Meaning in Literature: Where All Hell Rightfully Breaks Loose

One man’s hunger to inspire. A love of mankind. A tragedy. Loneliness. These words speak of an innocence vandalized and a dream crippled in a special character who goes by the name Wing Biddlebaum. His story, titled “Hands,” is one among many to come to life in the pages of Sherwood Anderson’s 1919 short story anthology, Winesburg, Ohio. It is a remarkable collection of stories that juxtaposes both community and isolation and both love found and love lost in the lives of individuals who strive so hard to exult life and humanity–only to be made so useless in the very communities that need them most. Their silenced voices beseech readers and it wasn’t long before I lent them my ears, heart, and soul.

“Hands” is as much the story of Biddlebaum as it is mine. And I say this not to claim for myself Biddlebaum’s experiences out of my empathy for him. Instead, I am claiming ownership of the particular presentation, or reading, of “Hands” that I used to open this discourse. I “own” my reading of an author’s literary work because it is a product of my deliberate construction of what the work means. I say constructing as opposed to discovering or receiving the meaning of a work, almost as if it was solely upon myself and needing nothing else to come up with such meaning. But, if this is true, it seems thoroughly radical but entirely possible to say that my meaning comes to exist with little regard for who the author is, let alone what they may have intended to communicate. But I wasn’t prepared to do away with the very figure who has always been a central part of all my experiences reading. The author was my intimate interlocutor. My mentor and alter-ego. Dare I suddenly trivialize Anderson’s role in the meaning of his own work. But, god forbid, could I be deluding myself? That is, do authors really not matter?

French literary theorist Roland Barthes seems to think so. For him, the beginning of narration marks the death of the author. Words cannot be any more than “the very practice of the symbol itself” (Barthes 142). The text is purely verbal, performative, and autonomous, essentially having a life of its own independent of the author (Barthes 145). Wimsatt and Beardsley take this this claim further saying that a work of literature simply is, and not representative or indicative of the author’s intent (1375). That is, to get any inkling of the author’s intent is to go back to the text itself, to ask how well the words succeed in showing authorial intent (Wimsatt and Beardsley 1375). In presenting my meaning of “Hands,” then, I am forced to make room for the role of the text as the grounds for justifying my interpretation. It is not Anderson to whom I owe my interpretation, but to the verbal condition of the text.

But what exactly is this verbal condition of the text? Barthes writes that it is “a tissue of quotations drawn from innumerable centres of culture” (146). Wimsatt and Beardsley trace its origin in the text’s syntax, readers’ common, default understanding of language, all existing literature, and in culture (1381). And E. D. Hirsch describes it as “the vital potency of language itself” (18). It might help to look at a line from “Hands” to help demonstrate what these theorists might mean by verbal condition. For example, my understanding of the following lines, “The story of Wing Biddlebaum is a story of hands. Their restless activity, like unto the beating of the wings of an imprisoned bird, had given him his name,” comes, first and foremost, from my understanding of the denotations and connotations of words such as “story” and “hands”, the logical strucutre of English grammar, the figurative implications of personified “hands”, and the cultural framework within which Biddlebaum can be a character, be defined by his hands, and possess a name (Anderson 10). It would follow that my understanding of those lines as referring to the meaning of Biddlebaum’s hands exists because I find the words themselves and their attached linguistic implications in the two lines I’ve just read. And yet, in this interpretive process, the authorial intent is absent, or at best, on the fringes of the textual origins of meaning. The text becomes self-sufficient and inevitably public once it is published, no longer owned or dependent on the very author who brought it into existence (Davies 68).

But as much as we seem to credit the text for its role in the meaning of a work, I find that the credit may actually be going to the reader. Barthes keenly points this out in admitting that despite the array of different writings and cultures housed in the public object we identify as the text, the reader is the one and only who can and does bring together all the different parts of a text by recognizing all of its diverse origins and possible meanings that none of the characters in the text or the author can recognize (148). It would be as if I as a reader was in a position to identify the many different ways of understanding the meaning of “Hands.” But I wouldn’t be, as Barthes says, deciphering some secret, ultimate meaning in the text, but disentangling the kinds of writing that come together and make possible the text titled “Hands” (147). The meaning of “Hands” for which I eventually settle emerges from my deliberate choice of what kinds of writing I have disentangled from the collection that is “Hands.” Thomas Karshan eloquently articulates the birth of meaning as the “enigmatic combination with the reader’s expectations and the assumptions of the linguistic context in which one reads it” (202). The meaning that I thought encapsulated “Hands,” then, is an agreement between myself and the text; Anderson has neither given nor been expected to give permission for me to state the meaning of his work.

