The Interpretation We Should Value

Authors can often get too much credit for the their work. It is just very easy to praise the author because they wrote it the text and to credit the author with the ownership of a powerful meaning of a work. This is not appropriate because the author is unable to express every possible meaning and they are not the only person reading their work. Similarly, the text itself can gain praise for what it is- the words written- and the meanings that the words can create. In order for the text to rightly deserve credit for the meaning which it conveys, the text must be able to “stand on its own.” The text must be able to express its meaning without the author being present [to explain its meaning]. Thus, the text needs to be autonomous from the author; it must be able to give meaning without the assistance of another source. Therefore, it is the readers and neither the text nor the author who determines the meaning of a work. The readers have their own unique background and are capable of better getting messages across and elaborating on interpretations than the author and the text. What really sets the readers apart from the author and the text is that they have a fresh set of eyes that have not experienced the same things as the author. They have a different perspective from the author and this is vital to the value of their interpretation because it allows them to read the text with no prior history with the text, and thus they would only be able to read the text as it is written. Furthermore, the readers are the persons through whom the meaning of the work can be explained when the author is no longer present and the text is lost or indecipherable by itself.

The Bible is a great example of how valuable the readers are. The authors of the Bible are no longer present, so it is impossible to truly know what they meant. Secondly, we cannot even confirm whether or not they wrote the Bible. Additionally, the text itself can be very hard to fully understand. It is then on the readers to determine how important the text is to the meaning it is trying to get across. The readers also choose how to apply the meaning they gather from the work. Thus, readers hold a lot of the power to dictate which interpretation to take away from the work making their interpretations matter the most. The readers are the ones who preserve the meanings of the work and more readily and efficiently disseminate their interpretations to the masses. The readers, then, give meaning to the Bible; without the readers the Bible has no meaning.

Throughout history, many groups and individuals have taken up the Bible as a text from which they can learn about life and how one should live. However, interpretations of the Bible have varied, causing many disputes even amongst people of the same faith. One cause for this is the fact that the Bible is an incredibly hard text to read. Disregarding the length of the sacred text, the wording of the book is much different than that of modern-day books as a result of developments in language made over long periods of time. Many passages can be very abstract and difficult for one to wrap their heads around. Because the text can be indecipherable at times, readers end up being responsible for creating meaning from it and make it relevant to their lives, their reality, their world. After all, the readers are the individuals who are actively engaging in the world in which they live, and it is they who will determine the future, and for that reason they need to have priority in the “interpretation hierarchy” because they affect the things that will come. For when the Bible is decipherable, it is still up to the readers to give meaning to the text and ponder what they read in order for them to make sense of it.

Humans are unique beings: they have different backgrounds, mindsets, and experiences. Due to this, people are going to have different opinions and interpret things in a variety of ways. This allows for readers to have several meanings for even one phrase, let alone an entire book. Even groups that consist of individuals with very similar beliefs struggle to come up with one clear interpretation. This is partly because humans can be stubborn, but also because it is very difficult to have a group of people in which every member interprets things the exact same way. The text, in contrast, is unable to debate that which is written. Sure, some words have multiple meanings, but it is ultimately the readers who choose which meaning of a word or phrase to take and interpret. The text is an inanimate thing that cannot, on its own, argue for a certain meaning. According to E. D. Hirsch, the text is dependent on the readers for its meaning, and in terms of the author and their intent having significance, the critics as he mentions are the readers and the second an interpretation is made on the work, the author is removed from the work. As for the author, they are likely to have multiple ideas pass through their head, possibly causing them to lose track of their intent. This makes it extremely difficult and even impossible for the reader to even try to figure out the point or argument of the work.

My argument is not that the author or the text has no value, but that in terms of caring about the meaning of a work, neither the authorial intent nor the text has any greater significance than the reader’s equally viable interpretation. An undisputable fact about the Bible is that the authors are no longer alive or able to directly communicate their intent. But, even if they were, their intent does not matter. If there is no confirmed authorial intent, why bother looking for it or giving it attention? The text, by itself, is incapable of having an intent. Furthermore, the text can be read as straightforward or as cryptic, but again it is the readers who achieve those readings. Therefore, readers have the authority and ultimately the final say in assigning meaning to any work because they determine how the text affects them.

There are also just too many ways to interpret the Bible. Aside from each individual’s interpretation, nearly every sect of Christianity (and a few denominations of other religions), has different ways of interpreting the Bible. Examples of biblical interpretations include: interpreting passages as “the Word of God,” as a historical document, as midrash, or as folklore. To interpret the Bible as “the Word of God” is to interpret the passages as they are written because that which is written is exactly the words of God that were simply transcribed through his messengers. According to the source “Methods of Interpreting the Meaning of Bible Passages,” to interpret the Bible as a historical document is to believe that human beings wrote the contents of the Bible without the voice of God, and they did so for their own personal purposes. In addition, the authors made errors both in writing the work and in rewriting the contents with each new edition and the evolution of language. I am not in total agreement with this definition of reading the Bible as a historical document, but it still provides an additional way of interpreting the Bible. To interpret the Bible as midrash is to focus on the experience(s) of the past that allow a praiseworthy event to occur in the present. To interpret the Bible as the result of years of oral tradition is to say that the stories told within the Bible have been repeated and altered even if only slightly. Each of these examples proves how vital the reader is to the meaning of a work. For each interpretation can only be held by the reader who chooses their own way of reading. H. J. B. Combrink agrees and asserts that a text, especially the Bible, is very open to multiple interpretations, and that interpretation and application should not be separated from one another. This further supports the claim of the readers’ interpretations mattering the most because they will have various interpretations, but also the readers are the ones applying the interpretations to the world around them.

