Monday, August 16, 2010

How to Read the Classics, Part Two: Considering the Author's Intent

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).


  1. My opinion is that the author's intent is relevant. I heard a story about Robert Frost's "Walking by the Woods on a Snowy Evening", and that line, "miles to go before I sleep.." Apparently, someone once talked to Mr. Frost about it, and Mr. Frost said that the sleep referred to was actual sleep, and the guy in the poem was tired. The person conversing with him got all upset and said it was about death, and that it didn't matter what Mr. Frost said, all that mattered was what the reader got out of it.
    Personally, I deeply disagree with that sentiment, and I liked the story on a couple of levels, at least. One of them is that sometimes the deep meaning that some people look for (i.e., the sleep mentioned=death) is not really there, and the simple, clear, and clearly stated meaning is the one intended.
    I'm sure that different people can (and do) make different interpretations that they can back up in the text of any poem, novel, etc., but that in my view in no way invalidates the author's meaning, as the gentleman mentioned above seemed to think. So, long comment later, yes, I think the author's meaning is relevant, and in terms of really analyzing a work it would come first as a true analysis, though one personally could get more or less out of it.

  2. I understand the thought that classics should stand apart from author intention. Personally I think they should be read (or be able to be read) on different levels. Author intention is important, of course, but what's also important is what we get out of the book.

  3. Everyone in grad school tried to train me that authorial intent and background don't matter. The bottom line: writers are big fat liars. Faulkner would never come off it when it came to his books, Morrison is another. However, I do find it insightful to know some background info. It gives me a way to relate to the story and something to chew over.

  4. A hearty here!here! on the Beloved front - we were assigned that monstrosity in high school as well - what were they thinking?

    I stand in the camp of author's intention being primary. Yes, readers can interpret it any way they want; but it does not make them right. This gets into the rewriting of history and literal interpretation of the Bible, which I could go on for days about, but the point is the author had a point, a goal, a mindset whilst writing. The reader should at least consider this, before they start on their own interpretation. There is no question I hate more than "What does it mean to YOU?"

  5. With you on this one! What the author intended controls how we can read it. I can't pick up a book blind: I need to know when it was written and a little bit about the who and where as well.

  6. Excellent post. I know there is a large school of thought that argues that the book should stand alone, independent of author's background/life/experience/intent... but that just seems impossible to me. And I hate when people read modern themes into classic lit; I once had a girl in a lit class argue something about the Holocaust and the persecution of Jews in WWII... while discussing James Joyce.

    And I hated Beloved.

  7. I was always delighted by the ambiguity of Beloved's identity - if only because I went into the novel armed with the knowledge that she could be interpreted as either avenging ghost or flesh-and-blood girl (and I was then free to consider her a ghost and indulge in the belief that I was reading speculative fiction more comprehensible than Frank Herbert's Dune). I listened to an interview with Morrison before reading Beloved, and hearing her discuss her work allowed me to make peace with Beloved's ambiguity, and search for the author's intention in other aspects of the novel.

    Was it that Morrison didn't know whether Beloved was a ghost or not so much as that she left Beloved's identity up to the reader's interpretation? In the interview I'm familiar with, she said that she had left Beloved's identity ambiguous - which, of course, could be taken as the writer's (lazy) way out of committing to a theme or message. But couldn't that absence of commitment to a subject also define that subject's significance? Perhaps Beloved's identity isn't the point of the novel, and theorizing about it misses Morrison's intention.

    I really, really like the point you make about how discovering an author's intention is important to understanding its relevance. But I wonder... is understanding the importance of a classic an act of divining the author's intention? Or must understanding be more than that?

    Intention and meaning always felt like just one piece of the puzzle to understanding classic literature for me, and I think a classic can still have considerable significance even if I'm not certain (immediately) as to what the author means. True, a great deal of my experience with author's intention vs. other aspects of the work comes from poetry: I've found I prefer appreciating a poem on terms not solely defined by what the author meant - because then the process of absorbing the poem verges on treating it with the dispassion of analysis for the sake of analysis - and that above all, I think, misses the point of literature entirely.

    Thank you for this series of posts; I am thoroughly enjoying them!

  8. Yes, of course the author's meaning is relevant! But unless s/he says what it is explicitly, interpreting an author's intention is a dangerous pit'o'coals to walk, in my view. And so, along those lines, reimagining an author's intent to fit into contemporary life, learn a contemporary lesson, compare to contemporary artists is, as you say, fallacious! Great post...

  9. Looking back xx years later, I realize that my English classes in high school were a huge disappointment; but weren't novels considered overt social commentary and that the author's intent was the point of the novel? (I'm thinking primarily of Dickens).
    That said, if one can interpret the novel in a different way that is not necessarily a bad thing either.

