Down by the river, under an old, old willow, I saw a grown-up man. Sitting on his hands, right under the moon, he was looking at the water and humming a children’s tune.

When you hear me say that you might think, for instance, that the man was crazy. However, judging from the sentence alone, you cannot be completely sure because to interpret this sentence correctly, you need to know the context.

Context describes details concerning the situation in question. Context gives the meaning to those details based on the circumstances not included in the sentence itself.

Take the sentence “I am thirsty.” Spoken out of broader context, it means one thing – “I need to drink something.”

But consider these two situations:

  1. You are walking with your friends down town, when suddenly one of them says “I am thirsty.” Here the sentence, in addition to its literal meaning of the person wanting to drink something, can also mean something like “Let’s sit somewhere and drink something” or “Let’s find a shop where I can buy a bottle of water”.
  2. There are some people crossing the desert who still have many days’ walk in front of them. Yet, they have run out of all the water and have no more. Now one of them says “I am thirsty”, which in this context means that unless someone comes and rescues them, he will die.

Here you can see how situational context can give the statement “I am thirsty” different and broader meaning. It also works the other way round, and the sentence makes the situation more clear or even adds to the understanding of what is about to happen next, although one could not guess such a meaning (i.e. “we will sit and drink” or “we will die of thirst”) from the sentence “I am thirsty” when it is standing alone.

That is the difference in two different situations, both of which can easily happen at the same time, (although at two different places and to two different groups of people). But there is another kind of context to be considered, namely, historical context.

Let us look at another sentence: “They stole his coat”. Considering the context, in today’s world this sentence would mean little more than a nuisance on the part of the person whose coat was stolen. Somehow, at least in the western societies, it is the matter-of-course that a person has more than just one coat in their possession, so besides the unpleasantness of walking home without a coat, or losing some money, if the coat was of a higher value, no bigger harm was done.

If, however, we use the sentence in the context of a medieval man, some one thousand years ago, when the production of things was done manually, and therefore extremely expensive for a common man, and if we consider other aspects of the time, like bad crop harvests, extremely cold climate, no opportunity to make some money and thus buy new clothes, the loss of a coat could mean a certain death to some.

It is this historical context which we need to take into account, when reading literature, especially historical novels or works by classical writers, who lived many centuries before us. We now may find many things quite unbelievable, which at that time were fairly commonplace, and the other way round.

There is one more thing to be considered when talking about the historical context, and that is the relativity of our perception. It is quite amazing, how fast our societies have developed and changed. We can literally touch the “old world” through our grandparents, without realizing it. I think it can be seen very clearly using the following example:

Consider the sentence: “We need to call the doctor.” Let’s say someone gets injured in the street. People come together to help and in no time, dozen of them have their mobile phones in hand ready to call the doctor, so he can come and help as soon as possible.

Consider the same situation some 35 years ago, when there were no mobile phones, only landlines. How was such a situation dealt with then? People would run to the nearest shop or a phone booth to make the call!

And now talk to your grandparents, they tell you about the world they were born into, when “to call the doctor” meant to run several kilometres, barefoot, in the snow, and to hope that the doctor would be at home and come in time to help the patient.

That is how much the world has changed in 100 years, which is not a long time at all, as we made our point here. How could you not have misunderstanding between the generations. There are still people living among us who can remember times with no phones, gas or even electricity. And you may have given them mobile phone, but they will not understand it. They understand what that thing is, but they do not understand how to deal with it, because giving it to them, you are putting it into that context of life within which it did not exist.

And the man under the willow? Yes, he was a fool.