A specific example of how even a Biblical verse relies on the readers is the verse  “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me (Philippians 4:13).” This is a verse that is very popular and utilized quite often because it can be interpreted to provide false hope to the world in exchange for something so few actually have: faith in God. Popular belief holds that this verse states that it is possible to succeed and thrive simply by having faith in God. However, it can also mean that “ in Christ we find the sufficient comfort and support to carry on through all adversity,” and not that anything is possible and everything will turn out for the best because one has trust in God. Additionally, a reader could interpret this verse as a reason to live poorly, perform badly academically or career-wise, break the law, or become depressed, due to the “loose-phrasing” of the text and the ability of the reader to interpret things in various ways. The text is not specific enough, and even if it were more specific, it is incapable of being so specific that only one meaning can be drawn from it: that is one inevitable truth about literature. Therefore, looking at this one verse out of the approximately thirty-one thousand verses, it is apparent how the author(s) holds no authority in assigning meaning. It also shows how the text inadequately gets a message across uniformly. The text is just not able to provide a definite and universal meaning that will mean the same thing to everyone. Most importantly, this example shows how the reader grants meaning to the verse by assigning their own meaning to something in order for it to make sense and function in their world.

The readers must be the factor that determines the meaning of a poem, novel, play, or movie. The author can get lost in their work or in their own head and lose meaning. The thoughts circling around in the author’s head compounded with even a quick break of concentration can cause the author to lose track of their intended meaning. Above all, the author cannot exist forever; they cannot constantly be available to somehow adjust readers’ interpretations to fit their intentions. The text, which can potentially exist forever, lacks the ability to communicate a message in multiple ways to assist with conveying the message. Readers also possess the ability to alter their reading of the text to forgo its original, intended meaning for a new, readerly-imposed meaning. So long as humans (or intelligence) exist, readers shall exist. Thus, the readers undeniably determine the meaning of a poem, novel, play or movie; they have the most valuable interpretation.

Works Cited

“1 Peter and Theological Interpretation of Scripture.”

Written to Serve : The Use of Scripture in 1 Peter (n.d.): n. pag. Web. 15 Nov. 2016. <>.

“5 Reasons Why There Are So Many Interpretations of the Bible | by Karl Heitman.”

Glory Books. N.p., 05 May 2015. Web. 15 Nov. 2016.


Combrink, H. J. B. “Multiple Meaning and/or Multiple Interpretation of a Text.”

Neotestamentica, vol. 18, 1984, pp. 26–37.

HIRSCH, E. D., and GARY ISEMINGER. “In Defense of the Author.” Intention Interpretation,

Temple University Press, 1992, pp. 11–23,

Lorand, Ruth. “The Logic of Interpretation.” Interpretation: Ways of Thinking about the Sciences

and the Arts, Edited by Peter Machamer and Gereon Wolters, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014, pp. 16–30,

“Methods of Interpreting the Meaning of Bible Passages.”

Methods of Interpreting the Bible. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Nov. 2016.


Rosenblatt, Louise M. “Readers, Texts, Authors.” Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society,

vol. 34, no. 4, 1998, pp. 885–921.

“Top 5 Most Misquoted, Misused, and Misunderstood Bible Verses – Truth By Grace.”

Truth By Grace. N.p., 22 June 2016. Web. 15 Nov. 2016. <>.

Entering the Theater of History

You are perhaps more familiar with the movie: Gérard Depardieu, lumbering, blond, and sporting the most unfortunate bowl cut, is the (or, as it ultimately turns out, one of the) eponymous sixteenth century peasant, returning home after a long ten-year absence to his small French village amidst the cheers of his neighbors and the loving acceptance of his belle wife, played by Nathalie Baye. All goes well for a while, the couple living in wedded bliss, but as time passes suspicions increasingly mount and a shocking secret is finally revealed, tearing the two apart. It is a romantic story, and a tragic one, but most of all it is it is an unlikely one, fantastical enough to be taken as more of a legend or a myth than as a real, it-truly-did-happen historical event.

But that is exactly what le retour de Martin Guerre is: an extraordinary fact of history, a remarkable but true happenstance. The details are simple enough, if hard to believe: In 1548, a young peasant by the name of Martin Guerre stole a small quantity of grain from his father, and for his crime had to flee his hometown of Artigat, leaving behind his newborn son and his young wife Bertrande de Rols. He was gone for ten years, journeying to Spain and fighting his homeland in its armies. In the meantime, another peasant from a nearby village, Arnaud du Tilh, learned of his resemblance to Martin, and decided to impersonate the former and take his identity, property, and wife. Martin Guerre alias Arnaud du Tilh was initially warmly welcomed by everyone in Artigat, even fathering a daughter with Bertrande, but a quarrel with his “uncle” over issues of the estate led to mounting suspicions over his true identity. One murder plot, one burned building, and one false testimony later, Martin Guerre alias Arnaud du Tilh was hauled up before the court at first Rieux, then Toulouse. Quick of tongue, a born trickster, Arnaud du Tilh almost succeeded in convincing them of his ruse when the real Martin Guerre, minus one leg from war, returned to reclaim his life. He was tearfully received by Bertrande and the rest of his family, and Arnaud du Tilh was hanged, admitting his wrongs and asking God for mercy on his way to the gibbet.

The case was, of course, a sensation, and in the years afterwards innumerable accounts were published recounting or at least referencing its events, among them Arrest Memorable by Jean de Coras, the bestselling record of the presiding jurist of the court at Toulouse; an essay by Montaigne; and a chapter in a book by Leibniz. Martin Guerre’s tale has been told and retold so many times over the years, traded around endlessly around the Basque region in which he had lived so many centuries ago, that it has long since passed from the annals of history into the realm of imagination and creativity. It was while working as a consultant and co-writer on the set of yet another adaptation of this famous tale, the aforementioned Depardieu vehicle, that historian Natalie Zemon Davis grew concerned about how far the story had strayed from the historical record, and thus set out to return it to its factual roots, reconstruct the events as they “actually happened” (Davis, viii). “I would give this arresting tale its first full-scale historical treatment, using every scrap of paper left me by the past” (Davis, ix). This is her stated intent, but the results of her forays into the past, another work entitled The Return of Martin Guerre, is as far from a concrete, definitive, cut-and-dry historical tract as any I have ever encountered—it is history, but it reads like a novel, like a movie. She begins by delving into the past, trying to uncover its “true face,” but she ends instead by showing that the pure facts of life are unattainable, always obscured as they are by layers of language, literary language, operating on both sides of the discourse: the one of those who tell the story, and the one of those whose stories are being told (Davis, 125). Left in Davis’s hands, history approaches literature, and deliberately so—the impression she ultimately leaves us with is not of history as true, unitary and objective, but rather of history as elusive and changeable, a story to be crafted that transforms every time it is told.[1]