  10. Anonymous- I agree. The author's intention should be the first, and truest, of interpretations. I think that more often than not, the book means what it says it means.

    Amanda- That's true, and I'll be talking about personal relevance in the next post. But what we get out of it- isn't that often what the author intends us to get out of it? It is for me, most of the time. It's only when I start reading literary criticism that I start thinking of other interpretations.

    Andi- It does make them more relatable.

    Leah- Ugh. What does it mean to you. I always argued with my teachers when they asked me that. Who cares what it means to me? What did he WANT it to mean? If I know that, I can decide if he succeeded, and therefore decide if this guy is talented or not. That was my thought process, anyway..

    Ronnica- Very true- reading a book blind is frustrating.

    Kerry- Those schools of thought are dumb.

    Entish- If theorizing about Beloved's identity makes the reader miss the point, then it's a weakness in Morrison to make the issue so bloody distracting. Luckily, we don't have to "divine" the intention of most authors of the classics- there are enough diaries/letters/journals left behind by them for us to be fairly clear about their thematic goals. Understanding a work and making it relevant to you personally are two different things.

    Greg- It is dangerous when you don't know anything about an author, or if you're reading the first book of someone's body of works. But upon getting to know someone by reading more of their work, I think you can glean their intentions, even if you don't have any biographical information.

    Suzanne- Sure, a lot of Dickens is social commentary, which is one of the points of some of his books. But, like you said, he had more than one intention- otherwise he probably would have just written essays.

  11. I'm against any reading dogma: don't read this way/do read that way. Having some sense of the author's goals can be very enlightening, but it can also be constraining. I see no reason to think of this as an either/or situation.

    To play devil's advocate for a second and give a few reasons why one might want to bracket the author's intent when thinking about a given work:
    1. We don't always have access to authorial intent. We really don't know what Homer "meant" the Iliad to mean or what Shakespeare "meant" Hamlet to mean. The record on such matters is lost, if it ever existed. So having ways of reading a text independent of what the author says about the text is crucial for engaging these types of works.
    2. Intent does not necessarily equal execution. Canonical writers have prodigious gifts, but they are still human. It's quite possible that while they "intended" to do one thing with a book, something else may well have happened. I think the phrase is unintended consequences. In such a case, focusing too much attention on intent can blind one to the richness and complexity.
    3. Literary ideas tend not to be that simple. If Dickens wanted to expose the perils of industrializtion, is writing a novel really the best way to go about doing that? Art tends to exceed the message, and so reverse-engineering meaning can be problematic.
    4. Times change. Relying too heavily on authorial intent doesn't give the work room to grow and culture changes. What a text means to the individual reader is, ultimately, the measure of its timelessness. Hawthorne probably had no idea that THE SCARLET LETTER would be read in future years as a liberatory text for women. That doesn't mean he was wrong or that we're wrong for reading it that way, just that an author's point-of-view is necessarily fixed, unable to see the future resonances of their work.
    5. Authors don't have total control over what they write. They are limited/determinted to some degree by their personal biography and historical moment. So things might slip into a text that are beyond what the writer was even conscious of. In these cases, seeing the work through the lens of intent isn't helpful, since significant ideas and meanings can be found in the background, the seemingly inconsequential, or the routine.

    And now I've gotten carried away. I hope my logorrhea here isn't read as contrarian, but as multifocal. I think our reading is richer, more sophisticated, and just in general more enjoyable if we employ the full retinue of reading practices at our disposal. Sometimes that means reading through intent, and sometimes it means reading with intent quarantined.

  12. "... then it's a weakness in Morrison to make the issue so bloody distracting." Ah. That's true.

    I suppose, then, the biggest problem with Beloved is that Morrison was trying to work with too many issues: the issue of Sethe being confronted by the act she had committed, by the victim of that action, vs. the issue of Beloved's identity. Beloved's identity is irrelevant. But Morrison doesn't make that clear until her interviews, rather than in her story - a critical flaw indeed. (Though... if receiving the clearest idea of the author's intention means applying to the diaries, letters, and journals he or she left behind, interviews - insofar as they illuminate intention - serve the same purpose. It doesn't eliminate the weakness of Morrison's novel. But it might make it more forgivable.)

    I apologize if my last comment came across as churlish or impolite.

  13. I agree with The Ape %100. That's all. Just thought you all should know. BTW, great discussion here.

  14. I have nothing brilliant to add here, but don't you sort of wish The Ape was one of your professors? I do.

  15. Thank you, thank you, thank you - to the Ape. (Particularly for number 2) It depends on the text, the time, so many things. There may be an undercurrent of something else there the author was not even conscious of. That's writing.

    I've taken theory, and I agree some of it is really outlandish. As with anything, I think a little bit goes a long way.

