Can You Be Wrong When Interpreting Literature?

Discussion Post

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.

Textual Evidence

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.

Krysta 64

26 thoughts on “Can You Be Wrong When Interpreting Literature?

  1. Nandini Bharadwaj says:

    I agree with your view that an interpreter must support their views with evidence from the literature. I was thinking about ways in which an interpreter could be wrong and another idea came to my mind. Sometimes, a work is heavily revised with each edition or perhaps it’s a translation of a text in another language. Inconsistencies among the different editions or translated text may lead to an incorrect interpretation, though of course it may not be the fault of the person analysing the work, unless they’re lazy and don’t check for the accuracy of the available text.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Briana says:

      That’s a good point. I think that comes up a lot in literature classes when students are reading things in translation and start obsessing over a particular word choice. You can only go so far saying, “But what does he mean by the word ‘devastated’ here instead of ‘sad’ or ‘depressed’?” before you have to realize that the the word “devastated” is not in the original text at all, and that’s just a choice the translator made for whatever reason. Maybe the original word IS very close to “devastated” but maybe it’s not.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Donna says:

    Every interpretation must come with the right justification for it, otherwise, it is merely a view and cannot be considered as valid. I have always hated hearing people say literature was an easy subject. We don’t create interpretations from thin air!
    I agree with the reasons you gave for interpretations being incorrect.


    • Krysta says:

      I like that people enjoy literature so much that they assume engaging with it must be so incredibly easy–but I do wish people wouldn’t assume that means they can say whatever they want without any justification. Interpreting literature is much the same as interpreting scientific data–you need to point towards the evidence you’re working with, not just yell “This book says being introverted is bad!” and walk away in a huff, leaving your audience confused as to why you think this. In a way, there’s no such thing as a mic drop in literary debate; you have to stick around to see if your textual evidence was sufficient for your audience.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Geraldine @ Corralling Books says:

    I LOVE THIS POST! Yes, I totally agree – whilst it is possible to have LOTs and LOTS of interpretations – you can definitely have wrong ones! Evidence is so crucial in literary analysis – I remember my English teacher constantly reminding me of that! I love that you made a point about context as well – we were always encouraged to think about context!
    Lovely post! ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      I think it’s easy to forget about context particularly when you’re reading for pleasure and no one’s providing the background information for you. It’s nice that readers can become so engrossed that they forget this book was written in the 19th century and things were different then, but absolutely crucial to remember if you want to make an argument about it and have your audience take you seriously.


  4. readbooksanddrinkcoffee says:

    I 100% agree with everything you have said here. I take English literature at school and my teacher has said so many times, no matter what kind of text we are studying, that the way we interpret it is based on our personal experiences, our beliefs and how we see things. We studied The Merchant of Venice this year and our table went on about how Shylock had every right to act the way he did, the fact that Jewish people have been treated badly for years (even before the second world war) was something that was in the front of our minds the entire time. While other people in our class brushed it off. I think the fact that almost everyone on our table is people of colour, and are a part of a group that is discriminated against in society was the reason why we couldn’t forget that.
    – Yasmin


    • Krysta says:

      I think that Portia’s line about not wanting to be forced to marry a man with dark skin is important to keep for this very reason. An audience member who is not part of a discriminated group will likely identify with Portia and Bassanio–but then Portia drops this line that we today consider incredibly racist. Productions sometimes cut this because they want the audience to continue to sympathize with her. But it’s that sympathy that can make this line so jarring. It’s at this moment that the audience really has to confront themselves in Portia. Are they like her, seemingly upright but with secret prejudices? And if she is morally compromised, then what are we to do with Antonio, who spits upon Shylock in the streets under the guise of being morally superior? And what of all the characters who take Shylock’s wealth and force him to convert at the end, again under the guise of being moral and merciful? It’s an incredibly problematic play and I’m not sure why, of all the problematic bits, it’s that one line about the dark-skinned suitors that really bothers people–but that’s perhaps exactly why we should keep it in. It makes you rethink everything going on in the play because your identification with Portia is really shattered.

      Liked by 1 person

      • readbooksanddrinkcoffee says:

        Exactly! My English teacher went over that line briefly but dismissed it as we continued the play. Once again it was something that stuck with me during the rest of the play.
        I felt a lot of sympathy for Shylock, he’s discriminated because of his religion (its something he believes in, just let him, there’s nothing wrong with that) and time after time we see him being called an animal, being treated like nothing just because of his religion. Jewish people had been ostracized because of their race, so it was hard for them to make money, to find a job. Shylock charging interest is understandable because of it and Antonio’s disrespect of Shylock is so much worse because of this. I think the fact that they forced Shylock to convert is one of the most disgusting things I’ve ever seen. I’m not sure why this play is a comedy because there is absolutely nothing funny about it. My teacher (she absolutely adores Shakespeare, she’s never said anything negative about him or his writing or the fact that he could be problematic) has said maybe he’s trying to show the audience how wrong stereotypes are and how racist the audience is. But in all honesty, I believe this is highly unlikely. The time this was written and based on the play as a whole, I doubt it.


        • Krysta says:

          I always got the sense that the characters were discriminating against Shylock mostly because they think it’s immoral to charge interest, but then that is inextricably tied up with his religion (and there are plenty of jabs about his religion in the play, too) since usury was one of the ways available for Jewish individuals to make a living. It’s interesting, though, because 1) Christians needed someone to be lending money and they were, as seen in the play, more than happy to borrow it from the same usurers they condemned and 2) in Europe some Christian families were also lending money at interest, but apparently people looked the other way in these cases.

