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There is no denying that when an author writes a text there is more meaning in it than just the obvious plot, authors constantly litter their texts with themes, double entendre, metaphor etc. all of which can be easily missed by the reader. If one reader was to miss many of these techniques but another was to pickup on most, then surely the latter would have understood the work better, and in the way it was intended, and therefore their interpretation is the more valid of the two.
However we could argue that the text was written badly, because certain readers cannot understand it in the way it was intended. All this is just a small part of one of the biggest debates in modern literature and criticism, and that is whether or not it is necessary to know the history and context behind a book to fully understand it. It used to be that a critic would say that the best way to understand a work is to understand each individual author, and the circumstances behind their text, today however the general feeling is that it is best not to cloud the readers judgement with all the facts behind a text. Critics would today say that the best way to read a text is to ignore everything that goes with it and just concentrate on what you, the reader, picks up from it.
The reason this debate is so important in relation to this essay is that the amount of information the reader is given about a text will always affect, not only their understanding of it, but also the way in which they understand it. That is to say that if a reader is given a lot of information about a text then it is bound to make them except the book in the way it was intended. If they had not been given that information then it is very likely that they would have interpreted it in a way that was closer and more personal to them (‘interpretation is a function of identity…all of us as we read, use literary work to symbolise and finally to replicate ourselves’ – Norman Holland, Introduction to Literature 13).
In this example which of the two interpretations is more creditable, should the perfect text be written in such a way as to eliminate any interpretations other than what was intended by the author; or should it be written in a way that leaves the meaning open to debate and therefore have an infinite number of interpretations? Either way once a text has been shown to the public then the author has no control of what the reader will make of it, or how it is interpreted, and so it is left to the reader to make their own judgements and except it in the way that they want to. So is their interpretation incorrect? Obviously there is no way to prove the answer to this question but in this essay I intend to discuss both sides to the argument and draw up a conclusion as to what I think the answer is.
The most obvious place to start would be by looking at other people’s interpretations of texts, and some of those interpretations are in films. I realise that film is never the best example to use when discussing literature because the plot and script are very rarely the same as the original. However, in the case of Shakespeare, this is not always true because the text is so well written and so powerful that it would be wrong and completely missing the point of making the film if you were to change it.
Also the interpretations in films are usually much more diverse and varied which makes it a good example to look at because if you can find an interpretation which has been recommended to students as one not to use, as valid (‘…most candidates appeared to know Macbeth well. Some, however, were handicapped by having seen a film version…candidates should remember that it is Shakespeare’s text which is being examined.’ – Holderness, Interpreting Shakespeare 113); then that goes a long way to show that any interpretation is indeed a valid one. In the conclusion of a book called Interpreting Shakespeare on Screen the author sums up how Shakespeare is generally interpreted by the directors:
‘I have considered the ways in which films of Shakespeare’s plays, like literary
criticism, produce different views on issues such as violence (by, to a greater
extent, pretending it is absent from Shakespeare’s plays); gender (film changes
gender roles, producing different Ophilias and Gertrudes…); sexuality…;
race…; and finally, nationalism…’ (Cartmell, Interpreting Shakespeare 109)
Cartmell shows us here how every different director has interpreted parts of the same play differently. She makes it clear that she does not agree with everything they have done, however she does recognise them as valid interpretations and has devoted a lot of time and effort to studying these films and producing a book which shows us the different interpretations and techniques used in filming Shakespeare’s plays. I have to agree with Cartmell on the point that to try and say that there is no violence in Shakespeare is ridiculous, all you have to do is look at Macbeth or Hamlet to see that that is wrong. These directors who have chosen to ignore this violence must have interpreted it in a different way, perhaps they saw the violence as justified and so chose to ignore it for that reason.
Whatever the reason, is this interpretation as valid as Cartmell’s and mine? I would like to say that it is not but I cannot rule it out without having the other side of the argument put to me, and once an argument has been put forward surely that gives their view some sort of validity. If you have two people who have interpreted a section of prose differently and they can both argue their theory well then who is to say that they are not both valid.
On the other hand if you again have two people with different views about a book’s meaning but this time one of them manages to persuade the other that they are wrong and so changes his mind, then would this not mean that the person with the better and stronger argument is the only one with the valid interpretation? After all the dictionary definition of valid is ‘soundly reasoned or having legal force’ and so if someone has an opinion about a text and stands by it but cannot argue the point surely this makes their opinion an invalid one.
In An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory reader-response criticism is summed up in three different ways. Firstly it is said that each individual, when reading, will always respond in a personal way. They will take what is written and match it to the situation they are in or have been in, and so can relate to the text better by doing this. This theory would explain why different people come up with different interpretations, it also suggests that each of those interpretations are valid because if you are relating a text to your personal experiences then it has to be a genuine response.
Like every theory though there is always another side to the argument and this is where Stanley Fish’s idea that each reader belongs to a ‘community of readers’ comes in. There is still the idea that the reader relates to the text with their personal experience, and I do not think that many people would dispute that idea, but what Fish says is that the personal side to it is much more generalised. It is more to do with your background and your education, someone from England would interpret a book differently than someone from Africa because their backgrounds are completely different.
