When it comes to interpreting great works of literature, whose prerogative is it — the author’s or the reader’s?
By Sana Hussain
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference
~ From The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost
When my ninth grade English teacher introduced us to this iconic poem by Frost, she made sure that we understood that these lines were about blazing your own trail, avoiding the beaten path, breaking new ground, and seeking out individuality. Quite simply, she used every platitude she could think of to insist on originality. In the years that followed, more teachers reiterated this established and accepted interpretation, claiming that, despite a few contradictions in the poem, it was essentially about breaking from tradition and being your own person. All of them were wrong.
Frost actually wrote this poem to mock his famously indecisive friend, Edward Thomas. Thomas had displayed his hesitance on the many walks the two writers went on together in England. To express exasperation at this characteristic, Frost wrote the lines that would eternally be [mis]used in motivational posters showing crossroads in a forest. What was written according to Frost in “private jest” was perceived very differently by his readers, subverting the actual intention of the poem.
While many chose not to reply, those who did were overwhelmingly dismissive, reprimanding, or condescending. But there were some writers who chose to humour the boy and give him the answers he had earnestly asked for. Among them, Saul Bellows, the Nobel Prize winning writer, called the entire exercise of ‘symbol-hunting’ quite absurd. On the other hand, writers like Joseph Heller encouraged the idea of the reader inventing his/her own meaning from a literary text, saying that every time a reader saw something that he was unaware of, he learned something new.
But perhaps the best response came from Ray Bradbury, the author whose most seminal work has often been misunderstood by readers. Comparing every story to a Rorschach test, he said, “If people find beasties and bedbugs in my ink-splotches, I cannot prevent it, can I? They will insist in seeing them anyway, and that is their privilege. Still, I wish people, quasi-intellectuals, did not try so hard to find the man under the old maid’s bed. More often than not, as we know, he simply isn’t there”.
Through his unique and harebrained survey, this young boy may have successfully settled the argument with his teacher, but the debate about whether the author’s intent or the reader’s response should dictate meaning persists in literary criticism. Advocates of reader-response criticism hold the view that the meaning of a literary text is created by the reader’s interpretation. This theory of criticism, supported by writers such as Cleanth Brooks and T.S. Eliot, gives the reader agency to determine the meaning of a text, divesting the author of authority over it. Contrastingly, the theory of authorial intent shifts emphasis from the inferences of the reader towards the author’s motive, considering his/her personality, life experiences and sociopolitical surroundings: the most important variables with which to judge the meaning of a text.
This debate presents two very different views of studying a literary text; each of these, on its own, holds little merit. It is safe to assume that a text means what its author meant for it to. Even if this approach runs the risk of being called superfluous, it ensures that the authenticity of the text remains intact. For instance, Ray Bradbury himself was miffed enough to walk out of a lecture hall when twenty-something whippersnappers said that his book ‘Fahrenheit 451’ did not mean what he said it meant. Much to his chagrin, the general response to the book disregarded his intended meaning: from television turning people away from literature to a metaphor on the perils of censorship.
There are too many examples of literary texts whose meanings have been horribly subverted, being read and admired for what they are not. Jack Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’ is remembered for popularising The Beat Generation (equivalent to the modern day hipsters), when in fact Kerouac never meant to pay any kind of tribute to the so-called “bohemian elements” he considered posers and failures written off by society. But despite the usurpation of his intended purpose, Kerouac’s displeasure could not have been worse than what Lewis Carroll would feel were he to find out the grotesque transformation his work had undergone because of readers’ understanding. ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’, the classic children’s tale that readers claim allegorizes drug use was, in fact, about the heretical influence of mathematics! The new concepts that were being introduced in the world of mathematics in the 19th century apparently perturbed Carroll so much that he decided to create Wonderland to show how all those new-fangled ideas had no basis in real life. Mutual feelings of annoyance over complicated math aside, if Carroll was so displeased by lengthier equations alone, it would not be a stretch to say he would not have reacted all too well were he to find out how his chaste story was being regarded. ‘The Great Gatsby’ too has been grotesquely misinterpreted over the years, with readers celebrating it for all the things it is deeply critical of. Rather than being regarded as a cautionary tale about extravagance and depravity, Fitzgerald’s critical depiction of the indulgent lifestyle of the Jazz Age has been romanticised in popular culture.
On the other hand, barring such catastrophic distortion by readers and critics, the ability to explore written texts and discover new meanings is in itself what lends robustness to literature. Language, in all its layered complexity, can signify a variety of emotions, memories and reactions which have a different impact on every reader. And when one puts to test the authorial intent approach on works like ‘Kubla Khan’, one wonders how the artist could have intended a specific meaning when he wrote most of it in an opium-induced slumber. Even, William Golding, whose ‘Lord of the Flies’ is considered rife with symbolism, said that he was as clueless about the meaning of his text as the readers.
In reality, “what the author means” is only one aspect of what language can signify. Through their writings, authors reveal more about themselves than they are aware of; their socio-cultural influences, political leanings, sexual orientation, and even social class. Critics from the Geneva school are of the opinion that reading literary works offers the chance to recreate not only the author’s intentions, but also the author’s consciousness in a reader’s mind. These critics see literature as an opportunity to explore the consciousness of the writer, form opinions and make judgments about their lives and worldviews based on their works.
So while it is imperative that a reader be aware of the context in which the author writes, it is not the only facet of a literary work. A combination of both approaches is needed to internalize the meaning, and critically appreciate a literary text. Just because the author meant one thing, does not mean that it is the only thing that the text can imply. The symbols and metaphors permit the readers to exist beyond themselves, allowing them to indulge in the primal act of questioning. Or as John Green puts it, “Life is a lot like pizza… Ultimately it doesn’t matter if the author intended a symbol to be there because the job of reading is not to understand the author’s intent. The job of reading is to use stories as a way into other people as we see ourselves, and when we do that we can look out at the world and see a giant endless set of beautiful variations of pizzas; the whole world composed of billions of beautiful, delicious pizzas.”
Sana Hussain is Features Editor at The Missing Slate.