Yet, what unsettles me is that arguments such as these — positioning readers as “disentanglers” and mere partners with the text — try to distance the reader from the structural implications of the text. But are readers really so distant, if at all, from the text just because the text is an autonomous, public linguistic piece? Hirsch attempts to restore the role of the reader by claiming words would be nothing without someone to understand them (13). Any reading I develop upon reading, say, the following line from “Hands”, “In the darkness he [Biddlebaum] could not see the hands and they became quiet,” rests on my able to distinguish those words as meaningful from aimless markings on a page, or even as purely grammatical and syntactical placeholders (16). The text and all its verbal glory are still there but they amount to nothing were it not for the reader who makes the words bear value and give them “verbal unity” (Sartre 30).

But the reader does more than just make the text “come to life.” Theodor Adorno writes that “The work of art becomes an appeal to subjects, because it is itself nothing other than a declaration by a subject of his own choice or failure to choose” (78). The reader declares the work of literature according to their choice. Here, Adorno introduces a different approach, one that hits closer to how I come to appreciate “Hands,” to understanding the relationship between the work of literature and the reader. The work of literature is an object that appeals to readers, depending on their preference that is wholly free-willed. This relationship returns the focus back onto the reader by whose preferences the text fulfills its role to impact the reader. In other words, the meaning that has stood out to me as aesthetically interesting from my reading of “Hands” supersedes not only authorial intent but the text as well.

To speak of aesthetic interest, however, is to speak of the goals that readers expect to reach after reading a work of literature. So far, I have shown that readers construct meaning from the text by interpreting the text regardless of the author’s intentions. But Knapp and Michaels push back saying interpretation of a work only follows if there was a speaker trying to communicate a message (53). This assumes that the reader only interprets a text in order to figure out what the speaker, or the author, is trying to say. But figuring out authorial intent, if that is even possible, is only one among many goals: the text’s aesthetic success being one of them. More importantly, authorial intent need not be prioritized over any other possible reading of the text as some kind of standard for judging the success of the text.

Frankly speaking however, I initially read “Hands” with the hopes of discovering what hidden meaning Anderson had in store for me and formulated a meaning that I thought was the closest approximation of, if not exactly, what Anderson intended to communicate. And I think it is safe to say that the casual reader wouldn’t act too differently when picking up a novel at the bookstore. You may have also experienced those innumerable times in middle school where teachers ask, “Well, what do you think the author is trying to tell us?” and “Why does your interpretation seem more correct than another’s?” Perhaps years of being conditioned to not only seek authorial intent but also treat it as the correct and only way of understanding a text made me hesitate to abandon the author completely from the meaning of a text. But even more interesting is the underlying assumption that there needs to be some correct, single way of interpreting a text. Richard Shusterman gives a very compelling account of why many think this need exists:

to deal only with the intention of the author…provides, at least in theory, a single, determinate, unchanging focus and standard for all different readings or interpretations of the work to converge upon and be judged by their fidelity to such intention…[for] Without it there is simply too much freedom, indeterminacy, and instability in the public linguistic conventions governing meaning. (67, 69)

His insight reveals something understandably compelling. And yet, what is so interesting about this attachment to what Shusterman terms “cognitive monism in interpretive intentions,” is the undeniably aggressive and almost competitive hunt to discover the best reading of a text. And this was not the kind of attitude I wished to hold in my meaning of “Hands.” All this time, I was only constructing meanings to eagerly capture what I presumed already existed, lying-in-wait, deep within the text; as if my “successful” seizure of the text’s “true” meaning echoed Caesar’s own Veni, Vidi, Vici! But it never crossed my mind that this meaning might merely be a projection of what I hoped to gain from “Hands” and what the implications of the purely verbal condition of the text have led me to believe.

For E. D. Hirsch, to do away with interpretive monism is to commit to a “chaotic democracy of ‘readings’” (13). For him, the absence of some “divine criteria” parametrized by authorial intent by which readings can be judged leaves us too unmoored and “reject[s] the only compelling normative principle that could lend validity to an interpretation” (14). His view, then, completely undermines the validity of my reading of “Hands,” but I can’t say I’m inclined to agree with Hirsch by deeming my interpretation as invalid. To agree with Hirsch would mean I could not settle for how I’ve appreciated “Hands” as a story of a community of isolated individuals. My own interpretations would constantly need to be scrapped for what was the “correct” way of appreciating “Hands” by determining Anderson’s intent, which is a task that Wimsatt and Beardsley claim is not only unwanted, but impossible (1375).

