Many people are wary of interpreting literature. They see interpretation as arbitrary, arcane, and possibly fraudulant, as something teachers do to baffle students. However, we all interpret as we read. To read (at least with understanding and appreciation) is to interpret.
Interpretation includes a number of different things readers do. Most commonly, people think that to interpet is to decode meanings hidden in the writing by the author. The question asked is, "What did the author really mean?" This question shows a simplistic understanding of what imaginative writing is and how literature works. Other areas of this map iscuss the writing process and how it leads to discovery.
Here, I want to discuss the reader's role in relation to the writer and the text.
When J. R. R. Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings, his personal context (world) included his childhood experiences in South Africa, his becoming an orphan, his love of languages, his love for his wife, his extensive reading in literature and mythology, and many other things.
The Lord of the Rings develops its own world. As any reader of the novel knows, this world is complex, with an extensive prehistory, a cosmology, and several unusual species.
The world of The Lord of the Rings affected Tolkien and, as the world developed, it guided his work in completing the novel. Tolkien's letters show this reciprocal influence between him and his unfolding imaginary world.
I cite this work of fantasy because it clearly shows how the writer creates a world that in turn affects him or her.
The meaning which the text has for the reader emerges from the interaction of the reader's world with the world of the text. The meaning does not reside in the text or in the author's intentions. The meaning happens as the text is read and reflected upon.
Of course, knowledge of the author's world and intentions, and of the responses of other readers, can help one read a text betterwith more insight and satisfaction.
Intrepretation, then, is something a reader does in response to a text. But it is important to recognise that a text can be meaningful to reader who can not express that meaning in words. "Meaning precedes explanation."
Have I just said that a text can mean anything at all to a reader? Yes, I have. However, if one is to share the meaning of a text with someone else, one has to be able to explain that meaning in clear and convincing terms. In fact, discussion among readers can develop the meaning(s) of a text in more detail and more depth. Even if two readers disagree on the meaning of a text, they can each gain from discussion.
When you write out your interpretation of a novel, you create a text which has its own world. The reader of your interpretation responds to it in terms of his or her world, just as you read the novel in terms of your world. Thus, this same diagram applies to your interpretative text as well as applying to your reading of the original text.
Interpretation is not an arcane skill taught only to the initiated. It is an activity we all take part in, in more ways than we realize. What I've said about interpretation applies also to music, movies, television, drama, the visual arts, . . . .
I hope you will take courage in your skills as a reader, realizing that the meaning of a text is not fixed in advance, but something that happens as you read, reflect, and discuss. Discussing what you read can be an adventure as you explore meanings.
A note on sources.
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