When examining the topic of cultural context, one must become immersed in the world of the texts under discussion. The historical and geographical setting of a work creates a world that the characters can credibly inhabit. They are influenced and shaped by the customs, moral values and social structures of that society. The cultural environment created offers the reader a context in which to explore thematic and character development. We may also appreciate the literary techniques that allow such a vivid world to be set before our imaginations.
Credible and vivid environments are created in the two texts I wish to explore in this essay. In "How Many Miles to Babylon", the novel set in Ireland and France during the early days of World War One, Jennifer Johnston depicts the faded grandeur of the big house in Wicklow and the politics of rural life in Ireland in the early years of the twentieth century. She also tales us to the battlefields of France and presents us with a brutal and harsh world. Alec and Jerry, her key characters, have to navigate the social constraints of these environments with care and their efforts to do so create much of the conflict and momentum in the text. Similarly, in "A View from the Bridge" by Arthur Miller, a strong cultural context is established from the outset: The attitudes and social rules of this Italian-American immigrant community are firmly defined. Yet the community is still poised delicately between the "civilized" American society it hopes to assimilate into and the more fundamental Sicilian culture that it has recently left. The hero Eddie faces a moral dilemma as his personal desire comes into conflict with the accepted social customs of his group.
As this is a wide-ranging topic, I wish to confine my discussion of the subject of cultural context to two main areas that interested me during my study of the course. I would like to examine how the family, as microcosm of society, impacts upon the individual. Also I wish to explore the value systems espoused by each culture, specifically issues of honour and authority. Many interesting comparisons may be drawn between these two texts.
In Bridge' the Carbone family is a traditional one, with a patriarchal structure. Eddie is the boss and his wife Beatrice and his ward Catherine dance to attention when he appears. This is evident in the opening scene when Eddie returns from work and the women rush around, seeking to mollify him and prepare him for the news that Catherine has a new job. Catherine needs his blessing ' and Beatrice seeks his permission to take in her relatives as new immigrants. He is full of largess and patronising advice, telling them how to behave and whom to trust. "You can quicker get back a million dollars than a word you gave away". He explains that it is his family duty to take in Rodolpho and Marco. In contrast, the façade presented to the servants and outside world in Babylon' suggests that Mr. Moore is the traditional head of the Ascendancy family. However, it is really Mrs. Moore who dictates the course of Alec and his father's lives. She insists that Alec must remain tutored and isolated at home, determined to avoid being left alone with her husband. She is glacial and cruel: "Mr. Bingham is more than adequate', her voice was north-north east cold". The chilly froideur of the dining room is perfectly realised by Johnston, "She placed a sliver of apple in her mouth and snapped it shut". Unlike Beatrice, who is marginalised by Eddie, she is controlling and a dominant figure in the text. This demonstrates the subversive power women seek to assert in a society where their own ambitions are frustrated.
Both families and societies find it hard to explore their emotional needs and verbalise their feelings honestly. They do not communicate effectively. In this regard, a level of social...