Context and The Scarlatti Tilt

Richard Brautigan’s short short story has many uses in an English class, particularly as a stimulus to discuss social attitudes.

“It’s very hard to live in a studio apartment in San Jose with a man who’s learning to play the violin.” That’s what she told the police when she handed them the empty revolver.

Traditional questions include:

  • What is your immediate response to this story?
  • How many characters are in the story? Who are they?
  • Where is the story set?
  • What has happened?
  • What will happen to the woman now?

Students may add more detail, or extend the story, though something more interesting happens when you work with the concept of context.

Context is the range of personal, social, historical and cultural conditions in which a text is composed. The context of the reader impacts reception, too. This is an important concept in the English syllabus – I usually introduce this idea to junior classes by suggesting context = the time, place and society of a text. Yet the following exercise deepens understanding:

  1. Identify the key words that provide context

“It’s very hard to live in a studio apartment in San Jose with a man who’s learning to play the violin.” That’s what she told the police when she handed them the empty revolver.

2. What happens if we change these words?

Uni Students

“It’s quite easy living in a share house near campus with a woman who’s learning to cook.” That’s what he told his friend when he exchanged the take-away container for $10.

The Flu

“It’s very hard to live in a caravan in winter with a man who leaves the door open.” That’s what she said to the doctor as he handed over her prescription.

And finally

“It’s difficult being in an isolated cottage in the forest with a dwarf who’s just plain lazy.” that’s what the alchemist told the gypsy as they examined the poison.

* image from nephymyhiro

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