Cultural Context Sample Answer: ‘The main characters in texts are often in conflict with the world or culture they inhabit.’

Cultural Context Sample Answer: ‘The main characters in texts are often in conflict with the world or culture they inhabit.’

‘The main characters in texts are often in conflict with the world or culture they inhabit.’ In the light of the above statement, compare how the main characters interact with the cultural contexts of the texts you have studied for your comparative course.

Texts naturally focus on how characters react to the worlds and cultures they inhabit. Unless they are content with their surroundings, some characters will be trapped in unwanted states and unable to escape, a certain few will be able to achieve this, while others long to change their worlds and thus challenge those around them and the make up of these spaces. This can be seen when considering four elements of cultural contexts of texts, characters’ attitude to the issue of family, their response to figures of authority, the structures of these worlds and whether characters remain influenced by the worlds they inhabited at the close of the text.  The text I have studied, Macbeth (M), How I’m Not Scared (INS) and The Old Man and the Sea (OMS).

Characters’ attitudes to families reveal various ways in which they can be in conflict with their surroundings. If a character does not prioritize family links they are shown as uncaring of those closest to them and content to cut off ties with such individuals, as is seen in two texts on my course. However, if characters value family they are shown contrastingly to be content with their situations and the individuals they share these with.

The family unit is not prioritized at all in INS, evidenced by the lack of care characters show for their family members, which is especially evident when such actions are committed in times of difficulty. This is seen in the situation near the beginning of the text when Filippo is captured due to the divide between the rich and poor in Italy in 1978. Filipo is from a northern wealthy family and is kidnapped by the poor due to their resentment at the economic hierarchy in the country at that time. While one would expect the parents of a kidnapped child to do anything possible to retrieve their son, Filippo’s parents make little effort to ensure the safety of their child; rather they refuse to pay the ransom for Filippo and stall on any worthwhile action by issuing televised messages to the kidnappers. Their refusal to consider a ransom indicates that those who are better off financially in the world of the text become dependent and obsessed with monetary values, and as a result other factors influence decisions and actions in the familial environment. Sergio’s comment confirms this, remarking that ‘Brazil’s some country. Life costs nothing. Served, venerated. It’s not like this shitty country’ so as to illustrate how economic difficulties have detrimental effects on Italy; however this not only with regard to financial matters but also on the morality of inhabitants in this space, such as Filippo’s parents. Indeed, such is the unexpected length of time that they remain away from their son that Filippo believes he and his parents are dead, naturally presuming that if they were alive they would have rescued him.

OMS echoes INS. While family is a forceful presence in the world of the text it is often disregarded. This is seen with Manolin’s relationship with his parents, as he presents himself as following their rule when in reality he goes against their wishes. We are told at the text’s beginning that the protagonist of the text is ‘an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.’ However it is revealed that he was not alone for all of this time; rather Manolin, a young boy, had accompanied him for almost half of this time, ‘In the first forty days a boy had been with him.’ The partial dominance of the family is then shown, as Manolin’s parents are revealed to have caused the divide between the old man and their son; they decided that for the boy to be successful in his potential career as a fish he had to move to another group, as the old man was cursed, ‘now definitely and finally salao, which is the worst form of unlucky, and the boy had gone at their orders in another boat which caught three good fish in the first week.’ However despite the family’s desire to distance their son from the cursed fisherman Manolin returns to his side on a daily basis, indicating how the family may have influence but that this is not overwhelming. The narrator reveals that the boy grew sad at seeing the old man returning empty-handed each day and thus helped him bring in his fishing equipment, ‘he always went down to help him carry either the coiled lines or the gaff and harpoon and the sail that was furled around the mast.’

M differs from the other texts. Family is valued in the text, evidenced by the loyalty husband and wife Laslzo and Ilsa show to each other. When Ilsa learns her husband is not dead (as she initially thought) she rushes to his side; such is her devotion that she flees through Europe with him despite the risk to her safety and freedom, as the Nazis are in pursuit of them. Even when Ferrari tells the couple that he can only obtain Ilsa an exit visa she remains in Casablanca, unwilling to leave without her husband and be separated for a second time, despite this ensuring her life will remain confined in the realm of danger due to the inability to escape the Nazis. Laszlo is perhaps even more loyal, as he accepts that Ilsa has developed romantic feelings for Rick and is not angry or resentful; he accepts that this was natural to his prolonged absence and declares ‘no one is to blame, I – I demand no explanation’. He even is willing to allow Rick to take Ilsa out of the country when he believes Rick will not allow him to use the letters of transit, showing his valuing of her safety above all other issues as he will allow her to depart with the one other individual she has romantic ties with, thus risking his relationship with her: ‘You won’t give me the letters of transit: all right, but I want my wife to be safe. I ask you as a favor, to use the letters to take her away from Casablanca.’

