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1.4: Language, Misconceptions, and Authorial Intention in Literature

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    The Language of Literature

    One of the problems in reading literature, of course, is that language itself can be so slippery. Let me give two examples to show what I mean. In Shakespeare’s Othello, Othello is describing how Desdemona loved to hear the tales of his adventures, and he says

    She wish’d she had not heard it, yet she wish’d

    That heaven had made her such a man. (I.3.162-63)

    Now what exactly do those lines mean? We must assume that Shakespeare knew what he was doing with language, and yet these lines contain an obvious ambiguity. Do they mean that Desdemona wished that heaven had made a man like Othello for her (reading “her” as an indirect object) or do they mean that she wished she had been made a man so that she could have such adventures (reading “her” as a direct object)? Should Shakespeare have clarified what he meant? Did poor old Shakespeare make a mistake here? As you might expect, the answers to those last two questions are both “no.” The ambiguity is intentional, and both readings are “correct.” On the one hand, Desdemona is revealing her love for Othello. She admires him and his deeds and wishes that a man like that existed for her. When we consider the kind of circumscribed life that a Renaissance woman of Desdemona’s class was forced to live and the poor impression that most of the other men in the play make on us, her wish is even easier to understand.

    On the other hand, given that circumscribed life, she also might well wish that she had been male and she reveals that she is not simply a timid, shrinking woman who exists to be used by men in any way they choose. She is someone who rebels against the limits that confront her, and her words here prepare us for her independent actions as the play progresses. So Desdemona’s wish is deliberately ambiguous, and both sides of the ambiguity are significant. What we must remember, then, is that writers use words the way artists use paint. In a work of literary artistry, none of the words are accidental or arbitrary, and if they seem ambiguous or out of place, we must try to understand why the writer used them. Yes, occasionally a writer makes a mistake, as Keats did when he identified Cortez as the European discoverer of the Pacific Ocean, but generally we have to assume that writers know what they are doing; and before we attack their use of words, we must try to understand them.

    This point leads to the second problem with language, which is that words change their meanings. The Oxford English Dictionary (affectionately known as the OED) gives examples of how every word in it has been used over the centuries, and browsing in the OED to see how words have changed can be a lot of fun. Such browsing can also be important. One simple but well-known example will illustrate my point. In the Declaration of Independence we read that “all men are created equal,” but we must ask what this important phrase means. If it means that I am as good a baseball player as Stan Musial or as good a singer as Placido Domingo, then it is clearly untrue, but surely that is not what it means. It means rather that all men are equal before the law. Fine. But what about the phrase “all men”? Although Garry Wills has argued that Thomas Jefferson included African-American men in the category of “all men,” we can safely assume that many in his audience, including many of the Declaration’s signers, certainly did not. And no one would argue that Jefferson or any other signer of the Declaration included American Indians or women in the category of “all men.” Thus while we read (or I hope we read) the phrase generically to mean that everyone, of every gender, race, or religion, is equal before the law, the earliest readers of the Declaration understood it to mean that all white males are created equal.

    Whose reading is correct? The question itself is almost absurd. Apparently Jefferson may have meant one thing while his audience understood another—both eighteenth-century understandings— while we, from another perspective, understand it in yet another way. So, from an enlightened eighteenth-century point of view, Jefferson was correct. But from a common eighteenth-century point of view, deplorable though we may find it, Jefferson’s audience was correct. And from an ideal twenty-first-century point of view, which has not yet become a reality, our reading is correct. While it is essential that we recognize the superiority of our reading of this phrase, we also must, in the interest of historical accuracy, acknowledge at least two eighteenth-century readings of the phrase. As we saw in the example from Othello, multiple meanings abound; and even if we can argue that one interpretation has some kind of primacy, we must be sensitive to other possibilities that exist not as alternatives but as complements to the readings we prefer. And to return to our earlier discussion of intention, do we want to read this passage according to what we think Jefferson’s intentions might have been or according to the way the language is now understood?

    Of course, this approach to reading requires a great deal of flexibility from the reader, who must be open to multiple interpretations and to taking different approaches, an openness that may contradict human nature. This view also runs counter to what we usually learn in school, where the emphasis is so often on finding the single correct answer to a question rather than on asking complex questions and then considering their complexity. Certainly the latter method cannot be tested with a multiple-choice exam and graded by a computer, but schools are responding to and reinforcing a society that rewards the single correct answer. Consequently, when people read literature, they are afraid that they are not getting what it “really” says. Even if they enjoy the reading, they fear, often quite mistakenly, that they are missing the “message.”