What Hirsch seems to disregard in latching onto matters of truth and correctness is the importance of a work’s aesthetic rewards for readers. Davies emphasizes reading with this goal of aesthetic interest in mind and argues that aesthetically pleasing accounts of a work of literature bypass the complications ensuing from Hirsch’s strict criteria for the “best” reading. For Davies, readers seek a reading of the text that is most aesthetically rewarding to them, which justifiably functions independently of the author and whatever aesthetic reading they preferred (65). On this note, if my reading of Biddlebaum as a pitiful character whose desire to inspire children to dream was wrongfully misunderstood by his community is what I find most aesthetically pleasing about “Hands,” that is the end all be all. Furthermore, if I am moved by “Hands” as being a story that not only beseeches the compassion of its readers, but compels readers to be more present in their lives and in those of others, I am again more than welcome to hold that view without objection. For there is no standard to which aesthetically pleasing accounts can or should be judged; truth has no place in aesthetic interest. While in Hirsch’s sense, my readings are not valid, in Davies’ sense, my readings are aesthetically rewarding and perhaps even aesthetically superior to the author’s intention, thus, restoring the “validity” in my readings that Hirsch seems to care so much about.

Recognizing the importance of aesthetic value in works of literature is, however, a way in which not only multiple readings of a work of literature can retain their dignity, but also retain the dignity of authors by respecting them in the ways they actually do matter. That is, while I believe it is ultimately the reader who ends up determining the meaning of a work, and is fully justified for doing so, it is the author who is accredited for bringing into existence works of literature, which are simultaneously works of art, that are willfully made public in the hopes of interesting their readers. Sartre calls this hope to interest as “deepest tendencies” which are motivations that dictated the author to construct their work; but I do not go further to try and guess or idolize Anderson’s “deepest tendencies” (26). In other words, while I reserve the right to be confident and justified in my interpretation of “Hands,” I also recognize that the story is purposeful and not some random salad-bowl of words. Anderson created an aesthetic presence deserving of my attention meant to be read, pored over, reflected upon, and enjoyed. And to this respect, he matters.

Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor. “Commitment.” [1974] New Left Review, Trans. Francis McDonagh, n.d. p.78. 

Anderson, Sherwood. “Hands.” Winesburg, Ohio. New York: E. W. Huebsch, 1919. 7-17.

Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” Image – Music – Text, Ed. and trans. Stephen Heath. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977. 142-148.

Davies, Stephen. “The Aesthetic Relevance of Authors’ and Painters’ Intentions.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 41, no. 1, 1982, pp. 65–76.

Hirsch, E. D. “In Defense of the Author.” Intention Interpretation, Ed. Gary Iseminger. Temple University Press, 1992, pp. 11–23,

Karshan, Thomas. “Deaths of the Authors.” Shades of Laura: Vladimir Nabokov’s Last Novel, The Original of Laura, Edited by Yuri Leving, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2013, 201–204,

Knapp, Steven and Walter Benn Michaels. “The Impossibility of Intentionless Meaning.” Intention Interpretation, Ed. Gary Iseminger. Temple University Press, 1992, pp. 51–64,

Sartre, Jean-Paul. “What is Literature?” [1905]“What is Literature?” And Other Essays, Ed. Steven Ungar. President and Fellows of Harvard College, 1988, pp. 25-47.

Wimsatt, William K. and Monroe C. Beardsley. “The Intentional Fallacy.” [1946] The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, Ed. Vincent B. Leitch et al. W.W. Norton & Company, 2010. 1374-1387.

Conversations About Conversations

It’s the little blinking red light on the dashboard signaling a hiccup in the system. It’s the bridge that collapses under the weight of all the gears churning inside your head. More specifically, it’s the blank look on your face right now asking me what the hell I’m talking about. I suppose now would be more than appropriate — actually, necessary — to clarify what I am describing here, or better yet, what I have been meaning to say thus far. But the very question of what I mean necessitates more than just a response to what I am describing. It also requires communicating my description of something in a way to which others can relate. In other words, what does it mean to get everyone on the same page of something I am describing?