As well as as their attitudes towards family, characters’ opinions of those in power and their resulting actions reflect how they interact with their cultures. If a character does not respect such individuals they will disregard rules and laws, resulting in a chaotic space where people act in a self-serving manner with no consideration for any other, as is seen in the three texts I studied.

Individuals do not respect figures of authority in INS, emphasized by the breakdown of the parent-child relationship which conventionally centers on the child’s respect for their elder. Michele’s father attempts to cement his and other adults’ authority so as to keep control his son, however Michele does not consider matters so simplistically, symbolized by his excessive focus on the supernatural, folk tales about werewolves and witches and rumors about madness. This is shown in his perception of Filippo’s situation; while it is plainly obvious that Filippo is being kept kidnapped Michele can see nothing sinister about his fellow ten-year-old being chained in a hole by an abandoned farmhouse, nor does he apply any context in an effort to make understanding of it. Michele’s father soon tells his son ‘Stop all this talk about monsters… monsters don’t exist. It’s men you should be afraid of, not monsters’ in an effort to make his son realize that he must understand his world and respect its authoritative figures. Michele soon understands that this refers to his father, one of those who has kidnapped Filippo; however he does not fear his father and therefore disregards his orders. He continues his visits to Filippo so as to bathe him, restore his sight and reassure him that his mother’s appeal on television is proof of her love for her son. Indeed, it can be speculated that when Michele’s father shoots his son that this is symbolic Michelle’s rebellious nature; despite Michele calling out and addressing his father, he did not obey his instructions previously and hence must be show the gravity of such disobedience.

M is similar to INS. In the play authority is not revered, evidenced through the lack of respect for the king of Scotland. In the world of the play the king was God’s representative in the kingdom, divinely chosen to implement the natural order of things, whereby all in the kingdom acting according to the king’s wishes and commands which reflected those of God. However at the start of the play there is already opposition to the king’s rule by the traitorous thane of Cawdor; Duncan realizes this, evidenced when he laments upon the ‘absolute trust’ he placed in the thane and remarks of how he was deceived, saying ‘There’s no art/ To find the mind’s construction in the face./ He was a gentleman on whom I built/ An absolute trust’. In this same scene Macbeth also shows his lack of devotion to Duncan, as the witches have awoken his ambition and instilled in him a desire to be king, which overpowers his sense of loyalty. Therefore, while Macbeth tells the king ‘our duties/ Are to your throne and state, children and servants,/ which do but what they should by doing everything/ safe toward your love and honor’ he in fact is already thinking about how he can become king. When all others leave the scene he remarks ‘The Prince of Cumberland! that is a step/ On which I must fall down, or else o’erleap,/ For in my way it lies. Stars, hide your fires;/ Let not light see my black and deep desires’; the Prince of Cumberland refers to Malcom, who Duncan has just announced will be heir to his throne, and who Macbeth now realizes is an obstacle to his desire. Needless to say, Macbeth’s later act of regicide is further evidence of a lack of respect for authority in the play.