From the very moment she embarks on her pursuit of the past, Davis reveals her acute awareness of the tension that exists between literary representation and the writing of history. In the introduction to his book Metahistory, the “linguistic turn” historian (according to my professor, a historian who has basically defected over to the side of literature) Hayden White writes that “the difference between ‘history’ and ‘fiction’ resides in the fact that the historian ‘finds’ his stories, whereas the fiction writer ‘invents’ his” (6). For Davis, however, her first encounter with the story of Martin Guerre is evidently a mix of the two: “When she first read the judge’s account,” Davis writes, her immediate thought is that rarely “does a historian find so perfect a narrative structure in the events of the past or one with such dramatic popular appeal” (vii). On the one hand, she maintains that she found the story of Martin Guerre sifting through the chronicles; on the other hand, her observation of the perfection of the story’s “narrative structure” for historical and popular means demonstrates a heightened consciousness of the ways in which these stories are told that is quite in keeping with White’s theories about the “fictions of factual representation.”[2] And the deeper Davis goes into the case, the more the friction between literature and history, fiction and fact, bears on her work: She is troubled by the departure of the film from the “historical record,” but at the same time she is inspired to come up with “new ways” of thinking about and understanding the past in general and about Martin Guerre in specific (Davis, viii). She feels she is in a “historical laboratory” of her own, “generating not proofs, but historical possibilities,” an image that at once connotes the scientific nature of her work (history as a “social science”) and the imaginative, inventive nature of it.

To resolve this “problem of invention” posed to her as a historian, Davis initially finds recourse in the archives (Davis, viii). She returns to her “original métier,” and “even from location in the Pyrenees I was running off to the archives in Foix, Toulouse, and Auch” to gather all sorts of sources, everything from Coras’s and Montaigne’s texts on the case to registers of Parliamentary sentences to notarial contracts of all the surrounding villages (Davis, ix). She gathers every piece of evidence, and in doing so she attempts not only to finally catch ahold of Bertrande and Arnaud, but also to “discover the world they would have seen” (Davis, 5). If she has to fall back on invention in her writing, it is only “in part,” “held tightly in check by the voices of the past” (Davis, 5). Perhaps some construction of the literary sort is unavoidable in writing history, but the final result will still be objectively true in the sense that it is borne out by the facts of the past.

But what to do when even those “voices” are literary constructions, other texts already encrusted with rhetorical devices and linguistic turns? Archival documents, it must be remembered, are not pure, unvarnished facts, but rather recordings or accountings of the facts. Channeling Nietzsche, they are not the object, not the truth, but a specific representation of the object, the truth, in the form of words. Language, then, is the barrier that stands between the historian and his subject, the “instrument of medication between the consciousness and the world that consciousness inhabits” that moreover is inherently contaminated with a whole host of ideological, political, ethical, and so on and so forth meanings—according to White, the idea that a “value-neutral description of the facts, prior to their interpretation or analysis” is possible is nothing more than an “illusion” (White, 126-134). Language is never neutral, and because language is never neutral all archival documents—the most personal of letters, the driest of legal, the most sensational of news articles—are not neutral either, and so a historian searching for the realities of the past starts from a position of having already, unknowingly, lost touch with that past. All archives are simply another sort of fiction, another type of literary or linguistic mode.

The problem of the archives as a truth-teller is exacerbated when studying sixteenth century peasants who could not write at all, and so have “left us few documents of self-revelation” (Davis, 2). To gain access to the lives of these individuals, the historian is forced to take a round-about route via secondary accounts written by others far removed from the actual peasantry. Literature is one option, but it exists, it is so often conventional, following “the classical rules that make villagers a subject of comedy” (Davis, 2). The literary corpus abounds with stories of “happy, pleasant, and agreeable” peasants and their “happy, pleasant, and agreeable” adventures, but to take that for reality is to run together fiction and fact. As Davis herself admits, a learned poet might describe Arnaud’s country with extravagant literary terms like “rich in grains, rich in wines” and “abounds in men, as brave fighters as could be,” but it would be hard to say if Arnaud would have said it similarly (Davis, 35). The other option Davis puts forth is records of court proceedings, but these too are not exempt from literary sleight-of-hand. For example, an excerpt of a document recording the testimony of a young Lyonnais villager seeking a pardon for the murder of his wife (who did not live long enough to tell her side of the story, which just serves to highlight the erasure of voices in the archives and the problem of recovering them) is sprinkled with “phrases urged upon him by his attorney” that are designed to paint a vivid “portrait of an unhappy marriage”: The wife, “without rhyme or reason, took it into her head to kill him, and in fact beat him and threw stones at him…The suppliant accepted this peaceably” (Davis, 3). Criminal cases like Martin Guerre are especially rich in drama and narrative, and also “limited as a means for faithfully recounting history,” the judges always having “the power to shape the official version of the truth” (Bienen, 496) White says that “the facts do not speak for themselves, but that the historian speaks for them” (125). We see here, however, that the relationship is a step further removed—the historian doesn’t speak for the facts, but for texts that purport to speak for the facts.

