Of Intent and Interpretation: Does the author have the final word?

Currently Listening To: Stronger, by Kiesza (from Finding Neverland: The Album)

Interpreting literary works is a tricky thing. There’s an image I see posted to places like the National Novel Writing Month Facebook group, where it looks at an English teacher’s interpretation of an author’s work versus the author’s actual intent. Like this one here:

Now. Do I agree with that meme? Not necessarily. I think that it creates too much a divide. As an author, I am well aware that not everything has a deeper meaning. For instance, if I say somewhere in Songstruck that there’s a red chair (please don’t go check; I’m 90% certain that I never mention the color of any chairs*), I don’t mean anything significant there. There’s no special meaning to the red chair; it was just the color I happened to like at the moment. But does my lack of intent really matter? For instance, if that red chair happened to be in a room with a small group of characters, and one individual who was in that room was later in that room as a bleeding corpse, might there be some symbolism or foreshadowing there? You could make a solid argument.

Maybe I subconsciously added that detail because I knew what scene would be written in that room later.

Maybe it’s like I said first, and I just liked the idea of a red chair.

So does my intent, as the author, really matter? And why am I rambling about intent vs. interpretation in the first place? That’s an easy one to answer: it came up in one of my classes, about counseling diverse populations. A large part of the course is about recognizing cultural differences and what those differences might mean as far as how someone sees the world around them and how to find connections with people who don’t have the same cultural framework as you. We watched a video that I honestly can’t remember the name of, and someone in the video mentioned doing work with the Tiv of West Africa. That, in turn, reminded me of this article, all about interpretation and cultural frameworks: Shakespeare in the Bush. The article is a great read. The background is that an American and her British friend have had a disagreement about understanding Shakespeare. The Brit claims that Americans can’t fully understand Shakespeare because Shakespeare is so “British”, even though his writings deal with universal elements of human nature. The American disagrees, and claims that since so many elements of Shakespeare’s stories are universal, anyone can understand. She ends up telling the Tiv elders the story of Hamlet, with…interesting results.

The Tiv elders’ interpretations of Hamlet’s story are wildly different than what we conventionally teach and learn. But they’re not really wrong, either, and they arrive at the same place in the end, even after correctly predicting a few of the events based on their interpretation of the story. Give the article a read, and see what you think. Is their version of Hamlet still Hamlet? Has it become a different story due to them imposing their values and beliefs on the text? Would Shakespeare disagree with their interpretation? More importantly, does it matter?

Honestly, I don’t care if people overanalyze the hell out of Songstruck or any of my short stories. To me, analysis means that someone is invested enough in the work to seek out further meaning. They want to understand every bit of nuance that the author could have included, and they want to see the story to its fullest potential. Who am I to tell them they’re wrong, when they care so much about the work and find so much meaning in it?


*On second thought, yes. Do go check if I mentioned any chair colors. I’m curious and can’t check myself right now.