    Messages and Misconceptions About Reading Literature

    Here is another misconception about literature: that it contains messages, hidden or otherwise. Too often people approach literature as though it were all like Aesop’s Fables. Those fables are wonderful: they tell stories, and each story is followed by a moral, such as “Necessity is the mother of invention.” But very little literature works that way. Literature does have a moral dimension, of course, but great works cannot be summed up in pithy moral statements. A person who reads Sophocles’ Oedipus the King and decides that the point of the play is “don’t kill your father and marry your mother” has perhaps followed the action of the play but has missed the important points that the play makes. Of course, anyone who needs to read a play to learn that important lesson probably has other, more serious problems. One basis for such misconceptions is our uncertainty about what a work may be saying, which leads us to the easiest answer we can think of, an answer which is often a cliché or a moral truism. (This tendency is obviously related to our desire to get the one “correct” answer.) Another basis is the tendency among teachers to ask what the “theme” of a work is. This question is one that has often puzzled me because any good work contains multiple themes; when we pretend that a work has a single theme, we are likely to reduce a complex work to a single, aphoristic “message.” Telegrams convey messages, and if authors wanted to communicate such messages, they would send telegrams (or tweets) or write tracts or publish aphorisms. However authors want to convey some of the complexities and contradictions of human existence, and to reduce those qualities to “messages” or even to “main themes” is to do violence to what an author is trying to accomplish.

    For example, the theme of most Renaissance love poetry (most of which was written by men) can be reduced to “I love her. She doesn’t love me. Oh rats.” We can find this “theme” in Petrarch, in Shakespeare, in Spenser, in Sidney, even in contemporary country-western music. Frankly it does not need to be said all that often, and if this is really all that those poets were saying, we would be foolish to waste our time reading them. But what they were doing was in fact quite different. They were using this stock situation to explore such aspects of the world as religion, the self, the nature of relationships, and the nature of love itself. Focusing only on their usnrequited love is like buying a bicycle because of its color: the color may be interesting, but a person who decides on the basis of the color has missed the whole point of the bicycle.

    Furthermore, a good deal of the enjoyment in such poems comes from the clever ways in which poets use that stock situation for their own purposes, often to mock their own speakers, as Sir Thomas Wyatt does in “They Flee from Me,” or even to be deeply critical of their speakers, as Sir Philip Sidney does in Astrophel and Stella (a point, incidentally, about which many Renaissance scholars might disagree).

    The speaker in Wyatt’s poem may lament his beloved’s apparent lack of faithfulness to him, but the words he uses to describe their relationship make it clear why she has abandoned him. He compares her to birds (or perhaps to squirrels—it’s hard to tell), little creatures that come to his window and eat out of his hands. This comparison reveals that he thinks of her as a little domesticated pet, another creature who eats out of his hands; and as the poem continues, he reveals further that he thinks of her only in sexual terms as an object that he can use, not as a real person. Can it be any wonder that she has abandoned him? Part of the fun of this poem comes in watching the doltish speaker reveal himself as a fool while he thinks that he is exposing his lady’s unfaithfulness. At the same time, this speaker is completely mystified because he truly believes himself to be a sincere and faithful lover. Similarly, Sidney’s Astrophel shows himself to be a shallow, if ardent, lover—a young man who knows the rules of the game of love but who seems incapable of realizing that his beloved Stella does not want to play. On the other hand, Edmund Spenser’s lover in the sonnets of the Amoretti learns what it means to be a real lover and, in an extraordinary turn of events for a Renaissance sonnet sequence, actually marries the lady.

    Can we take three such different poets, all of them writing in the sixteenth century, and talk about the “theme” of their poems? They are exploring human existence by examining the essential human emotion of love, but they are doing so in distinctly different ways and having fun while they do so.

    Of course, there are a number of misconceptions about literature that have to be gotten out of the way before anyone can enjoy it. One misconception is that literature is full of hidden meanings. There are certainly occasional works that contain hidden meanings. The biblical book of Revelation, for example, was written in a kind of code, using images that had specific meanings for its early audience but that we can only recover with a great deal of difficulty. Most literary works, however, are not at all like that. Perhaps an analogy will illustrate this point. When I take my car to my mechanic because something is not working properly, he opens the hood and we both stand there looking at the engine. But after we have looked for a few minutes, he is likely to have seen what the problem is, while I could look for hours and never see it. We are looking at the same thing. The problem is not hidden, nor is it in some secret code. It is right there in the open, accessible to anyone who knows how to “read” it, which my mechanic does and I do not. He has been taught how to “read” automobile engines and he has practiced “reading” them. He is a good “close reader,” which is why I continue to take my car to him.

