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Roland Barthes (1915-1980) was a celebrated writer and theoretician, generally considered as one of the leading figures in French structuralism. In his landmark essay, ‘The Death of the Author’ (1968) he attacked the act of examining the author’s intentions as a means of understanding the text more thoroughly, ‘The image of literature to be found in ordinary culture is tyrannically centred on the author’. Barthes believed that to attain the ‘ultimate meaning’, the biography and psychology of the author should be cast aside by the reader and the focus should instead be on the text, ‘It is language that speaks not the author.
’ In applying Barthes’ theory to Virginia Woolf’s ‘Orlando’ (1927-28) and Jeanette Winterson’s ‘Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit” (1983-4) I hope to show that critics should not necessarily look to authorial intention for meaning in literature.
In the reading of both authors’ work, critics tend to pay particular interest to their lives. This is largely unsurprising as both women are of considerable interest.
They have dealt with issues such as discovering their homosexuality, and whilst married in Woolf’s case. Woolf met a tragic end when she drowned herself in the River Ouse and it is easy to look at her work in a different light knowing that she suffered from depression. Equally, as women writers it may be considered interesting to see how they react to being in a predominately male profession. Woolf dedicated ‘Orlando’ to Vita SackvilleWest, her lover, and in her diary she wrote, ‘One of these days, though, I shall sketch here like a grand historical picture, the outlines of all my friends… Vita should be Orlando, a young nobleman.
One critic described ‘Orlando’ as ‘the longest and most charming love-letter in literature.’ This comment appears to be entirely justified if ‘Orlando’ was not only written for Vita Sackville-West but also about her. The novel is heavily autobiographical as Nigel Nicolson, a descendent of Vita’s, takes pains to point out.
For example, when Orlando hisses ‘Jour de ma vie’ in Sasha’s ear he tells us that it is ‘the motto of the Sackvilles, referring to the Battle of Cr where one of them fought’. Woolf pays great attention to detail and includes friends of Vita’s as characters, objects and animals that Vita possessed and places that she actually visited. So if, ‘The writing of the book was bound up with her desire for Sackville-West’ then there is a clear argument that the text should be read as a ‘personal communication’ and that Woolf’s psychology is an integral aspect of the text. Similarly, Jeanette Winterson’s novel is thought to be largely autobiographical. The protagonist also takes the name of Jeanette and the character’s struggle against opposition to her sexuality may well have been experienced first-hand by Winterson when she disclosed that she was a lesbian. Winterson may subscribe to Barthes’ views to an extent as when asked if ‘Oranges’ was autobiographical she replied, ‘Its direct and uninhibited but it isn’t autobiography in the real sense.’
In declining to stress the parallels in her art and life she instead chooses to comment on the text itself. With both authors it is commonly recognised that their situations were of great inspiration to them and this is reflected in their work. So why then should a critic choose todiscard all this seemingly relevant material? Robert Webster wrote, ‘the more you knew about an author’s life the more you were likely to understand their literature’. But with the arrival of formalism this normative was challenged. Cleanth Brooks, an American formalist critic of the twentieth century believed that; ‘Speculation on the mental processes of the author takes the critic away from the work into biography and psychology’. She ascertains that the work itself should be studied, not the creation of it; examining the author’s life ‘describes the process of composition, not the structure of the thing composed’. In other words biographical information is surplus to requirements and actually gets in the way of analysing the text for what it is. An example of texts which have not been contaminated by biography or psychology are those of William Shakespeare.
As, arguably, the most respected writer in history it is surprising how little historians know about him, his motives and his intentions. A modern audience can read Shakespeare without any prior knowledge of his life and still appreciate the text. By this rationale the biographies of other authors are also unnecessary in understanding the ‘ultimate meaning’ and should be discarded to prevent losing sight of the actual text. The authors and their lives should be irrelevant to the quality of their work. In the modern climate of celebrity, the notion that the quality of the text is enough to sell the work is a slightly unfamiliar one but shouldn’t be neglected in reading.