  16. Ape- I didn't mean this to be a hard and fast rule- just an important (maybe the most important) consideration. I disagree with point one, mostly- we have enough loose historical information about almost every period of literary history. Enough to formulate a rough idea of author's intent based on cultural and religious mores of the time, or through comparison with other works from the same time frame and even from the same author. As a history major, I tend to view literature through that lens. I also disagree with number five- if an author can't control his work, he's not that talented, in my opinion. Otherwise, I agree with you, and hope to address modern relevance of the classics further in my next post. Of course, your comments are ALWAYS welcome here!

    Entish- not churlish at all! I tend to be very defensive of my irritation towards Beloved. It comes from the sheep thing. Eek.

    IngridLola- Good to know! I love these discussions.

    Catherine- Um, yes? Also, my nice uncle who came over on holidays. Also, my neighbor.

    pickygirl- I agree, a little bit does go a long way. I remember the dedication Salinger wrote for "Raise High the Roofbeams"- it was to the amateur reader, who still reads and runs. I wish more people did that.

  17. Since it's pretty much Death of the Author being discussed here, here's the article it's from if anyone's interested. It ends around a sixth of the way down the page so isn't as long as it looks.

  18. I think the authors meaning is essential, particularly with classics. I particularly agree with what you say about not interpreting it from another view eg. feminist. A classic is a classic because it is something unique and special (language and content). Surely that means you can't really critique it from some random point of view that doesn't have to do with the authors intention. it is the authors intentin that makes it special

  19. LOL, I loved loved loved Beloved, and read it twice. I do think that it was perhaps the wrong book at the wrong time. I could not finish Great expectations when I was given in at the age of 14. Just could not get past Miss Haversham. Tried again a few years later and still no go. The block was too strong. But I read it again a few years ago and I finally loved it ... You many loved Beloved one day too!! I agree with Entish re Morrison's intent ie it's not so much her not knowing as her wanting it to be ambiguous. She's not the only author to do that I think. I rather like ambiguity - I don't always want everything to be obvious. To me, this ambiguity contributed to the strength of Beloved and made it one of the most powerful novels I've ever read.

    Re intent in general. I take a middle line on that. I think it's fun to know the intent but I don't think we should rely on it. I say this because my sense is that with many creators not everything is conscious - a lot is (can be) unconscious. A little related to this is Michelangelo (I think it was) who said he didn't decide what to sculpt so much as let what was in the marble come out. On the surface that's probably a bit ingenuous because he must have had ideas but I think it tells us that for many artists/creators the whole intent thing is rather complex.

    So, I do tend to lean most to letting the book stand on its own, but am not averse to listening to the author as well. As usual, I like to have my foot in both camps!

  20. Jane-
    The problem as I see it with using contextual information about an author or work to try to puzzle together intent is that most of the author s we consider "classic" had ideas that went beyond the dominant mores of the day. Somewhat non-intuitively, the authors we consider canonical were more often than not radical in their own day and age.

    And I guess I would take a similar view of "control", but from the other side. If I have to go back and read Woolf's journals and letters about what MRS. DALLOWAY to get the novel, then isn't that a failure of control as well?

    I admit that I read from a literary-artistic rather than historical perspective, sometimes to my detriment perhaps.

  21. Personally, I think that most classics have two main readings--deep and surface.

    Obviously, the deepest reading comes to the author's intent. I think that good writing (which most of the classics embody) makes the author's intent clear without needing the authorial explanation. Reading would be a lot easier if every author wrote a companion book to their novel explaining that, yes, the red rose in chapter 23 is just a red rose and the character Mr. Pigglesworth does represent the conservatives or whatever. But we don't have that. Each author stands or falls on making their intent obvious without needing the companion piece. And I think that most classics are classics because the intent is clear when you read it closely.

    If you don't read it closely, you're going to get a great story that you can skip off feeling satisfied about.

    It kind of depends on your reason for reading.

  22. I wish I could say something more eloquent than this, but really I just want to say "What he said" to the Ape's comment.

    I think the author's intent has merit to a point and I hate the idea that you're supposed to entirely ignore intent when reading. Novels aren't written in a vacuum and understanding the author and the time can certainly help illuminate some points. But at the same time claiming a reader's own relationship with the text is meaningless is also limiting. I completely agree with the Ape that if I have to read all of the background information on an author and their process in order to understand their work, the author has failed in a different way than if the author couldn't explain their choices.

    Not all the time, because I'm lazy, but sometimes I will read the background about an author but only after I've read or at least made an attempt at the book first. I'd rather form my own thoughts on the work before reading what they were going for to see if they succeeded. Maybe the author entirely failed to reach their own objective but I found something else to love about the work. Does that mean the work is a failure?

  23. I agree with everything from The Reading Ape, especially this: "Art tends to exceed the message, and so reverse-engineering meaning can be problematic."