OMS differs from INS and M. Santiago’s repeated confrontations with the sharks and the marlin can be read as challenges to authority as these take place in the oceanic realm where such fierce and large creatures are dominant forces. The description of Santiago’s traveling further out than normal indicates a realization that he is a world that is not his own and that he is a visitor here, as well as the presentation of the sea-creatures as belonging to this place; ‘The old man knew he was going far out and he left the smell of the land behind and rowed out in the clean early morning smell of the ocean. He saw the phosphorescence of the Gulf weed in the water as he rowed over the part of the ocean that the fishermen called the great well because there was a sudden deep of seven hundred fathoms where all sorts of fish congregated’. He also realizes the power of this place, indicated when he presents the sun as part of this place and remarks of its blinding rays, ‘All my life the early sun has hurt my eyes… In the evening I can look straight into it without getting the blackness. It has more force in the evening too. But in the morning it is painful.’ However, despite his realization that he is a visitor and respecting the power of this place, Santiago challenges the animals that dominate this setting, such as catching and refusing to free the large marlin which pulls his boat far out into the gulf, and his stabbing of the shark with the dagger that he fashions from his oar. The old man attempts to justify his challenge by declaring that everything is sinful and that killing is a natural way of life which in part excuses his actions despite not having any rights in this space; he therefore believes that he should not worry about his actions towards the beings that reside in this place, ‘Perhaps it was a sin to kill the fish.. But then everything is a sin. Do not think about sin. It is much too late for that and there are people who paid to do it. Let them think about it… everything kills everything else in some way.’

Another way in which characters interact with their culture is through their reaction to class and social structure. In some worlds certain individuals have preferable positions of comfort compared to those who struggle in their existences, as is seen in one text on my course. However, other characters do not have have any respect for class systems and either act with no respect for those in power or consider all equal, as is seen in two texts..

There is no hierarchy in M as individuals have no respect for those in power and thus act according to how they see fit. As mentioned, Duncan is god’s representative on earth and the natural order of things ensures that all subjects respect and follow the rule of the king, but the Thane of Cawdor and Macbeth reveal that this hierarchy is not adhered to as the play begins. When Macbeth becomes king he may have some who follow his rule and obey his orders, such as the murderers who kill Banquo, but he does not have absolute rule. Throughout the play Macduff shows himself openly opposed to the king, refusing to attend his coronation, and Macbeth even remarks such to his wife: ‘How say’st thou, that Macduff denies his person/ At our great bidding?’ Macduff and Malcolm later plan to overthrow the king, as Macduff travels to England to meet Malcolm and seek military assistance from King Edward of England. Later, as the play nears its end, it is revealed that many of Macbeth’s troops have abandoned him, and Angus remarks that even those who stay with him are not absolutely loyal: ‘Now minutely revolts upbraid his faith-breach;/ Those he commands move only in command,/ Nothing in love: now does he feel his title/ Hang loose about him, like a giant’s robe/ Upon a dwarfish thief.’ Indeed, as the battle commences many of the aforementioned soldiers fighting for Macbeth switch sides, leaving the king with little support as his castle is attacked and overcome, with Malcolm telling Siward that ‘We have met with foes/ That strike beside us’.

ONS is similar to M. Despite his challenging of animals’ authority Santiago feels an affinity to the creatures that live in the ocean and sees them as equals, as opposed to the conventional view that animals are inferior to humans (this enforces his belief that killing the marlin and attacking the shark is a natural part of life). He attempts to justify this view by comparing the strength of animals who fight even when injured to the great baseball player Joe DiMaggio who shows similar tolerance to pain, declaring ‘the great DiMaggio who does all things perfectly even with the pain of the bone spur in his heel’ is indicative of the fighting cocks can ‘endure.. the loss of the eye and of both eyes and continue to fight’, concluding that ‘Man is not much beside the great birds and beasts’. Elsewhere he establishes a fraternal link with various animals, suggesting that man and the animals are equal, and enforcing this by personifying the animals. This is seen in such instances as when he speaks of the porpoises and says ‘They play and make jokes and love one another. They are our brothers like the flying fish.’

Meanwhile, there is a sharp contrast in INS. The setting of the text, 1978 Italy, is structured hierarchically with the divide between the rich and poor in the country; indeed it is this divide which catalyzes the events of the film. The divide in the text is caused by the contrasting economic states of the industrialized North, which was prospering, as opposed to the agricultural South that was struggling. As a result there was much civil unrest, which led to many kidnappings designed to attain ransoms from the rich, which is shown firsthand at the beginning of the text; the villagers, with the help of a northerner living in Brazil, have kidnapped the ten-year-old son of a northern wealthy family so as to raise money to combat their difficult financial position. Anna’s comment to her children indicates why characters must resort to actions such as kidnap and ransom, due to the lack of opportunity to be successful or even financially comfortable in the Aqua Traverse: ‘Listen to me. Promise me that when you’re big you’ll leave this place.’

