The limits of interpretation

Are there limits on how a piece of literature can be interpreted?

In presenting the current age as one of criticism as opposed to creation, one may overlook the advancements made in the sphere of literary theory. With insights provided by new developments in psychology, linguistic theory, anthropology and cultural history, the new age critic has demonstrated the evocative power of written language. The interplay of words, imagery and symbolism produce a unique account that is laden with meaning and depicts the trials and significance of life. As the reader and the author are often separated by time, context and culture, it becomes important to identify whether the modern reader faces certain limitations in his analysis of the text.

The majority of literary critics tend to agree that both the author and reader hold a degree of determinacy over the meaning of a literary text. The notion that the reading must be circumscribed by authorial intention appears problematic, as there are no means of determining the author’s exact state of mind at the time of writing. Instead, readers’ understanding of the text is shaped by their social and cultural positioning, as they cannot encounter texts in a void. Although the significance of a literary text alters with time, it is unable to escape the “social forces” and codes which govern its audience’s understanding of language.

Eminent literary critic, Terry Eagleton suggests that the interpretation of a “text must be logically constrained by the text itself” in order to maintain its particularity. The reception of a literary work is anticipated by the author through the construction of language within a text that acts as a signifier of its readership. A piece of literature constrains the range of its audience as the internal structure/language of the text can only speak to readers who possess “cultural knowledge of the connection” between its motifs and themes. For example, a reader with no knowledge of Victorian England will be unlikely to identify the cultural underpinnings of a certain characters physical appearance or the oddity of their behavior. The reader is provoked to exercise his instinctive and creative facilities in order to access the unwritten part of the text and supply what is not immediately evident. However, as Iser proposes, “the written text imposes certain limits on its unwritten implications”, allowing flexibility in interpretation to be bounded by certain parameters drawn by the author himself. Individual readings of the text reflect the reader’s own disposition and in this respect the literary text acts as a kind of mirror, however the recognition, reflection and understanding of the text is grounded in a reality different from his own and unique to the text.

Despite the attempt of certain authors to subvert and deconstruct normative understandings of language, semiotics and symbolism, their “texts belong to language as a whole” (Eagleton) which has a certain power over the meaning and does not magically evaporate during the reader’s encounter with a text. The understanding of the techniques and conventions of literary era during which a literary work is penned is key in analyzing the text and evaluating its significance at a particular, cultural standpoint. The production of meaning within a text is systemically governed by rules that require the reader to mobilize general social knowledge and specific literary technique. Iser implies that a “reader with a strong ideological commitment is an inadequate one” since he will be unable to experience the new “critical awareness” offered by the text. However, this point of view limits readership to those individuals who hold their “convictions rather lightly,” undermining the significance of the subversive power of the text. Furthermore, the influential value of art lies in its ability to stir some emotional or ideological change in the reader – it is not only marketed to impressionable minds, it encourages dogmatic people to question their ideals as well. This is especially true for the Bildungsroman novel, wherein a reader is able to identify with a certain character and retrospectively analyze his own identity or treat the character’s fate as a precursor for his own.

It is unlikely that identical interpretations of texts will be produced by readers, or even the same reader on two different accounts, however, the meaning of a text is largely determined by a category of permissible interpretations monitored by the “literary institution” and dominant understanding of language.

The writer is a staff member of Pakistan Today and holds a degree from Mount Holyoke College.


  1. nicholas said:

    The problem is not the "limits of interpretation", but the limiits for creation imposed upon the author by "interpretation" as a professional contribution to the text.. The reader is confining its reading of the text by "interpretaion" as an authority to be challenged not by him but by another professional interpretation..
    The advancement of literary criticism is a by-producr of critical thinking and philosophical analysis. It hasn't contributed to any advancement of literature per se but only to deparments of literature.

  2. jhon said:

    Despite the effort of certain writers to subvert and deconstruct normative understanding of terminology, semiotics and significance, their “texts are part of terminology as a whole” (Eagleton) which has a certain energy over the significance and does not amazingly disappear during the reader’s experience with a written text. wherebeautysat

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