Nowadays we tend to interpret Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843) as a festive story with a moral message, but in fact the story was written with a very particular political context in mind. Through the story, Dickens attempts to discredit Thomas Malthus’ view that giving more food to the poor would increase poverty, creating an endless spiral. However, Dickens presents this criticism subtly, such that anyone without solid knowledge of Victorian opinions on social welfare would likely not pick up on the political message of A Christmas Carol at all.
Here Foster gives an example of when knowledge of historical context can be highly important. Indeed, it is no coincidence that more political schools of literary criticism (such as Marxist or feminist criticism) tend to place particular emphasis on historical context, as this information helps to reveal the ways in which a particular text expresses political opinion.
Foster argues that writing with an explicit, straightforward political agenda tends to be unappealing to everyone except those living in the same time and place as the text was written, and who share the author’s views. On the other hand, “political” writing—note the quotation marks—is rich, fascinating, and important. Foster argues that “all writing is political on some level,” and that one way to locate political elements in a work of literature is to examine how the lives of the characters fit within the society in which they live. Similarly, if a literary work features characters from the ruling class, an author might convey disdain for the hierarchical class system by presenting these characters in an unflattering light.
Again, historical context is critical here. Some texts depict members of the ruling class in order to criticize the class system, however many texts focus on the ruling class simply because, for centuries, this was dictated by social and cultural convention. Indeed, some authors deliberately deviated from this convention in order to defy the notion that the upper class were more interesting, important, or morally significant than the working class.
Discovering the political angle within a work of literature can be challenging, and it helps to bear in mind the author’s background, the historical context in which they lived, and any sociocultural traditions they might be writing against (for example Edgar Allen Poe and Washington Irving, while they hardly presented the USA as a utopia, nonetheless wrote in a way that was critical of the European tradition). Some literary scholars, particularly those who are themselves politically-oriented, argue that every work of literature is political because it is “either part of the social problem or part of the solution.” Foster doesn’t quite agree, but does maintain that almost all works of literature somehow address the political world around them.
The difference between Foster’s view here and those of the scholars he identifies as more political is that Foster is primarily interested in the aesthetic dimensions of a work of literature, meaning the creative decisions the writer has made and the impact these have on the reader. More political scholars may read literature less as an end in itself and more as a means through which to discover different historical realities and opinions, or to debate issues such as class-, gender-, or race-based inequality.
For this reason, it is very important to bear in mind the social and political context in which a work of literature was written. This can be especially helpful because historically, many authors—such as women and members of the working-class—would have expected to have their work judged differently based on the social and political climate in which they lived.
Some scholars argue that authors who are not white, male, or upper-class are “marked” as political whether they wish to write political literature or not. These authors are seen as challenging the status quo just by picking up the pen.