          The play is interesting because it does seem to suggest that the Christians aren’t really any better than the character they’re condemning for being immoral and unmerciful. You could read Shylock’s famous speech as a plea for the audience to recognize the humanity of the Jewish characters. And yet the play is still problematic because it represents Shylock as so stereotypical, especially with him mourning his daughter and his ducats, and it has him refusing to extend mercy to Antonio. Even if he has a legitimate grudge against Antonio, I think most modern audiences would agree that killing him might be taking it too far.

          “Comedy” was just a loose term for a play with a happy ending (which usually meant marriage). So you can have Shakespearean comedies that aren’t particularly funny or even end with marriages we would see as problematic. It’s also the reason we have Dante’s Divine Comedy–it’s not a remotely funny work, but it ends with the protagonist in heaven, so it has a happy ending.

          Something about Shakespeare has made him untouchable for many people. I guess it’s hard to admit your beloved author might have created some problematic works. But I think it does a disservice to a class who has issues with a text to pretend that these issues don’t exist.

          Liked by 1 person

          • readbooksanddrinkcoffee says:

            I haven’t studied a lot of Shakespeare, I’ve only studied three so I’m not really an expert. I think Shylock’s speech is one of the most important monologues in history, I believe that it’s still relevant today. You could put it into any context, for people of the LGBT+ communities, Muslims, African Americans.
            Honestly I find it hard to understand why Shakespeare is seen as an amazing playwright (I mean I can’t say much as I’ve only studied three of his plays) so I can’t comment accurately on this.
            – Yasmin


            • Krysta says:

              I’m not sure I can define what makes Shakespeare such an amazing playwright, either. People have guessed over the years, but their interpretations have changed. He used to be celebrated for his natural characters and his morals, but they felt free to change his old-fashioned and difficult language. Now people like to focus on the beauty and complexity of his language and the moral ambiguity of the works. I think that maybe people like Shakespeare because, in the end, he’s whatever you want him to be–an atheist or a Catholic, a conservative or a liberal, etc.

              Liked by 1 person

  5. Emily | RoseRead says:

    Awesome post! Totally reminds me of a John Green quote from Crash Course: “NOT EVERY ANSWER IS EQUALLY CORRECT IN LITERATURE. For example, if you think The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a pro slavery novel, you’re wrong. You’re as wrong as you are if you think the square root of 4 is strawberries.” LOL, pretty extreme, but the basic idea is there. Some interpretations are more sound than others, and it’s a very complex form of thought – we use our brains differently than those in STEM feilds, but that doesn’t mean there’s no right or wrong. I love how you outline the factors that go into interpretation. Really lovely post.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      Ha, that’s a great quote!

      The funny thing is that I don’t think science and the humanities are so very different. In science you collect data and then you analyze it. You don’t just leave the data in a table with no explanation and you don’t offer an analysis without any data. Same thing with literature–you need both the textual evidence and the analysis.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Valerie says:

    I’ve never been great at analyzing literature (or at least when I was in high school, it didn’t really click until I started reviewing books on my blog. And even now I’m sure I’m not analyzing as much as I think I am), but I agree with all of this! I know it was hammered into my head that you always need to provide evidence to support your assertion. Without proof from the text, what can you go on? So yeah, people will have different interpretations of what that proof means to them, but without said proof they can’t really assert much! I understand this now (4 years too late though whoops)


    • Krysta says:

      I think it’s hard when you’re first starting out to figure out what analysis means. It’s sometimes easy for students to collect a bunch of quotes or data, but then the trick is to say something about them that isn’t repeating what they say. I think that if, in high school, you begin to demonstrate an attempt to analyze rather than repeat, that would please many teachers. 🙂


  7. TeacherofYA says:

    I’ve always hated analyzing literature, because I’ll think a passage means something, but it means something else. Critical Theory class helped by showing the same book (Wide Sargasso Sea) through every critical theory lens, and it applied to all of them. So it’s pretty amazing what you can interpret in literature if you use textual evidence and see themes throughout that back up your argument. I mean, it’s all an argument unless the writer actually comes out and says, “Actually, this book is about…” Right?


    • Krysta says:

      There are some people who would argue that authorial intent doesn’t actually define the meaning of the work. If you have textual evidence to back up your claim, you can disagree with the author’s personal interpretation and still be correct. After all, does an author really have full control over their work? Can’t their be meanings and connections there they didn’t intentionally try to write in?

      Liked by 1 person

      • TeacherofYA says:

        I have a harder time with that school of thought, though I’m in the minority. I’m sure inferences could be made, and the author is made by the world around them (shaped by it), but unintentional to me seems like looking for something that does not exist…but I also see where people who argue against authorial intent come from.
        If I was an author and wrote a love story, I would feel strange if someone said my book was really a reflection of women’s injustice…because that was not my intent. With deceased authors I think it’s easier to speculate, especially with evidence, but I’ve heard authors say, “I didn’t intend for my book to be interpreted that way,” and I can understand how they must feel. Then by that school of thought, it makes sense that as long as you have a good argument and textual evidence, you could make any argument.


        • Krysta says:

          I think authorial intent matters to some extent. For example, I find it odd when people try to say that Tolkien’s works are atheistic because he clearly didn’t intend it that way–when you read the books it’s so obvious that there’s an underlying Catholic philosophy behind them that it just makes no sense to argue atheism. However, writers can’t really control everything in their works. It’s not like most sit down and think something like “I’m going to juxtapose these two characters to comment on gender issues” and “Now I’m going to switch between urban and rural spaces because I want my readers to think about X issues” and “So-and-so’s description will raise questions about subjectivity.” Some issues arise from the text without the author consciously mapping it all out.

          Liked by 1 person

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