Davis is not unaware of this linguistic and archival dilemma, which she proves by treating her sources like poets, subjecting their texts to an analysis of a basically literary kind. The primary source Davis uses in writing The Return of Martin Guerre is the aforementioned Arrest Memorable by Jean de Coras, whom she presents to us as “The Storyteller.” As depicted by Davis, Coras was a brilliant jurist who could pour forth “spellbinding oratory before two thousand people” and whose legal publications were beloved by his students for their literary merits as much as their informational ones: “’Corasissima’ one of them wrote in the margin next to an especially apt phrase on the subject of inheritance by minors” (Davis, 97). These talents were applied to Coras’s account of Martin Guerre’s trial, and the result, in Davis’s eyes, is a new style of law and crime writing that has never been seen before, an “innovative book of contradictory images and mixed genres” (Davis, 104). She then proceeds to examine how this “mixture in tone and mixture in form” determines the story that Coras is telling (Davis, 108). On the one hand, Coras exaggerated and omitted aspects of this story to create a “moral tale” in which the “diabolic art” of the impostor is “built up by comparison with biblical, classical” figures, thus exonerating Bertrande of any guilt and emphasizing Coras’s “exemplary” execution of this satanic figure (Davis, 109). On the other hand, however, the lack of a proper hero, a requirement of a moral tale, in this version of the events—the real Martin Guerre, Davis stresses, is portrayed as irresponsible, “unforgiving and unrepentant”—allows Coras’s account to be recast as a “tragedy,” a word he himself uses in a later edition (Davis 110, 111). And still another way to read Coras’s text is as a “tragicomedy,” a story with a diverting beginning, a doubtful middle, and a sad ending in which Arnaud is cast as a kind of hero crucially helped by Bertrande who, “not at all deceived, decides to fashion a marriage with him” (Davis, 112). Davis went into the archives a historian, but came out an English professor, well versed with the literary process, trying to find meaning not only in the sentences themselves but in the spaces between them, in their forms and structures, in the way this texts shifts between genres and “is told in two ways at the same time” (Davis, 108). The text that she ends up with as a result is not objective, not bare, unvarnished fact, but rather a complex and at times contradictory medley of voices and meaning.

Davis herself advocates for the “comitragic” version of the story of Martin Guerre, presenting to us in The Return of Martin Guerre a reading of Arnaud as a hero, Bertrande as his willing and loving accomplice, and Martin Guerre as the cad who comes back and ruins everything at the last minute. This interpretation she arrives at not by grounding her arguments in the exact words of Coras’s text, but by playing around and speculating into the ambiguities and contradictions that arise from the surface of his text once she subjects it to the kind of literary analysis mentioned above. Davis treats Arnaud, Bertrande, and the other historical figures in her book like they are characters in a Dostoyevsky play, wondering and hypothesizing on their emotions and psychology. For example, much of her assertion of Bertrande’s complicity in Arnaud’s deception (really the heart of her book) rests on what she imagines are Bertrande’s feelings as a young and beautiful woman abandoned by her real husband: but surely, Davis says, “Bertrande dreamed of a husband and lover who would come back and be different” (Davis, 34). She invents scenarios in her head as “thought experiments,” and places Arnaud and others in them, putting words into their heads—if Arnaud du Tilh and Martin Guerre had ever met beforehand, she says, it surely must have been “unsettling and fascinating,” but once the shock wore off regarding their resemblance they likely would “exchange confidences” (Davis, 39). The real Martin expresses ambivalence about his wife, suggests to Arnaud that he “take her,” and Arnaud would think, “Why not?” (Davis, 39).

Davis tries to justify her speculation by asserting that a historian has recourse to “the uncertainties, the ‘perhapses,’ the ‘may-have-beens’” when the “evidence is inadequate or perplexing,” but her retelling of Martin Guerre goes far beyond that and approaches fiction (Davis, viii). The historian Robert Finlay, for example, criticizes Davis for bypassing completely the historical records “in the service of an inventive blend of intuition and assertion,” particularly in her characterization of Bertrande, whom she transforms in a stroke of the pen from the dupe of the traditional tale to an active and engaged accomplice in hers (Finlay, 569). This type of inversion of traditional women’s history is very common in micro-history studies like The Return of Martin Guerre, and, according to historian Marsha R. Robinson, has its roots in the idea that “history is constructed, historical narratives are rarely objective” (Robinson, 1). Although Davis vehemently denies Finlay’s claims that she ignored the historical record, certain elements of her book indicate her implicit recognition of the hold of fiction in history. First, she frames the entire book in terms of theatrical language—Bertrande and Arnaud are consummate “rural actors,” their ruse is compared to the donning of “the mask of the carnival player,” the trial is a performance which Arnaud has to go into “rehearsals” for and which is attended by spectating crowds (Davis 5, 41, 57). This obviously serves to call attention to the literary aspects of her writing, making transparent the ways in which she uses language and narrative structure to intensify the drama (Look! Arnaud takes “center stage”) and embellish her history (Davis, 69) And second, Davis leaves her book deliberately open-ended, ending: “I think I have uncovered the true face of the past—or has Pansette done it one again?” (Davis, 125). Although Davis had set out to write the true history of Martin Guerre, in the end she can only she can claim that it is a face, not the true face, of Pansette, Arnaud’s nickname/stage name. She has not deciphered the story; it lives on, changing with every re-telling, whether it is another historian who takes a crack at it, or a grandmother in present-day Artigat who tells the it to a young mother complaining over her baby carriage that nothing ever happens in this sleepy town. “Perhaps not now, but in the sixteenth century…” (Davis, 125).

In many people’s minds, there is a firm difference between historical writing and fiction writing—one is true, and the other is not; one deals in facts, the other inventions; one is a science, interested in discovering and quantifying, the other an act of creativity, interested in creating and imagining. But as Davis shows in her search for the true, the right, way of telling the history of a legend like Martin Guerre, the boundary between fiction and history is much, much more fluid than most imagine. Language, literary schemes and modes, infiltrates every step of a historian’s work, from the starting point of the archives to the end point of actually setting words down onto the page. It is impossible to get the truth of the past, because such a thing doesn’t exist, and if it did, it is lost to us anyway. Truth is not objective, or unitary, or singular, but rather ever-shifting and ever-changing, a story to be crafted and told and re-told, every version, every interpretation, different, repeating ad infinitum. Davis’s The Return of Martin Guerre is but one of these stories—there will be, and already are, many more.

[1] The idea for this essay grew out of two sources. First, a prompt my Literary Theory professor gave me for our second assignment that goes: “Historians take themselves to be reconstructing the truth about past events, but they are actually writing a kind of fiction. They bring to their understanding of earlier periods narrative schemes of a basically literary kind—storytelling forms that help them organize bare historical facts into a satisfying shape, none of which can be said to be more right than any other. The choice of what kind of story you are going to tell cannot be made on empirical grounds.” Second, a book (Davis’s The Return of Martin Guerre) that I read for my Theory of History class, and on which I led a discussion section.

[2] Title of one of Hayden White’s essays: “The Fictions of Factual Representation,” compiled in Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism (Johns Hopkins UP, 1978).

