Authors’ Intentions

Question: When you read a work of literature are you more inclined to try interpreting the author’s meaning, or do you lean more toward freely imposing your own meaning? Do you “receive” meaning, or “give” a meaning of your own? For example, beginning in the 17th Century, after its publication most devout Christians read Milton’s Paradise Lost as a proclamation of Milton’s vindication of God’s justice: “I [Milton] may assert Eternal Providence, / And justify the ways of God to men.” These readers “received” Milton’s supposed intent. But in the late 18th Century Romantics like Blake and Shelley cast Satan, not God, as the hero. Satan is the only character who doesn’t act out of blind obedience to a divine plan, who’s bold, daring, defiant and prideful–qualities many associate with heroism. Satan, speaking from Hell: “All is not lost; the unconquerable will, / And study of revenge, immortal hate, / And courage never to submit or yield.” These Romantics “gave” their own interpretation.
When I taught high school lit students were encouraged to “interpret with textual evidence.” That is, I didn’t mind if they “received” or “gave” as long as they could back it up with relevant textual support. Hamlet could be a melancholic intellectual to one reader, or the victim of the Oedipus complex to another.
When I write fiction the question of my readers “giving” or “receiving” seldom, if ever, enters my mind. It’s hard enough to write an engaging story without worrying about how it might, or might not, be interpreted. That’s why, after one of my novels is published, I love hearing what readers have to say, especially book groups who invite me to hear their thoughts.

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