What we end up with are two questions: one, what does it mean when we describe something and what does it mean to translate that description to others? That is to say, what are we really doing when we describe, label, or categorize something as is? We might say we are making a judgment or taking a perspective on an object of interest. Thus, for some, an object of interest may appear a certain way, and for others, that same object may appear in a different way. But how are we to reconcile all the various descriptions, judgments, and perspectives? Is it still the object of interest with which we are really concerned? Or could our very descriptions, our language, and the words we use to somehow encapsulate the object of interest be the actual crux of the matter here?

What emerges from these questions is a divide between language and the objects that language supposedly represents via descriptions, labels, and categories, or simply put, words. And these words, of which we use an innumerable amount and in countless combinations, seem to jeopardize our grasp of the actual object in its essence, or the truth. It is like what Nietzsche says, “With words it is never a question of truth” (116). Our conversations end up being only conversations about our language. So that when one fails to follow the language of what the other is trying to say, it is not the object of the conversation that is obscure, but the colored, contextualized, presupposing, and goal-oriented words we use. And to get lost in the heavily assuming language we use might make us come to a full stop, flashing our little red lights, to show that the language we encounter problematically jars with our own. Or we might try to wrestle with that incongruity, pushing our minds to rebuild the broken bridge between the language we use to describe objects and the languages others use to describe the same object.

Hemingway makes so vivid this idea that every conversation is essentially just us conversing with language about language in his short story “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.” The story stars two waiters who are preparing to close their cafe for the night but are stuck with their last customer — a deaf old man slightly drunk from all his orders of brandy. The waiters exchange many words about this old man as they wait for him to finally pay and leave. Much of the dialogue is written without the conventional “he said,” “she said” labels before or after every verbal piece, so it is often ambiguous as to which of the two waiters is actually speaking. But it turns out that those labels aren’t necessary given that the waiters are marked by their different languages. And by languages, I don’t mean Spanish versus Russian or Bostonian dialect versus Californian dialect. I mean the language that betrays the speaker’s underlying assumptions, motivations, and background, which all in turn shape the way they understand and describe objects.

Hemingway assigns each character a role in this conversation about conversation. We’ve already established that the interlocutors are the two waiters who each speak through their respective colored glasses of reality. But the deaf old man also demands our attention for being two things: deaf and the subject of the waiters’ conversations. The first exchange between the two waiters brings to light the role that deafness plays in this conversation about conversation:

“Last week he [the deaf old man] tried to commit suicide,” one waiter said.


“He was in despair.”

“What about?”


“How do you know it was nothing?”

“He has plenty of money.” (Hemingway)

Unable to hear, the old deaf man cannot answer for any of the questions and assumptions the two waiters make about a recent event that supposedly occurred in his life: his attempted suicide. He is like the silent universe that is inevitably mum about the truth, so to speak, to all those who inquire by poking and prodding for the truth. In this way, the deaf old man is the object whose truth will not be known regardless of how much the waiters make an effort to guess what it is.

So far, all that is known about the deaf old man is filtered by the waiters’ interpretations, which are subsequently expressed by their words, their language. That is, what we are left with are mere descriptions of an old man who supposedly tried to commit suicide, was in despair about nothing, and has plenty of money. And this train of thought, going from suicide and despair to nothing and money ends up revealing more about the waiter who spoke rather than the old man.

Readers can never be too sure of what kind of man this deaf old man is. Did he really attempt to commit suicide? Were his motivations truly despair? And was his despair really because of nothing? For all we know, the waiter who made these descriptions could be spinning a narrative to fit the picture he may already have of this deaf old man. In a later section of the dialogue, one of the waiters (it is not clear whether it is the same waiter who made the initial commentary about the old man) claims that the old man “must be eighty years old,” to which the same waiter or the second waiter immediately follow-ups saying, “Anyway I should say he was eighty” (Hemingway). The waiters are actively constructing an idea of this old man with their language, which becomes the truth accepted not only by the waiters accept but also by unsuspecting readers.