Works Cited

Bienen, Leigh Buchanan. “Review: The Law as Storyteller.” Harvard Law Review, Vol. 98, No. 2, 1984, pg. 494-502.

Davis, Natalie Zemon. The Return of Martin Guerre. Harvard UP, 1983.

Finlay, Robert Finlay. “The Refashioning of Martin Guerre.” The American Hsitorical Review, Vol. 9, No. 3, 1988, pg. 553-571.

Robinson, Marsha. Inverting History with Microhistory: Women Who Belong: Claiming a Female’s Right-Filled Space. Cambridge Scholar’s Publishing, 2013.

White, Hayden. “The Fictions of Factual Representation.” Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism. Johns Hopkins UP, 1978.

White, Hayden. Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-century Europe. Johns Hopkins UP, 1973.


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.

The Literary Intentions of the Law

It feels like we are constantly being told to “seize the moment” and to “appreciate the present”, but when we try to get ahold of what is right now, it slips right through our fingers. By what “is”, I mean what is true, real, and staring you back in the face. Society often tries to tell us that we need to live in the moment, but that is inherently impossible because everything is ever-changing. New wars start, new politicians take office, new environmental disasters occur. These types of changes often cause instability in the world that can make it hard to govern and maintain order, but we have law to keep us in check. The law is supposed to tell us what we can and cannot do when faced with certain circumstances. The language we call law has created a governing body that appears to have control over many aspects of our lives, such as what taxes we pay and where we can fire our guns. Upon further investigation, however, every word that we use to make law can be interpreted in different ways, making its practical application seem impossible.

While our capacity to communicate our thoughts through writing is something extraordinary, it is also something that we can negatively take advantage of because we often take creative license over writing. Reading literature is interpreting what someone else has written, and the act of reading law is no different. As individuals, we come up with our own meanings for everything that we read, and our interpretations stem from a number of factors. One crucial factor is the society in which we live, because our thoughts are immensely susceptible to the power of the situation. But society is a concept that is ever-developing and dynamic, which consistently changes our ways of thinking. So how does this fit into the law? And why is it even important? To start, even though law may be proven to be part of literature, no one other than literary critics care if they cannot convince anyone of their interpretations. It may be sad, but there are no real-life detriments. In contrast, the judge has the responsibilities of the literary critic to pull meaning out of written language, of the moral philosopher to decide what is right and wrong, and of the Pope to be someone that actually has an influence on daily life. But there are literally thousands of judges in the United States alone, each with their own moral code from their own upbringing, and the literary aspects of language allow each to make their own separate interpretation. This seems like a recipe for disaster. However, it is actually good in the wake of an ever-changing world.

The base of my argument requires proof that law can truly mean different things to different people. The example I am going to use is the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution from the Bill of Rights. The Fourth Amendment reads as follows:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

I can start with what “the people” means; in the 1700’s when these laws were first written, only protestant, property owning, white males had the respect of the community. If you were a woman, non-white, or had a disability or different religion, you were not an intended recipient of the rights given by these laws. If you still think that this law could be beneficial to you, I could argue that being “secure” means giving the government control over everything, including your personal life and property. Then there is the question of what is an “unreasonable” search or seizure. Essentially anything, including race and gender, could cause suspicion, and with that, having to make an oath or to “affirm” your beliefs bears little weight. The word “probable” has the same ambiguity as unreasonable. Probable cause could come out of anything, including looks, ethnicity, past crimes, friends and family with past crimes, a zombie scare, or a full moon. Following this logic, the Fourth Amendment says that the government can search and seize you and your personal property for looking the wrong way and pissing someone off.

This is, of course, an extreme interpretation, but the exact opposite argument could be made as well. In that case, the Fourth Amendment could almost completely handcuff government law enforcers, potentially jeopardizing public safety. To make matters worse, many laws, including the Fourth Amendment, become even more ambiguous when applied to cases involving modern technology unimaginable to the framers of the Constitution. Consider the case of an American citizen with Fourth Amendment rights talking over the phone to someone in another country that does not grant the same rights, and imagine that the U.S. government has access to the recordings. Should they be able to search the recordings without probable cause, or even with probable cause ,but without a warrant? One interpretation says that,

Communicating with a person who lacks Fourth Amendment rights should not waive the rights of the person who has those rights. The Fourth Amendment should continue to fully protect the U.S. person who communicates with those lacking Fourth Amendment rights.

I would argue, on the other hand, that if you want to communicate with someone who does not have the same rights, then you risk your rights being frozen. There are many people abroad who want to do harm to America and its citizens. Does it not morally make sense to forgo some individual liberties to save even one life? The rapidly changing times and contexts necessitate very open and interpretable language, especially given the rate of technological advancement. Not once does the Constitution or Bill of Rights mention computers, online data, or international servers because those were not things when these laws were written, so we are left to our own devices to decide how these laws apply to modern situations. If my perception of the world were different, my interpretation might be different as well, and this is my point. We must make judgements and the ones we do make are influenced by our environments, and while this may seem problematic because everyone is free to use their own processes to come to their own decisions, this actually functions to keep laws relevant.

There is no way that everyone in the world would be able to agree upon how to handle some of the most controversial topics in existence. “The very existence of written constitutions with substantive limitations on future conduct is evidence of skepticism, if not outright pessimism, about the moral character of future citizens.” That is to say, humans will always be testing their limits and the law needs to draw the line between what is acceptable and what is illegal. The law, therefore, grows out of what is decided to be bad or unlawful. In the case of the Fourth Amendment, the government arresting you for no reason without a warrant is the described mistake, and someone then has to face the consequences. But everyone has their own idea about what they think the law should say, and each thinks they are more right than the other.

The point that is relevant here is not only that private lawmaking takes place through religious authority, contract, property, and corporate law (and of course through all private associational activity), but also that from time to time various groups use these universally accepted and well-understood devices to create an entire nomos – an integrated world of obligation and reality from which the rest of the world is perceived…We witness normative mitosis.

This process could launch us into indecisive lawlessness, but it is our ability to consolidate and interpret law that keeps us in check.

