Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Interpretation and Authorial Intent

Breaking news* in the literary world! A letter from Edith Wharton has been discovered that could alter how critics interpret the end of The House of Mirth!

Okay, so it's really only exciting to me (and other English-types), but it is a situation which makes me think of some of the issues we've discussed in Intro to Grad Studies. How much to we allow authorial intent to influence interpretation? Do we prescribe to the theory of the intentional fallacy (which means you ignore authorial intent), or do we try to figure out as closely as possible what the author wanted? And what role do letters and journals play into the editing/interpretive process?

As a critic, I want to take a more moderate approach. A work will always have plausible interpretations which we can never possibly validate according to authorial intention. Most of the works we discuss are written by those long gone. We can't dig up Shakespeare and ask him which version of Hamlet was the one he intended, so we have to muddle through it the best we can with the evidence we have.

To a certain degree authorial intent should influence how we interpret a work. For example, if an author created a female character, we can't really say that character is a man. If a character loves a woman, we can't argue that it's really a man--unless the woman turns out to be a man in drag. It just wouldn't make sense. There were times in my Intro to Grad Studies paper that I disagreed with a critic's interpretation because it didn't make sense in the text--they were reading what they wanted into the text**.

By the same regard, all we do have is the text. We can't necessarily postulate "what ifs" about it--we have to work with what is there. Which makes introducing letters, journals, etc into the interpretive process: we start moving into murky waters. Wharton's letter is certainly interesting, but should it change how we interpret the end of The House of Mirth? I'm not so sure--perhaps Wharton wanted it to be ambiguous when she reached that point in the novel's composition, but the letter reflected a phase where she was more certain about the character's fate. Plus, it just seems so much more cool for the ending to be ambiguous***. One reason I like Margaret Atwood is that her endings are often ambiguous, straddling the gap between dystopia and hope (The Handmaid's Tale, Oryx and Crake).

An author doesn't necessarily always have a final interpretation in mind. Most of our best literature is the stuff that leaves the reader with lingering questions, leaves us wondering how we should view the literature and the ideas. Those questions can be the spark of some great conversations, great articles, and great literary debates.

*So for two days in a row, my posts have been inspired by the NY Times. I'm okay with that--I hope you, my dear readers, are as well!
**This leads to my hatred of a good chunk of feminist and gender study criticism. No, Fitzgerald, you cannot argue that Theodore in The Monk is actually Agnes in drag. It's unsupported by the text and all we have is the text.
***Ambiguity is what we often base our publications on. If there's uncertainty, we can argue forever about it!

1 comment:

the secret knitter said...

Clearly the author's intent matters, and I suppose it's easier to divine that from a book, in which each word is specifically chosen, than a film. It rankles me when critics use works as jumping off points for their pet issues rather than dealing with what is in front of them. Writing about a book or a film should be about the interaction with it, but understanding it should be about providing insight into what it is about, not what the consumer wants it to be.