Barthes argued, ‘A text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination’. By this he meant that the author and context of creation are of less importance than the context that it is received in and the reader. In the writing of ‘Orlando’ and ‘Oranges’ the authors had certain intentions and they attempted to convey them in the novels. However, once the works were published they are out of the hands of the authors and in the hands of the reader. The reader may or may not pick up on the intention as he infers what he chooses. To this effect he famously closed his essay with, ‘The birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the author’. William Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley wrote that the work ‘is detached from the author at birth and goes about the word beyond his power to intend about it or control it. The poem belongs to the public’. When writing ‘Oranges’ Winterson may have intended how the theme of fairy tales should be interpreted. However, Winterson is unable to manipulate every reader as to what her original intent was and as a result we should not look for a single intent but fit the themes into their contexts and analyse them within the text.
Authors will always be influenced by their sex, background, upbringing and culture and this subsequently will be evident, usually subconsciously, in their work. The influence of Woolf’s background on ‘Orlando’ can in part be seen through the recurring theme of biography. Woolf’s father was the founding editor of the Dictionary of National Biography which would have, no doubt, influenced her. The reader should try not to make assumptions on the work before they have reached their judgement individually.
Virginia Woolf believed that, ‘No one will admit that he can possibly mistake a novel written by a woman.’ This is indicative of a culture of reading where the source of the work is seen as important as the work itself. It is accepted as relevant that a reader can tell the style of a female writer from that of a male. As females, the work of Woolf and Winterson will inevitably trigger preconceptions in readers and as lesbians this stereotyping will be further developed when it should be irrelevant to the text.
‘To give the text an author is to impose a limit on that text’. If the reader looks at every text afresh and doesn’t consider the work within set parameters of literature and authorship then a multitude of different interpretations are possible. Whereas a reading of the text that revolves around the author’s intent confines the work, if the reader shuns authorial intent the work is liberated. When Woolf wrote ‘Orlando’ she could not have anticipated the relevance of her novel to transsexual rights in the twenty-first century. Upon Orlando’s return from Turkey she becomes imbued in three lawsuits as a result of her changed, female, form. The issues that arise today upon changing sex are relatively similar and people who had been through gender reassignment had limited rights.
However, a lengthy court case court case (30 years as opposed to the few hundred years of Orlando’s case) ruled this week that transsexuals were to have the right to change their birth certificates amongst other things intended to bring their rights in parity. In this way, with every new reader there is a new reading which keeps the text alive. ‘Orlando’ may have been merely a writer’s holiday, ‘I want to kick up my heels & be off,’ for Woolf but it also deals with issues such as the culturally constructed characteristics of humans and the concept of gender as performance, a stylised repetition of acts. The feminist critic Judith Butler discusses themes in ‘Orlando’ to be of interest when writing her acclaimed text ‘Gender Trouble’ in which she discusses the differences between sex and gender at length. Woolf surely had not intended to linger on themes as complex as these as she viewed her novel as something much more light-hearted. To look purely for authorial intent would be to deny the relevance of these themes to the novel.
In conclusion, there are valid reasons why the reader should not look for authorial intent but I don’t believe that authorial intent should be entirely overlooked. In reading ‘Oranges’, the biography of Winterson is evident but it appears not to be her design to mirror her own life through the characters and themes within her novel. Woolf, on the other hand, wrote ‘Orlando’ for very personal reasons and to intentionally ignore this aspect of the novel could be construed as misunderstanding the text. It can be interesting to compare two readings of the text, one concerned with authorial intent and one that doesn’t. Looking for authorial intent can be seen as another way of reading and interpreting literature and to subscribe only to Barthes’ theory limits our choices as readers. There is no single meaning in understanding literature so a reader should be aware of various theories and ways of reading. Another fault with not looking for authorial intent is that a curious reader will find it very difficult to look at the text entirely subjectively. The reader will tend to build a mental image and persona for the creator of the text without necessarily being conscious whilst they are doing it. In practice it is almost impossible to read a work without considering authorial intent unless it is anonymous as the reader will bring their individual preconceptions to the text. So, I think that attempting to read a text without considering the author’s intent can be a useful way of reading but I believe that various methods of approaching the text can be used on the same text to achieve a well rounded perspective.
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