The third explanation that is given is Wolfgang Iser’s view, which is the one I relate to the most. His theory is that the reader’s imagination is what produces the interpretation. If there is a point in the text which is not fully explained then we, the reader, are left to work it out for ourselves, for example in King Lear when Cordillia tells her father that she loves him ‘according’ to her ‘bond’, the reader is left wondering why she did that and not just make something up to rival her sisters’ answers; was it because she is stubborn or perhaps for moral reasons? The answer that the reader comes up with is their imagination filling in the gap. As Iser said the reader ‘is drawn into the events and made to supply what is meant from what is not said’ (Iser 1995, 24). This is particularly relevant when it comes to explaining interpretation because it is ‘what is not said’ in a text that gets the reader thinking, if a detail is mentioned but not explained then it is left to the reader to make up their own conclusions.
Northrop Frye shares the same opinion as Iser, he wrote that reading is ‘like a picnic to which the author brings the words and the reader the meaning’ (Frye, http://www.clas.ufi.edu). Interpretation is a huge part of literature, it is involved in any type of reading that we do and it is completely up to the reader to how that literature is receive.
The author, or his input anyway, dies as soon as they let the public see their text which leaves the reader on their own to read between the lines and come up with whatever they like. Having said this it leaves us thinking that if the author leaves the interpretation up to the reader then how can that interpretation be wrong, every author excepts the fact that their book will be taken in a way that wasn’t intended and they will not try to change that because it is all part of literary criticism. An author wouldn’t ever say that someone’s opinion was invalid because valid does not mean it is what was intended it only means that it is justified.
One of Iser’s main points whenever he is talking of interpretation is that ‘Every interpretation transposes something into a different register that is not part of the subject matter to be interpreted. Therefore each interpretation is an act of translation, in the course of which something is shifted into what it is not.’ (Iser, http://sun3.lib.uci.edu). What he means is that interpretation might as well mean the same as translation when talking about literature; because the author is not sitting next to the reader and explaining what was actually meant the reader has to do the working out for themselves, which means that they may translate what is written in front of them into ‘what it is not’. The reader is reading things in the text which were not put there deliberately, they are reading not what is said but what has not been said so a large group of people who all read the same text have no chance of all reading the same thing because everybody will have filled in the gaps slightly differently.
‘If the poem has a voice, it is articulated before, and one rearticulates it, reads it with one’s own voice, one has a reading which cannot properly be univocal.’ (John Lye, http://www.brocku.ca/english). This is much the same point as Frye was making with his example of a picnic; the author only produces the words and then it is the reader’s job to find meaning to these words. That almost makes it sound as if the reader has the greater task out of the two and it maybe that they do if once they have read a work and come up with their interpretation (or translation) they are then told that it is not a valid reading of that text.
I have said that this topic of interpretation is one of the largest in modern literature and it is very closely linked with an equally large topic, deconstruction. The obvious source to turn to on this is The Critic as Host. In Lye’s commentary of this essay he makes a very good summary of what Miller had written:
‘Deconstruction, Miller seems to be concluding, opens us to the power
and the complexities of language, thought, tradition, influence, meaning,
to the ambiguities and paradoxes which really constitute what we
once mistook for a unified field theory of human knowledge, by providing
a form, a way of proceeding, which acknowledges the deep mysteries
of meaning and which allows us to free ourselves from the tyrannies
of univocal reading.’ (Lye, http://www.brocku.ca/english).
There are two parts to this quote that I want to briefly discuss. Firstly, the fact that deconstruction ‘opens us to the power’ of language, thought and meaning. This cannot be said better in any other way, this is exactly what deconstruction does and it is this that leads the readers on to making their own interpretations of a text. Deconstruction makes us, the reader, think and analyse what has been written and from that draw up our conclusion of what was actually meant. The second part I wanted to look at is the fact that deconstruction allows us ‘to free ourselves from the tyrannies of univocal reading.’ Is ‘univocal reading’ actually a tyranny?
Miller and Lye obviously think so, and I would agree, if literature was as straight cut as being able to read a book and draw up exactly the same interpretation ass everyone else there would be no need or point to study it. So how does deconstruction free us from this tyranny? The answer is because it forces the reader to think for themselves, to interpret a text in the way they want it interpreted instead of how the author, or even a teacher tells them to interpret it. Deconstruction forces the reader to be open minded about a text; to try and read something almost original into it. Again this all leads to a different interpretation to what others have read. However, the question of whether thinking for oneself, and the new ideas and interpretations that brings is valid or not is still present.
When I picked this question I always thought that the only possible answer was that every interpretation is a valid one, that is the opinion that most people hold. However, after exploring the topic I have found a few doubts. Although they come to expect it, is it really fair to take an authors text that they have probably been working on for a matter of years and completely change the meaning of it? Surely what they write is personal to them, not necessarily as an experience they have had but more that they have devoted so much time to their work to a standard that they see as perfection. They then introduce it to the public and a critic misinterprets it and gives it a bad review because they did not like their own translation of what was written.
These doubts I have are not strong enough to change my mind, but they are there and should not be ignored. In closing I do believe that everybody is entitled to their own opinion, and literary criticism is exactly that, opinions. There is no way to write a text and ensure that every reader interprets it in the way it was intended. Authors are very interested to learn about different interpretations of their works and I think that it is this acceptance and acknowledgement from them that not proves but should persuade people that any interpretation of any work is a valid one. I will finish with a quote from an interpretation of Miller’s The Critic as Host that sums up what I believe to be the answer to whether all interpretations are valid or not: ‘The root of idea is the word for image. To imagine is to image. All figures are not what they figure. Univocality is impossible. Everything always means something else.'(Lye,http://www.brocku.ca/english).