All words still have meaning that should not and cannot be ignored. Any piece of text not written in complete gibberish can convey an intended meaning even if there is ample room for interpretation. This is especially true for the law; although there may be some breathing room, we know that each law was written with a purpose in mind. In his book Sonnet LXV and the “Black Ink” of the Framers’ Intention, Charles Fried takes a solid stand for the recognition of and respect for the framers of law. His argument is that you cannot interpret any law in any way that you want because this makes you a framer as well. Each word in a piece of legal writing has a reason for being there, much like in poetry. They all strive to come together to say what is lawful and what is not, so we cannot all become our own personal framers of law if there is any chance of maintaining order. Quite simply, not everyone should be free to interpret the law.

While one interpretation cannot satisfy all, it should be the ultimate goal to not disregard any substantiated opinions. The literary aspects of legal language allow us to do just that, and this is my main point. “General terms are not mere compendia of the specific instances imagined by those individuals who first enunciated them. What the miracle of language requires is that words, ideas, and concepts reach new instances.” The general terms are the ones that not only make law literary, but that also make it viable through time. The ambiguities in legal language save laws from going obsolete with every change in society. Having unclear laws is actually a blessing in disguise because it allows them to stand up against shifts in society and new challenges. It is important to understand that law does not have the capacity to rule everything we do in our daily lives, and it should not be able to. The better function of law, the one that comes out of its literary qualities, is to tell us not exactly what we will do in a very specific situation, but rather what we should do when faced with a set of circumstances. Our literary-law system saves us from spending our time and resources constantly coming up with new laws for every given situation and gives us a way to recognize and react to crime more efficiently because established laws can be applied to different yet related sets of circumstances.

Works Cited

Cover, Robert M. ‘Foreword: Nomos and Narrative’. Harvard Law Review 97


Fried, Charles. “Sonnet LXV and the ‘Black Ink’ of the Framers’ Intention.” Harvard Law Review, vol. 100, no. 4, 1987.

Kerr, Orin S. “The Fourth Amendment and the Global Internet” Stanford law review 67.2 (2015): 285-329. ProQuest. Web. 14 Nov. 2016.

Levinson, Sanford, and Steven Mailloux. Interpreting Law and Literature: A Hermeneutic Reader. Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 1988. Print. 168

U.S. Const. amend. IV

The Dark Side of Darwinism

Charles Darwin, nineteenth century English naturalist, is known as one of the most brilliant minds in history. He was a curious intellectual and a brave adventurer, well-liked by those who knew him personally and greatly revered in the scientific community. His 1859 and 1871 books, On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man, enlightened the world with a transformative understanding of life that became the foundation of modern biological thought. But there’s a darker side of Darwin, a side that perhaps calls into question his prized intellect and cherished legacy. Darwin’s writing was racist, and discriminatory beliefs and practices follow directly from his theories. If you’re a lover of evolution or biology major like I am, you may be tempted to reject that claim. But hear me out: Support for the idea that Darwin’s theories are racist may come from where you least expect it.

I’d only heard of Darwin’s dark side in passing, and I’d always assumed that Darwin’s critics were driven by ignorance or ulterior motives. But as I scrolled by debates online about Darwin’s theories, I noticed something peculiar: Darwin’s defenders most often cited his abolitionist identity, notes from his diaries, or quotes from people who knew Darwin. His accusers, on the other hand, often directly cited text from The Descent of Man. Conclusions drawn from the authorial approach to the question, in which defenders focused on proving that Darwin himself was not a racist, starkly contradicted conclusions drawn from the approach of consulting Darwin’s text itself. I’m familiar with Darwin’s theories, but I had never actually read his books; I suspect the same is true for most of you. However, I found that to determine whether or not Darwin’s theories are racist, the text of his books is revealing and conclusive. Information outside the text of The Descent of Man can help us understand the man behind the pen, but it does nothing to soften the brutal racism and white supremacism found in the text of his theory.

Although best known for On the Origin of Species, Darwin does not address human evolution and race until his 1871 book, The Descent of Man, in which Darwin applies his theories of natural selection to humans and introduces the idea of sexual selection. Here his white supremacism is revealed. Over the course of the book, Darwin describes Australians, Mongolians, Africans, Indians, South Americans, Polynesians, and even Eskimos as “savages:” It becomes clear that he considers every population that is not white and European to be savage. The word savage is disdainful, and Darwin constantly elevates white Europeans above the savages. Darwin explains that the “highest races and the lowest savages” differ in “moral disposition … and in intellect” (36). The idea that white people are more intelligent and moral persists throughout. At one point, Darwin says that savages have “low morality,” “insufficient powers of reasoning,” and “weak power of self-command” (97). Darwin’s specific consideration of intellectual capacities is especially alarming. He begins with animals: “No one supposes that one of the lower animals reflects whence he comes or whither he goes,—what is death or what is life, and so forth” (62). His remarks soon expand to humans. “How little can the hard-worked wife of a degraded Australian savage, who uses hardly any abstract words and cannot count above four, exert her self-consciousness, or reflect on the nature of her own existence” (62). Darwin writes that Australians are incapable of complex thought, and insinuates that they are akin to lower animals: His perspective on non-European races is incredibly prejudiced and absurd. Modern evolutionary scholars and teachers tend to ignore or omit that component of Darwin’s theory, but it hasn’t gone completely unnoticed. For example, Rutledge Dennis examined Darwin’s role in scientific racism for The Journal of Negro Education and found that in Darwin’s world view, “talent and virtue were features to be identified solely with Europeans” (243). White supremacy is clearly embedded in The Descent of Man, regardless of Darwin’s brilliance or the accuracy of the rest of his theory.

Darwin makes a disturbing link between his belief in white supremacy and his theory of natural selection. He justifies violent imperialism. “From the remotest times successful tribes have supplanted other tribes. … At the present day civilised nations are everywhere supplanting barbarous nations” (160). Darwin’s theory applies survival of the fittest to human races, suggesting that extermination of non-white races is a natural consequence of white Europeans being a superior and more successful race. Further, Darwin justifies violently overtaking other cultures because it has happened regularly throughout natural history. The arc of Darwin’s evolutionary universe evidently does not bend toward justice: He has no problem with continuing the vicious behavior of past generations. Claims such as those made evident in the title of a 2004 book, “From Darwin to Hitler,” may not be as alarmist as they seem.

