and social organisation as primitive and heathen to legitimise British actions during settlement. Students should study the way the text positions readers to collude with or challenge the actions and values of a dominant cultural identity. They may consider the features of the text which in representation of one group places those outside that group as 'other'; different and lesser. Students should consider whose interests are promoted by the perpetuation of such myths.


*    the role of colonialism in the development of cultural identity and post colonialism as a means for reading its consequences.

All cultures carry effects of past colonialism. Students should be encouraged to investigate the history of a culture; how it began and the events which helped to shape its development. They should consider the 'romantic' notions attached to popular views of the culture and where and why they developed. Students should be able to discuss whether a text maintains the status quo, rejects it, or offers an alternative to the prevailing cultural values and attitudes. Students should also examine the ways in which the text represents and evaluates the culture, and the contextual attitudes and values they bring to their reading.


*    the role of physical and social landscape in the construction of an identifiable cultural identity.

Culture develops, and is therefore located in both time and space. Students could usefully explore physical landscape/s and the experience it offers its inhabitants. Attention should be given to varying expressions of its effects and possibilities offered by different writers. For example Australia may be seen as both a paradise and a prison, a colony or an independent nation. Social experience is equally as important: is Australia egalitarian or as class conscious as nineteenth century Britain? Students should examine how the writer has represented a cultural identity and its importance to the reader's construction of meaning in the text.



Class Discussion Questions:


1.         To what extent (and in what ways) is the ability to make sense of experience and literature dependent on a shared literary, language and cultural meaning system?


2.         How can we best define and understand a culture's ideology? Why is this important to our reading of texts?


Text Study Questions:


1.         What attitudes and values to major concerns in the text are identified as part of the culture's consciousness? Does this fit with popular views of the culture? Are the representations limited to stereotypical views, or do they offer a broader range of possibilities?


2.         Is a sense of place or location suggested as a reason for the ways characters in the text think or behave? What view of the culture/s represented, does this position the reader to adopt?


3.         What role has the colonial origins of the culture played in the development of cultural values and identity? Is the society represented as having unified beliefs, or is there conflict? How is this significant to the reading we may construct?


4.         In what ways does this text work to confirm or promote cultural meaning? Alternatively, how does it modify or challenge dominant ideology?




Possible Essay Questions:


a)         Examine the ways in which a writer you have studied has offered a particular version of reality through her/his particular representation of a cultural identity.



b)         Individuals who question or don't fit the value system of her/his society, often express a feeling of 'not belonging'. Explore the concept of cultural identity through the alienation or isolation, of one or more characters in a text you have studied.



c)         Historically, literature was thought to offer a 'picture' of what the individual and life experience was like, in a particular time and place. Discuss how your reading practice allows you to share or question, the representation of cultural identity in a text you have read.












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Feel free to access these resources for study purposes or classroom use. However where they have been directly dowloaded for distribution or copied and provided as notes, please acknowledge as a courtesy. John Watson