My last post looked in detail at Act 1 scene 1 of Hamlet, the battlements scene. I tried to show how the dramatist conveys a lot of detail about the scene, about the feelings and thoughts of the characters, with an extraordinary economy, and how in particular he builds a feeling of suspense and dread.

But I wanted to make a clear distinction between this kind of analysis, and the futile attempts you often see to decode from text “What the author really means”. This school of thought looks at literature as one big guessing game, where the author hides their intent or meaning within the lines of their book (or play, or poem) and the reader’s job is to work through the various clues to piece together what the author is really saying. Sometimes the codes are “easy” to crack – so Godot = God, simple as that. All Beckett meant to say was we are all going to die, but God doesn’t exist, and that makes him feel a bit sad. Sometimes the interpretation can be more complicated, and can only be done by reference to the author’s other work, personal life, diaries or love affairs.

I am not denying (of course) that authors use symbolism – but these are usually a bit more complex than object A symbolises object or abstract value B. The “find the real meaning” reading of literature is seductive – we all enjoy playing the game, and authors sometimes encourage us to do so. But it is ultimately wrong headed for several reasons:
– It is simplistic, reducing the analysis of literature to a parlour game
– It is boring – once you have worked out that the symbol equals X, what next?
– It is limiting – why should the author have sole authority over what his or her text means? Why can’t meaning change over time and with context. What Othello or The Merchant of Venice “meant” in 1600 is unlikely to be immutable. What I think of the opening lines of Act 1 Scene 1 of Hamlet has as much or as little validity as what anyone else thinks, so long as I can justify my reading.

Books aren’t simple machines for the conveyance of information. They don’t just provide the conduit for thought from the author to the reader. Once written they are free and live or die independently from the authorial intent, whatever that was. A simple example to illustrate the point – the word “fire” changes its meaning depending on its context – the word said as an instruction to a execution squad will have a completely different impact to the word said in alarm when smoke is spotted. Is it always that simple to spot the difference? – of course not.

Can you take this too far? Can an apparently straightforward text such as Animal Farm, with an ostensibly clear set of symbolic meanings, come to be about something other than the Russian Revolution? Well that’s completely up to us, the readers. If we find it interesting and useful to read this as a morality tale about, say, the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia or the ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia, why not? Drama in particular has the room to breathe that novels sometimes lack – staging, editing and production can turn a 17th century play about ancient Rome into a 21st Century political thriller.

So if the purpose of literary criticism or analysis is not to play “find the real meaning”, what is it for? Well, just because we abandon as pointless an attempt to understand what the author meant, doesn’t mean all texts are meaningless, or all readings are equally valid. Some are simply more interesting and worthwhile than others. We search for meaning, but we understand that the process is not a simple exchange from brain of author to brain of reader. The exchange is informed and changed by context and interpretation. Meaning changes. The first cave paintings might mean to us “Ancient man understood and valued his environment” but who knows, 10,000 years ago they might have been instruction manuals!

I understand and acknowledge that I am only scratching the surface of a highly complex set of issues here, and whether I return to the subject to tease a bit more understanding from it depends on how the mood takes me.