Not only does Darwin believe in white supremacy, he offers a biological explanation for it, namely that white people are further evolved. He writes that the “western nations of Europe … now so immeasurably surpass their former savage progenitors and stand at the summit of civilization” (178). Darwin imagines that Europeans are more advanced versions of the rest of the world. As previously mentioned, this purported superiority justified to Darwin the domination of inferior races by Europeans. As white Europeans “exterminate and replace” the world’s “savage races,” and as great apes go extinct, Darwin says that the gap between civilized man and his closest evolutionary ancestor will widen. The gap will eventually be between civilized man “and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as at present between the negro or Australian and the gorilla” (201). Read that last line again if you missed it: Darwin’s theory claims that Africans and Australians are more closely related to apes than Europeans are. The spectrum of organisms is a hierarchy here, with white Europeans at the top and apes at the bottom. In Darwin’s theory, colored people fall somewhere in between. Modern human is essentially restricted only to white Europeans, with all other races viewed as somehow sub-human.

The text of The Descent of Man clearly contains a racist and white supremacist ideology, but not everyone who reads Darwin’s theory believes that the text tells the entire story. Adrian Desmond and James Moore argue against the idea that Darwin’s theories are racist in their 2009 book, Darwin’s Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin’s Views on Human Evolution. As the title suggests, Desmond and Moore claim that Darwin’s intent in studying evolution was actually to bolster the abolitionist cause. “Darwin’s starting point was the abolitionist belief in blood kinship, a ‘common descent’” (xvii). In response to Darwin’s defectors, they say that “the real problem is that no one understands Darwin’s core project. … No one has appreciated the source of that moral fire that fueled his strange, out-of-character obsession with human origins” (xix). How can Desmond and Moore claim to know Darwin’s intent? They reached their conclusions after an exhaustive search through “a wealth of unpublished family letters and a massive amount of manuscript material,” and use “Darwin’s notes, cryptic marginalia (where key clues lie) and even ships’ logs and lists of books read by Darwin. His published notebooks and correspondence (some 15,000 letters are now known) are an invaluable source” (xx). Using these sources, Desmond and Moore attempt to make a substantial case against the idea that Darwin was racist, citing evidence such as the diary that Darwin kept during his Beagle voyage. Darwin writes of slavery, “It makes one’s blood boil, yet heart tremble, to think that we Englishmen and our American descendants, with their boastful cry of liberty, have been and are so guilty” (quoted in Desmond and Moore, 183). Darwin often wrote thoughts that don’t quite align with the ideas in The Descent of Man. In his theory, Darwin suggests that it is natural for more successful races to dominate over others, and speaks comfortably of white Europeans exterminating other races. However, he wrote in his diary that “the white Man … has debased his Nature & violates every best instinctive feeling by making slave of his fellow black” (quoted in Desmond and Moore, 115). Desmond and Moore view Darwin’s later contradictions of his racist ideas in The Descent of Man as reason to interpret the text of Darwin’s theory cautiously.

Desmond and Moore also offer details of Darwin’s life that they claim are incongruent with his purported racism. Darwin came from a family that fought to emancipate Britain’s slaves, and many of his friends and readers were abolitionists as well. As a young man, Darwin took lessons in bird-stuffing from a local African American servant. Desmond and Moore write, “Evidently the sixteen-going-on-seventeen year old saw nothing untoward in paying money to apprentice himself to a Negro, and the forty or so hour-long sessions which he had with the ‘blackamoor’ through that frosty winter clearly made an impact” (18). Desmond and Moore see Darwin’s willingness to associate with African Americans as evidence that he was not prejudiced. Finally, the authors bring up a story that is actually mentioned in The Descent of Man. When Darwin writes of similarities he has noticed between savages and himself, he mentions “a full-blooded negro with whom I happened once to be intimate” (232). Again, Desmond and Moore see Darwin’s personal experiences with colored people as evidence that he is not biased against them; further, they believe this information should influence our interpretation of The Descent of Man.

A final argument made in favor of Darwin blames the time period in which he wrote. The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education writes that “Darwin, like [Abraham] Lincoln, believed in white supremacy, but he was far more enlightened and sympathetic to blacks than most white men of his time” (39). In this view, The Descent of Man must be considered within the context of its conception, namely a period and location in which white supremacy was the norm.

The external information supplied by Darwin’s personal notes, experiences, context, etc. adds to our understanding of Darwin himself, but it cannot change our understanding of his theories. The question of whether Darwin was a racist man is separate from the question of whether his theory was racist, and the answer to the former question has no bearing on the latter. The text of The Descent of Man is undeniably racist, and readers only engage with the presented text: They don’t know what Darwin wrote in his diary, whether his family supported abolition, or how much he interacted with African Americans, nor should a reader have to know these things in order to correctly interpret the text. The Descent of Man exists separate from its author and context. Claims that readers should not take the racism in Darwin’s theory literally in light of external information reject the nature of literature. As Roland Barthes says, “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination. Yet this destination cannot any longer be personal: the reader is without history, biography, psychology; he is simply that someone who holds together in a single field all the traces by which the written text is constituted” (148). Barthes’ argument is especially salient in this case because The Descent of Man was written so long ago, and Charles Darwin is long dead. Darwin and the context in which he wrote his theory have long passed, but the text lives on and will continue to exist as an independent entity that deserves to be interpreted as such.

Thus, the value of considering contextual details depends on which question we are asking. When wondering about Darwin himself, a full range of sources is applicable. However, when determining whether Darwin’s theories contain dangerous racial ideology, the alarming text of his theories cannot be at all softened or explained away with outside information. Now I understand why I’ve never been asked in a biology class to read the original text of Darwin’s theories: Our contemporary reverence for Darwin’s gentlemanliness and the pure scientific brilliance of his theories is an overly optimistic illusion that shatters upon a closer look at his publications.




Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” In Image-Music-Text. Translated by Stephen Heath. Hill and Wang, 1978.

“Blacks Less Likely to Accept Charles Darwin’s Dethronement of Mankind.” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, vol 21. CH II Publishers, Autumn 1998. USA.

Darwin, Charles. The Descent of Man. John Murray, 1871. Albemarle Street, London.

