One of my most frustrating reading experiences was Toni Morrison's Beloved, which was assigned to me in high school. I'm sure it's a fine novel (I haven't re-read it since, I'm too scarred) but as a high school student, we just were not ready. We spent most of the class time saying “ick” or “yeah, right, but who the hell is Beloved, anyway?” My English teacher had no answer, and neither did Toni Morrison, come to find out. My arguments about who Morrison meant Beloved to be disintegrated when I read an interview wherein Morrison claims that she doesn't know who Beloved is, herself.
This is a phenomenon that is, luckily, lacking in most of the classics. These authors have intention and control of the story. Most of the authors of classics were prolific letter writers and had no problem discussing their creative process with their correspondents. I feel safe in making the generalization that Dickens, Austen, and Tolstoy knew exactly who their characters were. This idea that the story controls the author is a fairly new invention, in my opinion. Which means that in reading the classics, we can safely think about the intent of the author without being afraid we'll read an interview in Newsweek where the author claims he has no idea what's going on in the story, he just wrote it while on the can, thank you very much.
The author's intention in a classic is a key to unlocking its relevance. In my last post in this series, we talked about reading up on the author's life- this makes it easier to figure out their intention. Their personal relationship history, marital strife, political beliefs, and religious background are all clues to the big question: what the hell is this guy trying to tell me here? An excellent example of this is Paradise Lost, the epic poem from John Milton. There are a variety of interpretations of PL available- from the obvious (it's about a naughty snake and some naughty folks and the naughty things they do), to the political (something about the Glorious Revolution) to the anatomical (the whole things is about digestion- seriously).
But what did Milton really mean? Given his religious background as a stark Puritan involved in the failure of the republican movement in Britain, it's safe to say it is a literal interpretation of Genesis with some allegorical political elements. If you don't know anything about Milton as a man, you probably won't know anything about his poem.
There are, of course, camps in the literary world who say that the best classics are those that stand apart from author intention. I say that's a load- the best classics are those wherein the author's intention is still relevant. If you have to dig into a work to give a hill of beans about it, it's probably not a classic, or shouldn't be. Or it's one of those classics only read by sad, sad high school students. So next time you find yourself losing it with one of these books, ask yourself- where is the author taking me, and why? What does Dickens mean by writing such exaggerated characters? What is Jane Austen saying about family life in her generation?
Avoid the trap of “re-writing” the text from some specific viewpoint of literary criticism (feminist, marxist, bleh bleh bleh). Unless the author meant it that way, we're just warping a text to make it more relevant to current trends in reading. That's a fallacy that does not serve us. We should not have to re-imagine a classic's themes to make them important. They should be timelessly important. So judge for yourself. What is the author's intention in this book, and does it still matter? One of the best ways to make a text more enjoyable is to make yourself its judge. Make the book work for you- don't be intimidated. Remember, these books were, for the most part, written for the popular audience. You don't need to have a PhD to demand that a book give you what you want for it to be a "classic" in your mind.
What do you think? Is an author's meaning relevant, or does the book serve the reader instead? (The next post in this series will be about making the book relevant to you without losing the author's intention, btw).