    Which I think informs points 4 and 5 as well, and is probably the most critical single takeaway for me.

    Also, as far as historical context and being able to divine intent—while I do think reading an author's whole body of work can be highly informative in this regard, I wouldn't want to forget that authors can lie and be just as unreliable as their narrators. People are slippery creatures. The more I feel like I "know," some authors, the more I feel like they are/were actual, real, complex people—and I don't believe you can ever really understand another person.

  24. I am glad the Ape got in here and commented first because his comments mirror my thoughts, although they are for more balanced and informative compared to my uncouth ramblings.

    The day we have to google the author of a classic before reading is the day we have to remove the novel from the list of classics.

  25. Anonymous- Uh, wow. Did the author forgot that normal people read? Maybe?

    Becky- I agree. I think further criticism is trying too hard.

    whisperinggums- I've plans to try Beloved again, one day. One far, far away day.

    Ape- Yes, but can't we get a sense of the intentions in their radical thoughts by taking into consideration the normal thoughts of their historical context? Social commentary doesn't mean much if you don't understand the society it's talking about, for example. And I don't think we HAVE to read Woolf's letters and whatnot to understand the book- but, if you're looking for interpretation, that's the best place to start.

    Lori- Um, can we make that a rule? Please write companion essay explaining what the hell you're talking about. I think maybe that would make me pick up more contemporary literature...

    Red- I'm not saying we have to discount the reader's interaction with the book- personal relevance is my next post. I just ran out of room :)

    Nicole- Maybe not, but I just don't approach a book that way. I tend to trust that what it says is what it means. If that's not the case, I start thinking the author wrote the book for academics, which makes me untrusting.

    Mayowa- Um, wrong there buddy ;) A lot of people, yours truly included, do a little web walking before picking up a classic. The comments in the first post in this series, about researching the author's biography, showed that a lot of people do it, too. It informs your reading of the text. Not to mention the fact that some books just don't make any sense without annotations. I'm looking at you, James Joyce.

  26. Maybe not, but I just don't approach a book that way. I tend to trust that what it says is what it means. If that's not the case, I start thinking the author wrote the book for academics, which makes me untrusting.

    When I mentioned authors lying, I was referring more to reliance on historical artifacts. An author might discuss in letters what he meant by a book, but he might say one thing to one audience and another to another. He might outright lie about intentions that are too radical for their times and thus smuggled covertly into a text. So there is that to take into account.

    But your response confuses me a bit as well. What about something like irony? That would be a case where a text doesn't really say what it means, but is pretty standard and not something that would preclude a wide reading audience. Any kind of satire, etc.

  27. Nicole- No, I don't mean taking the literal language as meaning what it says- you're right, that would discount symbolism, irony, and a whole host of other literary devices. I guess a better way of putting it is that a reader's gut reaction to the book, that first assumption about what the book is saying is (in my mind) what the book is saying. Of course, people have varying personal interpretations of a book, but most people get that Dickens is after social commentary, Orwell is after political commentary, etc.. When we start getting into stuff like that link someone posted above, about denying the author completely- when someone writes a book with that purpose in mind, I usually raise an eyebrow.

    Of course, this whole conversation about author intent is just one part in a multi-post series, so I don't want to give the impression that it's the ONLY way to read a book. It's just one tool in the toolbox, and often the truest one in my mind.

  28. Wait Joyce makes sense? I attacked the ebook version of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man recently. Same reaction as the print version, utter boredom.

    I think it's bloody great that you guys google these authors before you read em (I may have done it once or twice meself). I do believe that you shouldnt have to. It's sort of a golden rule when it comes to writing...and classics are not exempt.

    This post has given me some excellent ideas for some bloggery. Thank ye.

  29. Thank you for this post! In so many ways, postmodernism has become an excuse for poor storytelling. It's one thing for an author to "discover" something unexpected about a character; it's another thing for her to have no idea who her character is.

    While teaching the poetry unit with my classes every year, I always found it extremely frustrating for students to ask me how I knew that the poem was about what I said it was about (I even had students ask me if I had found the explanation on the internet). They were completely floored that an author would clearly explain what he was doing (really they probably just didn't want to put in the work to understand the poem), whether that explanation was explicit or not.

  30. I am teaching a writing class for adults and we've been discussing authorial intent. This discussion has been very useful. The discussions I had at uni were rather stultified at times. There was an unspoken censorship that made it hard to use really short words or give a gut reaction. At other times it was awesome but there is a kind of freedom here that also is present in my classes where people are not afraid to throw tomatoes at the naked emperor.

  31. This is an awesome series, Amanda. Thanks so much for sharing your views on classics. I read with a historical filter, too. Good to know it's not just me! :-)