One advantage of careful reading with some knowledge of historical context is that this strategy allows us to establish some understandings about the author's mentality, understandings that have a name in "Reader Response Theory": the horizon of expectations. Based on the work of Roman Ingarden, Wolfgang Iser, and Hans Robert Jauss, critics can speak of a culture being constructed in people's minds as a series of "schemata" (Ingarden) or predictable patterns of arrangement of things (walls on the side, ceiling above, floor below, "naturally," unless you're a nomad or an astronaut!). These schemata (plural of "schema") are part of "textual strategies" (Iser) which operate because people within the culture share a common set of understandings about what's possible, probable, impossible, etc., their horizon of expectations (Jauss). Is it likely that I can fly to Boston today? Not in Hawthorne's world for "Young Goodman Brown," so we suspect the dude in theforest is supernatural when he says he made it from Boston to Salem in under an hour. On August 3, 2000, at 10:13 AM, I might drive from Ellicott City to BWI and board the next shuttle flight to Boston in time for dinner with friends if the thunderstorms don't close BWI or Logan. Those are possible statements because of our shared horizon of expectations.
Though the mechanical operation of texts upon readers has been called into question since the heady days of structuralism, the notion of a shared horizon of expectations operates fairly obviously in everyday life. As an example, consider measurments of distance. Though the English use meters and the Americans use yards, these are still fairly similar units which appeal to a government-guaranteed standard of distance. It's easy to translate one into the other, and if we are careful about historical change, we can translate Virginia Woolf's meters into our yards with great accuracy. When a central government does not form part of our expectations, we may develop other methods of sharing an understanding of distance.
For instance, Eric Newby, an Englishman traveling in what is now Afghanistan, asked the Bashgali-speaking shepherds how far it was to a roadside inn. He was told: "One and a half kro." What's a kro? "One kro equals half an Iranian farsak." What's a farsak? "The distance a man travels over flat ground in an hour--about three and a half miles." Since the distance measure is actually relative to travel over level ground, however, a steep and hilly stretch of gorge could be "twelve kro" (about 21 miles) though it takes much more than 7 hours to cross. "Is it flat?," Newby asks. "Not a bit," his English friend tells him, and their Bashgali companion adds "More than twice a farsak-i-ghurg, a wolf's farsak" (A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush 126-7 & 130-31). Wolves travel faster than men on such terrain,apparently twice as fast, so their farsak is not a man's. Also, it behooves men to know their speed relative to the wolf's, for obvious reasons. So shepherds, Englishmen, and Afghani wolves all measure distance with differing horizons of expectations, and the humans' language operates differently because of them.
Let's use reader response criticism to take a controversy by its dilemmatic "horns." Aphra Behn's Oroonoko (1658) has been described as an anti-slavery tract, but it also can be called racist in its approach to describing its protagonists. Can we read this text without having to condemn its racism, treating it as just another cultural feature, or does its significance transcend any horizon of expectations. Is racism always and forever evil? That's a tough one, clearly in the realm of philosophy or religion, but on our plate because literature puts it there (thanks, Aphra!). How about this answer? I believe racism always was and forever will be evil, but people who don't share my schemata may not believe I am correct. How about slavery? Because of America's peculiar historical background, we tend to expect racism and slavery to occur together. That's the way our past has constructed our horizon of expectations. Others do not think these two phenomena are inevitably connected. For example, the Greeks who invented democracy in the sixth century BCE were slave-owners, too. However, their slavery was not race-based. Was theirs a "better" slave system because the slaves usually were captured warriors (like Oroonoko's!) and they did not think slaves were inhuman or genetically "lower"? More apparently thought it plausible that Greek-style slavery was a tolerable social institution--witness the Utopians' use of "slaves of the state" to do repugnant labor because they had committed terrible crimes.
So how does this consideration of racism's and slavery's horizons help us read Behn? In comparison with More's principle-based construction of slavery, Aphra Behn's response to slavery appears to have arisen from her revulsion at the manner in which slaves were treated, not from any categorical philosophical opposition to treating humans as "animate tools" of another's will. However, she may well have been on here way to thinking that one's will ought to be one's own to control after her struggles to do so as a woman writer in the C17. Her attitudes toward race-based thinking appear similar to those of other writers in her era, suggesting that they are a basic cultural assumption rather than an abberation. Should we tolerate early authors' inability to share our perceptions of what is evil, exactly or nearly, or should we refuse to read them on the grounds that their works promote evil by describing it tolerantly? I have no categorical answer to that question. For more discussion of this in relation to the anti-semitism of Chaucer's "Prioress' Tale," click here.