What The Past Can Teach Us About The Present

Many of the English texts that are studied, in high school English classes, share a strong similarity. They were written in the present but set in the past. This might be anywhere from a few months before the author wrote it to several hundred years. Students often struggle with this writing choice, as analysing texts set in the past can be challenging for several reasons. To start with, texts set in the past often utilise outdated slang, sayings, and words that sound odd to modern readers.

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Secondly, texts set in the past often present the reader with confronting, challenging scenarios. Usually, these concern social issues such as sexism, racism, small-town prejudice, and so on. While many of these challenging issues are still prevalent in today’s society, they are nowhere near as socially acceptable as they were in the past.
This is one of the central benefits of setting texts in the past. It provides readers with a window into how widespread taboo topics used to be. Including how controversial issues that contemporary society has fought hard to eliminate such as Racisim and sexism. In the past concepts such as these used to be seen as ‘normal’, with people casually saying unsavoury comments that would rarely be tolerated in today’s society.

It allows you to compare the past and the present

Setting texts in the past allows readers to compare the past with the present. It gives them the opportunity to discuss issues such as: How were things back then? How are things now? In what way are things different now? In what way are things the same now?

Questions like this are extremely important in English studies, as they help students to identify how society is continually changing, and how the popular views amongst society are often changing, usually for the better.

For example, Craig Silvey’s Australian novel Jasper Jones was published in 2009, but set 40 years prior to that, in 1969. The date is important to the novel, which deals with small-town prejudice, racism, rumours and closed-mindedness. One of the central problems the main characters face is this:

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The title character’s girlfriend is mysteriously found dead in a bush clearing. Jasper Jones goes to one of his friends for help, and the friend suggests they go to the police, and let them handle it. Jasper promptly rejects this idea, stating that because he, Jasper, is an Aboriginal teenager in a predominantly white town, and has been falsely scapegoated in the past, that if they go to the police, Jasper claims, then he will be arrested for her murder. Jasper’s friend says that is not true, because Jasper did not do it.

Jasper responds with:

“Listen, Charlie, we can’t tell anyone. No way. Specially the police. Because they are gonna say it was me. Straight up. Understand?”

The novel Jasper Jones examines the harmful effects of racism across society, and looks at how racism reduces people to caricatures of who they really are. As it is set during the Vietnam war, Jeffrey, a Vietnamese teenager, repeatedly gets abused racially, being called ‘Cong’, in reference to the war.

What is so significant about Jasper Jones’ setting is that it provides readers with a view of how Australian society has changed since 1969, but also… some of the ways it has stayed the same. Jasper’s concerns about being unfairly scapegoated because of his background, sadly, still ring true, even in 2021. While today’s society may have taken steps towards eliminating racism and sexism, studying Jasper Jones can show us that there is still work to do.

Montana 1948

Another text that is often studied in English is the American novella, Montana 1948 by Larry Watson. Published in 1993, and set 45 years prior to that, this novella explores many of the same themes as Jasper Jones.

It concerns a problem the Hayden family, located in a small, rural town in Montana, USA, is experiencing. Their housekeeper, a Native American woman called Marie Little Soldier, has fallen ill, but refuses to go to the town doctor, Frank Hayden. Frank is the uncle of the narrator of the story, 12-year-old David, and the brother of David’s father, the sheriff of the town, Wesley Hayden.

The Hayden family investigate Marie’s reluctance to visit Frank, and discover that Frank has been sexually assaulting his female Native American patients. Wesley’s wife urges Wesley to arrest Frank, ensuring that justice is done. This introduces the central problem, and key theme, of the story.

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Wesley is under enormous pressure from his extended family to just look the other way. They claim that hurting Native American women is not a serious crime, in and of itself.

Wesley’s central dilemma is the basis for the book. Whether to arrest his brother and shame the Hayden family name or to look the other way and allow the abuse to continue. Through this dilemma readers are granted a unique insight into how severe race relations used to be. With crimes against non-white people rarely viewed as severely as crimes against white people. Turning a blind eye to the ‘lesser’ crimes committed against non-whites is a central theme of this novella. This quote, that one of Wesley’s co-workers says to young David highlights this:

“You know what your granddad said it means to be a peace officer in Montana? He said it means knowing when to look and when to look away.”

Studying Montana 1948 helps readers to better understand, through a modern perspective, a number of key points and themes regarding institutionalised racism.

  • That there has always been pressure from external forces to keep things as they are. For racism and sexist to remain in power, society must not progress in its views or attitudes. As we see in Montana 1948, people who worked at fighting against racism and sexism often faced enormous pressure against those who wanted to keep things as they are.

How this can help YOUR studies

When you are studying a text set in the past, but written in modern times, it is worthwhile to understand how characters within the novel react to important issues, regarding racism, sexism, and so on.
Do they:

  • Try to challenge it?
  • Accept it?
  • Secretly want to challenge it, but feel peer pressure to let it continue?
  • Want to challenge it but do not even know where to start, due to the other side having overwhelming support?

By identifying these key points, you will be in a better position to analyse the outdated views within the text from a modern perspective. By doing so, you are ensuring your analysis of it will be able to address several key points. Including what ways society has changed, and in what ways it has stayed the same.

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Jasper Jones and Montana 1948, despite being set in different countries (Australia and the US) and different times (1969 and 1948) were both written years after their setting. They both concern characters addressing a similar problem.
Whether they should let the ‘status quo’ of their small town remain as it is, or whether they should seek to challenge it by confronting the outdated views of the townsfolk. In turn showing them exactly why racism, sexism, and other forms of prejudice are harmful and wrong.

Analysing a text set in the past can be rewarding once you work at identifying how views and attitudes have changed over time. Including examining the outdated attitudes of some of the characters through a modern perspective. It helps you effectively understand that a key aspect of progress is that it is ongoing. If everyone does their bit to eliminate prejudiced views, society will be a better place for everyone.

Good luck!


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