    The same thing is true for readers of literature. Generally authors want to communicate with their readers, so they are not likely to hide or disguise what they are saying, but reading literature also requires some training and some practice. Good writers use language very carefully, and readers must learn how to be sensitive to that language, just as the mechanic must learn to be sensitive to the appearances and sounds of the engine. Everything that the writer wants to say, and much that the writer may not be aware of, is there in the words. We simply have to learn how to read them. Another popular misconception is that a literary work has a single “meaning” (and that only English teachers know how to find that meaning). There is an easy way to dispel this misconception. Just go to a college library and find the section that holds books on Shakespeare. Choose one play, Hamlet, for example, and see how many books there are about it, all by scholars who are educated, perceptive readers. Can it be the case that one of these books is correct and all the others are mistaken? And if the correct one has already been written, why would anyone need to write another book about the play? The answer is that there is no single correct way to read a good piece of literature.

    Again, let me use an analogy to illustrate this point. Suppose that everyone at a meeting were asked to describe a person who was standing in the middle of the room. Imagine how many different descriptions there would be, depending on where the viewer sat in relation to the person. Furthermore, an optometrist in the crowd might focus on the person’s glasses; a hair stylist might focus on the person’s haircut; someone who sells clothing might focus on the style of dress; a podiatrist might focus on the person’s feet. Would any of these descriptions be incorrect? Not necessarily, but they would be determined by the viewers’ perspectives. They might also be determined by such factors as the viewers’ ages, genders, or ability to move around the person being viewed, or by their previous acquaintance with the subject. So whose descriptions would be correct? Conceivably all of them, and if we put all of these correct descriptions together, we would be closer to having a full description of the person.

    This is most emphatically not to say, however, that all descriptions are correct simply because each person is entitled to his or her opinion. If the podiatrist is of the opinion that the person is five feet, nine inches tall, the podiatrist could be mistaken. And even if the podiatrist actually measures the person, the measurement could be mistaken. Everyone who describes this person, therefore, must offer not only an opinion but also a basis for that opinion. “My feeling is that this person is a teacher” is not enough. “My feeling is that this person is a teacher because the person’s clothing is covered with chalk dust and because the person is carrying a stack of papers that look like they need grading” is far better, though even that statement might be mistaken.

    So it is with literature. As we read, as we try to understand and interpret, we must deal with the text that is in front of us; but we must also recognize both that language is slippery and that each of us individually deals with it from a different set of perspectives. Not all of these perspectives are necessarily legitimate, and we are always liable to be misreading or misinterpreting what we see. Furthermore, it is possible that contradictory readings of a single work will both be legitimate, because literary works can be as complex and multifaceted as human beings. It is vital, therefore, that in reading literature we abandon both the idea that any individual’s reading of a work is the “correct” one and the idea that there is one simple way to read any work. Our interpretations may, and probably should, change according to the way we approach the work. If we read War and Peace as teenagers, then in middle age, and then in old age, we might be said to have read three different books. Thus, multiple interpretations, even contradictory interpretations, can work together to give us a better understanding of a work.

    Author's Intent

    Intentions are a problem in studying literature. One complication is easily dispensed with. Teachers should never ask, “What was the author trying to say here?” The question, of course, implies that the author was an incompetent who was so unsuccessful in making a point that student readers have to decipher it. The real question is something like “What do these words say?” You may notice the phrasing of that question, which does not ask, “What does the author mean?” or “What does the author intend?”

    The reason for that phrasing is that we cannot know (or we have to pretend that we cannot know) what the author intended. When we read literature, our focus has to be on what the words say, not on what the author intended. One reason that we have to take this stance is that an author’s words, even an author who is totally in control of those words, inevitably say more than the author intended. It even happens that the words may mean something that the author did not intend. I once attended a poetry reading, at the end of which someone asked the poet, “Why do you have so many images of flayed animals and animal skins in your poems?” to which the poet replied, “Do I?” After rereading his poems, he said, “Yes, I see that I do,” and he then tried to find a reason for those images, but clearly he was taken by surprise at what he himself had written.

    Another reason to avoid focusing on the author’s intention is that if we know (or even think we know) what the author intended, we might cease our own interpretive activities. The author’s understanding of his or her work might be important, but strangely enough, it is only one understanding and might not be the best one. To use an analogy from music, Igor Stravinsky conducted many of his own compositions for recordings. Those versions are good, and they are surely important, but they are not the best interpretations of his own music.

    Furthermore, we can never really know what an author intended, even if the author tells us. For one thing, authors are cagey creatures and might lie to us. For another, the author might not always know what his or her intention was. After all, how often do we really know our full intentions when we do or say something? And authors frequently use speakers in their works who are not themselves. If one of Shakespeare’s characters says something, we have to remember that we are listening to a character, not to Shakespeare. So, too, with poets and storytellers. Jonathan Swift’s Lemuel Gulliver tells us many things that Swift himself would never have believed. So focus on the words, not on the author. Furthermore, even if we think we know what the author intended, we must remember that the author’s reading of a work is still only one among many possibilities.

    Contributors and Attributions

    1.4: Language, Misconceptions, and Authorial Intention in Literature is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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