The final way characters interact with their worlds is to either remain bound by their rules, laws and conventions, or to escape from these. As a result, the ends of texts either show the individual to be more powerful than their culture, or ultimately conforming to the demands it places on the individual. We see both with the characters in the texts I have studied.

At the end of INS the social setting is removed as the divide that separates Michele and Filippo throughout the entire text is removed, which shows how as the text ends the tension that caused divides between the Italian population as a result of economic factor is finally countered by human kindness and compassion. After Michele finds Filippo there is a connection between the two, seen in such moments as when Michele brings him food, water and tries to save Filippo, who tells the protagonist ‘I’m scared’, prompting Michele to tell him ‘No, you are not scared’, displaying his care for his new friend. However for much of the text they are constantly separated, as Filippo is trapped in the hole, and even when Michele saves him there is still separation as Michele is trapped in the hole as he cannot get out of the hole after he helps Filippo get out; this symbolizes the divide between the rich and poor sections of the population which has been caused by the aforementioned tension, which affects even those who are not aware of the reasons for and circumstances of this divide. Initially, as Filippo and Michelle’s friendship opposes the divide, Michele’s father tries to prevent Michele going to Filippo again, threatening to beat him if he does so. Despite this Michele goes to help him, and is almost killed in the process, as Michele’s father almost kills him by shooting him, even when Michele cries out ‘Papa! I didn’t know that it was you!’. However, once the friendship counters the divide and tension it is impossible to halt the power of the friendship, and at the text’s end Michele survives the gunshot, and Filippo is saved as helicopters arrive; for the first time the boys are not separated, presenting human kindness and compassion, and not tension and division, as the dominant forces in the world of the text as it draws to a close.

M matches INS. At the text’s end it is suggested that the cultural context will be escaped from and that the kingdom will return to a unified state, where subjects follow the rule of the king who in turn will be suitable for caring for and controlling his subjects. Macbeth’s side loses the battle and Macduff arrives with Macbeth’s head in his hand, declaring to Malcolm that he is king of Scotland. Malcolm in response says all his thanes will become earls (acceding to the English system of peerage), the first time this had occurred in the history of Scotland that thus heralds the new order of rule. Malcolm also proves himself a suitable ruler for the future as he shows compassion for young Siward’s death, indicating that he has learned from Macduff earlier as he remarks to Siward ‘He’s worth more sorrow,/ And that I’ll spend for him’. As shown with the callous nature of Macbeth throughout the play, a good king must care for his subjects rather than corrupting and killing them in the manner Macbeth has, as this ensures that subjects will be loyal to their king. This will result in traits such as compassion, care, respect and loyalty being spread throughout the kingdom rather than corruption and deception, as was achieved when Macbeth had the criminals murder Banquo. There is also the indication that everyone will attend the coronation, as opposed to earlier with Macbeth’s; this presents the kingdom as unified, with Malcolm remarking ‘So thanks to all at once and to each one,/ Whom we invite to see us crown’d at Scone’.

OMS diverts away from the other texts with a notably different ending. The cultural context remains at the text’s end as the family unit’s lack of total dominance remains and Manolin acts independent of their wishes. As was established earlier, Manolin’s family instructed him to keep a distance from Santiago due to his being unlucky, however at the text’s end the boy decides to resume their partnership, indicating that the family unit now has no influence. When Manolin declares ‘Now we will fish together again’ Santiago refers to the earlier order of Manolin’s parents by remarking that ‘No. I am not lucky. I am not lucky anymore.’ The boy then reveals how is no longer bound by their demands and expectations, declaring ‘The hell with luck.. I’ll bring the luck with me’, which reveals how he will act as he sees fit. His comment also indicates that he will now have an independent mindset, which now will not be influenced by any other; usually a child will be affected by the opinion of their parent, and this break from convention is an emphatic statement of the decline of the role of the parent in the world of the text.

In any text the reader will view characters facing various challenges or osbtacles. These are created by the unique world of the text, which is known as the cultural context, as characters encounter and react to various elements of the world such as family, figures of authority and social class. With this in mind, the cultural context is as important a part of the text as the characters themselves, as it plays a crucial part in the development of plot and the individuals involved in this.

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About the Author

John Ryan

John has a Masters in Modern English Literature and is the founder of RyJoLC, an educational consultancy based in Dublin that provides English language and curriculum resources to educational institutions worldwide.
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