When it comes to literary interpretation, I have a few concepts I use as guides for understanding the meaning of a work. Since I got into some discussions where people didn’t necessarily see the delineations I did, I thought I’d talk about some of the concepts I use to make it clear how I approach things– specifically as regards the impact of design.
By “design” I mean the choices the artist made in putting the piece together that creates some effect on the audience. In writing, the storyteller begins with a theoretical “blank page,” and anything that makes it onto that page had to be put there. The level of thought or intention behind each thing may be variable, but still the writer had to decide to include it or else it wouldn’t be there. That means it had the potential to be done for a particular reason, because of the effect it would create in the audience experiencing it. Authors rarely approach their work with zero intention, so there is almost always at least SOMETHING they included specifically for the effect they hoped it would create.
This makes up the first level I think you can analyze on– taking into account the author’s plans, choices, and efforts. The creator decides they would like to imbue a particular meaning in the work and makes design choices that are designed to achieve that effect. It’s not the be all and end all, of course, but these are important if only because they shape the final product; in their absence, you would not have the work as you know it. Now, jsut because the writer meant to put something into a story doesn’t mean they succeeded. They have have failed, in whatever way for whatever reason. But the intentions still matter, because of how they influence what choices are made in the design.
On the other end of the spectrum is of course Death of the Author– where once an artist has finished a work, they have no further influence over its meaning, and whatever the audience sees in it is legitimately present. Personally I use a limited version of this in interpretation. This is a very necessary perspective, as you cannot influence the way an audience experiences your work, so what it brings out of them in response is always important no matter what the intended effect was. I tell my students that whatever you can justify with a line of reasoning, you can legitimately say you see in the piece. I tend to draw a line, however, when things are so far beyond the scope of the creator’s possible perspective, or when the reading requires so much extrapolation as to be completely removed from the text. For example, I doubt Shakespeare has much to do with ideas on artificial intelligence, given the subject matter of his plays and the period of history he comes from. But still, I believe the way an audience experiences a work is always relevant to examining it.
Most people are familiar with those two lines of thinking. But I also think there’s something in between. Not just things the author intended, nor what rises from the audience’s experience– but also what got in there through the author’s actions but in the absence of intention, or sometimes even awareness. This comes from the idea that no one is one hundred percent self-aware and may do things without realizing, or at least without realizing why. As this is true in our everday lives, so is it true in the making of our creative work. Writers can do this with how they design things and gets results that may not have been intended, but were still demonstrable results form the writer’s choices.
Here’s an example. Say a writer is including a father character in their work. This writer had a dad who was kind of a jerk, but doesn’t realize that this was a quality unique to their father in particular. Unconsciously, the writer has generalized this to all fathers. So, when the writer goes to write a father in their story, he incorporates the jerk qualities without intending to write a jerk, because they don’t see that in their mind, “jerk” and “father” are inextricably bound. This results in a character who is readably a jerk, and whose jerk qualities demonstrably rose from the choices the writer made, but NOT because the writer meant to create a jerk.
This may seem like a pointless distinction, but I think it’s important– because both the writer’s choices AND the audience’s perceptions are important. This extra shade of classification helps for better understanding of how stories are made, and what factors create the meaning and power of a story. The better we understand that, the better we understand how stories affect us, and how to build stories with the power to do so.