As the story progresses, the waiters’ descriptions of the deaf old man begin to reflect more concretely the character and values of each waiter. One of the waiters is in a hurry to close the café and come home to his wife before three in the morning while the other is unhurried and unnerved by any timely obligation. Upon observing the hurried waiter’s successful attempt to finally get the old man to leave the café, the unhurried waiter asks “What is an hour?”, to which the hurried waiter replies, “More to me than to him [the deaf old man]” (Hemingway). In response, the unhurried waiter says, “An hour is the same” (Hemingway). What is so remarkable about this minute exchange is that how well it exemplifies what it means for language to be distinct from that which it describes. The question by itself, “What is an hour?” seems to anticipate on face value, the essence of an hour, of time. But the response that the first waiter gives answer a different question; that is, he answers “What is an hour to me?” His understanding of time is relative to himself, which in effect replaces time, the object of interest, with himself. It is no longer the object that is inspiring its descriptions, but the waiter himself. The unhurried waiter, however, nullifies the label that the hurried waiter assigns to the object of time. That time is more to one than to another is purely arbitrary. For “An hour is the same” to whomever and whenever. There is nothing more to the object that makes it any more special to a particular person. Rather, it is the labels, the language we use, for describing these objects that makes them appear as such.

Perhaps most indicative of this idea of the autonomy of language is the conversation the unhurried waiter has with himself. At this point, the hurried waiter has left the café for home and the unhurried waiter is left musing on how good and necessary it is to have a clean, well-lighted café. Contrary to his hurried colleague’s opinion, the unhurried waiter deplores the absence of such a café, which he thinks leaves him with no dignity and “a nothing that he knew too well” (Hemingway). The idea of nothing makes its entrance again in the latter half of the short story. We’ve already seen it mentioned during the exchange about why the deaf old man was driven to despair. But in this case, the use of the term nothing is different. The waiter calls all things, including man, a nothing and contrasts it with light, cleanness, and order. Though the waiter does not specify what he means by this nothing, he prefaces it earlier while conversing with his colleague saying, “Each night I am reluctant to close up [the café] because there may be some one who needs the café” (Hemingway). There is a twinge of loneliness, a kind of emptiness, in this nothing upon which the waiter constantly dwells. But not much can be said as of yet until further on when the waiter says the following in his head:

Some lived in it [the nothing] and never felt it but he knew it all was nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada. Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada. Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada. Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee. (Hemingway)

The waiter uses the term nada, the Spanish equivalent for nothing, as not simply a thing that exists but surrounds us, is us, and pervades the very language used for acknowledging and declaring allegiance to God. But what’s important to note here is also the phrase “pues nada.” It is recognized as a muletilla, which is a word that serves as a filler or verbal crutch. There is no meaning to a filler word, just as nothing is devoid of any meaning. They are arbitrary terms that illuminate nothing about anything, just as the language and the labels we designate for objects reveal pretty much nothing about the actual object itself.

The very repetition of nada further reinforces this nothingness by rendering the term meaningless and arbitrary. The waiter replaces nearly every significant word in the Lord’s Prayer with nada. But this act of replacement is more than just to emphasize nothingness in human lives, but also to devalue and forget the terms themselves — to strip all significance and meaning from all the terms that previously held so much command and presence and leave the words empty like husks. It is a brilliant demonstration of what we end up with when we acknowledge the divide between language and objects and realize there is no real substance to the terms and the languages we use to describe objects, except for the meaning that we fabricate and pretend to see as true. What we end up pledging allegiance to is neither God nor some heavenly kingdom. Instead, we “Hail nothing full of nothing” because “nothing is with thee” (Hemingway). Humans do not possess anything more than illusions of what is real. As told by Nietzsche, “Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions” (117). Not only have we fabricated our truths, but we’ve gone so far as to forget that they are fabrications! We trap ourselves, it seems, in this cycle of lies — of conversations about conversations — believing ourselves to have hit upon the pot of golden truth.

With so much nothingness in the world and in ourselves, it is no wonder the unhurried waiter loses his dignity, feels lonely, and ultimately, empty. And so, he seeks solace in a clean, well-lighted place and hopes that this diversion from the darkness of nothingness can last, quite frankly, 24/7. And perhaps this is one way Hemingway is telling readers to cope with this fabricated reality in this silent universe. But I beg to differ. It is not so much about finding solace, as if our lives are completely worthless and all our foundations must be broken down, as it is about exploring the breadth of our constructions. We might have a ceiling to our endeavors, but we have such long hallways that are endless and diverse in all the ways we make something out of nothing. It is true that conversations are nothing more than just that: conversations. But our ways of having those conversations are plenty. And questions of “What do you mean?” and “How do you mean?” will continuously appear as little blinking red lights and collapsing bridges, so long as we don’t try to anchor ourselves to the object. Because we can’t. And, well, that’s okay.

Works Cited:

Hemingway, Ernest. “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.” Harry Youtt, n.d. 11 Nov 2016. < >

Nietzsche, Friedrich. “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense.” 1873, p. 114-123.