If you discuss literature enough, eventually you will hear variations of the following: “English is such an easy major. You just make stuff up.” Or “There’s no wrong way to interpret a book.” Or even “You have it so easy, unlike us math majors. We actually have to find a right answer.” However, though literature does indeed allow for a variety of interpretations, that does not mean that interpreting literature is not a rigorous intellectual pursuit nor does it mean that when discussing literature you can say whatever you want.
Despite popular opinion, it is absolutely possible to offer an incorrect interpretation of a work of literature. Though some essay writers may exclaim, ” I didn’t know what to say, so I just made something up!” they (most likely) do not mean that they literally just spewed random words on the page. Most likely they mean they had never thought about the question before, so they chose an interpretation and then found ways to support it. The key term here is “support.”
Every interpretation of literature must be grounded in textual evidence. One person may argue that Kate Chopin’s The Awakening is a strong feminist text that shows a woman questioning societal norms and forging her own destiny. Others may counter that the ending of the book suggests that the protagonist’s search for independence is in fact unsustainable; her story ends in defeat rather than in triumph. Both interpretations are valid–as long as both sides can point to moments in the text that support their claim.
How Can Differing Interpretations Be Valid?
But if two people are working with the same text, how can they find textual evidence to support radically different viewpoints? This can often occur for various reasons:
The interpreters are working with different definitions.
One person may argue that a feminist text is one that shows a woman does not need a man. Pixar’s Brave would be a feminist film in this case because the protagonist, Merida, does not want to marry. But another person may argue that feminism supports the choices of all women–even those who want to marry. For such a person, Cinderella could be a feminist text since the titular character makes an active choice to ride away with the prince and leave her old life behind.
The interpreters Have Different Values
One person may dismiss fairy tales as old and cliche. Another may believe that there is a reason people like to retell the same stories and that there is power to be found by tapping into an old tale. One person prizes originality; the other prizes tradition.
The Interpreters Come from Different Backgrounds
A person from the country will probably see something in a story a person from the city may not. Someone who grew up in poverty will likely have a different perspective than one who grow up comfortably. A reader from an oppressed background will likely notice different moments and details than a reader from a privileged one. What readers notice and choose to focus on will affect the way they experience a story. It’s possible a reader from a privileged background would overlook or find ways to explain away classist or racist or sexist moments that another reader would find it difficult to ignore.
The Interpreters Have Biases
One should try to read objectively, but no one can truly leave behind their previous experiences or beliefs or prejudices. A fan of G. K. Chesterton may like his work so much, that he or she chooses to ignore the anti-Semitic content of some of his stories. Shakespeare scholars have long fought over whether some of his works are anti-Semitic or misogynistic, and sometimes concluded he’s so good it does not really matter–but they would be less likely to give a “lesser” author such a pass. Do you love Jane Eyre? You might not have wanted to notice that some of the content is anti-Catholic.
So How Does one Offer an Incorrect Interpretation?
The INTERPRETER Does Not Offer Textual Evidence for their Arguments.
This is done by stating a claim without providing actual quotes from the text. Some writers repeat the same claim in different words without ever pointing to the text. Some critics attack the author instead of referring to the text. Some conflate the author with the text: “So-and-so made a sexist comment on Twitter, so all their books are sexist.” Without quotes from the text, all such arguments are invalid.
The Interpreter Assumes An Absence of Commentary on a Subject Means a Work Is Promoting the Subject.
Perhaps a story includes prostitutes. A reader thinks prostitution is wrong, but the author never adds a narrative note saying “Prostitution is wrong,” so the reader argues the book approves of prostitution. This argument cannot be made because there is no textual evidence saying the author approves of prostitution; the reader is arguing instead that a lack of textual evidence means something.
The Interpreter Ignores Textual Evidence.
The interpreter has ten quotes that support their claim, but there’s one that seems to contradict it, so they ignore that eleventh quote. Other readers will notice this eleventh quote. It is the job of the original interpreter to explain how the eleventh quote does not contradict their argument, or else they may have to accept their argument was invalid in the first place.
The Interpreter Ignores Context.
Let’s say an overtly sexist character calls the female protagonist a bad word, so an interpreter claims the book is misogynistic. This argument ignores the fact that the rest of the book seems to portray women as equal in dignity to men and the fact that other characters find the sexist character distasteful and the fact that the book seems to condemn sexist character’s views. The original argument that the book is sexist really has no grounding.
It’s also possible to misinterpret a text by ignoring its historical or political context. What we consider sexist today might have been progressive when it was written. Something that seems to be cliche might have been original at the time.
It’s a nice sentiment to say that “There is no wrong interpretation,” but in practice this is simply not true. Every assertion about a work needs to be accompanied by textual evidence that the author then analyzes. Without textual evidence, any claim about literature is unconvincing at best.