Dennis, Rutledge M. “Social Darwinism, scientific racism, and the metaphysics of race.” The Journal of Negro Education, 64:3. Howard University Press, 1995. USA.

Desmond, Adrian and Moore, James. Darwin’s Sacred Cause. Penguin Group, 2009. London.

“What They are Trying to Say at”: A Defense of Words in the Face of Rational Criticism



The natural human response to a puzzle is to solve it. This precept lies behind systems of government, modern science, and—of greatest relevance—the constant inclination of English scholars to interpret literature. In some cases everything goes well, but, at other times, it can turn into an uphill battle. Though this may frustrate us immensely, though it may go against our human need to find answers, those cases in which rational interpretation eludes us serve as an important reminder. Words, we realize, do have inherent value beyond the message they are used to signify. One such case is found in William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. 

When the novel was first released, it was highly controversial among critics and readers. Though the book is now accepted by most of the literary world as a masterful piece of writing, it is as surrounded by disagreement as ever. The thing is, no one is quite sure what the book means. The general concepts, of course, are established. The novel tells the story of a Southern farming family through the death of the matriarch and her survivors’ attempts to give her a “proper” burial. Their quest is related through a series of 59 first-person “monologues,” with perspective shifting between each of the seven family members—the main characters—as well as several minor characters. Most everything one might say about the novel beyond this, however, is liable to questioning.

Much of the work’s ambiguity results from the style of narration. Traditionally, critics have read As I Lay Dying as a series of formal internal monologues. Readings of this type are attempts “to find meaning as statement” (Slaughter 16) in the text. But meaning as we know it—a layer of rational definitions behind the words, logically moving forward with the narrative—is not to be found here. The issue lies in the fact that Faulkner’s particular “interior monologues” simply do not fit the standard form; they are plagued by anachronistic narration, inconsistent verb tense, incomplete thoughts, and impossible diction. Some decide he is “a botched realist” (Hale 5), while others simply feel he has misused this narrative technique. Either way, the question becomes, “if Faulkner seems to misuse a narrative convention [interior monologue] that most writers employ for the sake of ‘realism,’ then what kind of novel has he produced?” (Hale 5).

In an attempt to answer this question, literary scholars like Carolyn Norman Slaughter have come forward in support of more “nontraditional readings [that] are beginning to let the meaning lie while they follow Faulkner’s strange experiments with time and space, with memory and imagination, with consciousness and unconsciousness” (16). By divorcing As I Lay Dying from any idea of rationality, readers can gain much more from the book than a frustrating struggle of ill-fitting interpretations. Faulkner’s very specific use of language in his novel, when read for its own value, allows for an understanding of his characters that extends far beyond what they say and do, into the realm of each individual’s inner-most consciousness.

One of the most simple yet incomprehensible portions of the novel is Monologue #19. It consists of a single line from Vardaman: “My mother is a fish” (Faulkner 79). There is no doubt that Vardaman’s mother is not, in fact, a fish. Vardaman’s mother is Addie Bundren, an unmistakably human woman. If one were to attempt a logical interpretation of this line, then, it would make sense to interpret it as a representation of his disorienting grief. The metaphorical language is strange, perhaps, but not incomprehensible. Attempts to do this, though, are constantly set back by inconsistencies in the text. An interpretive theory can go through only so much reinterpretation—only so much bending, and twisting, and compressing to fit a new angle of the literature—before it loses all validity. In the end, it seems no theory about this line can fit the novel throughout. There is no making sense of this strange declaration.

The first appearance of the fish in the narrative comes even before Addie’s death. While she is sick in bed, Vardaman goes out and catches a gigantic fish to show his mother (Faulkner 30). Already, in this small way, the relationship between mother and fish is being established. In some sense, it seems reasonable that Vardaman displaces the concept of his dead mother onto the fish. When Addie dies, there is this sense that she no longer exists; as Darl puts it, “If it is was, it can’t be is. Can it?” (93). For Vardaman, then, it is not just a question of bringing her back to life but of bringing her back, period. In response to the lifeless body lying in his mother’s bed, ready to be laid in the coffin, Vardaman expresses, “I saw when it did not be her… It was not her because it was laying right yonder in the dirt” (63). The reader knows the “it” which had been lying “right yonder in the dirt” was the fish when Vardaman first brought it home. Here, he replaces one corpse with another—the mother with the fish—and, in so doing, misplaces their identities. Yet, with the slightest bit of pushback, this potential defense of Addie’s existence falls to pieces. To start, why would the boy choose something already dead as his mother’s replacement? He says the body in her bed “did not be her,” but why should the lifeless fish be any more her than that other lifeless body? Then there is the added trauma of ‘the killer’ in the fish scenario, as opposed to simply ‘the killed’ in the other. Vardaman is that killer. If he is trying to salvage his mother’s existence, why would he make her into something he’s killed? These explanatory loops just go on and on.

Psychology aside, there are also passages indecipherable at the linguistic level. Take for example:

I can feel where the fish was in the dust. It is cut up into pieces of not-fish now, not-blood on my hands and overalls. Then it wasn’t so. It hadn’t happened then. And now she is getting so far ahead I cannot catch her. (Faulkner 52)

This is one of those segments that leads eminent Faulkner critics like Walter J. Slatoff to write, “One is puzzled by the meanings of many of the events; one is far from sure what the book is chiefly about” (Kerr 5). If we can accept this fact—if we can decide not even to try to understand passages like this one, where does that leave us, the readers? According to one theory, this strange voice of Faulkner’s “makes us cease to regard language as a transparent medium by which agents communicate and instead forces us to recognize language itself as a determining agent” (Hale 8).

To take “language itself as a determining agent,” we must worry not about what the words are saying but about how they are speaking. In the passage quoted above, structure is of particular importance. The sentences are short, jerky, disjointed. If this is a view into Vardaman’s mind, it reflects the difficulty of his personal position at this moment. The youngest member of the Bundren family, Vardaman is going through the grieving process in a highly tumultuous and especially traumatic way. As one scholar explains it, Vardaman’s attempts to cope with his mother’s death are, at root, verbal solutions (Delville 63). The boy cannot process this tragedy, so his verbal expression breaks down. The lack of coherency in his monologues reflects the state of Vardaman’s mind: he is a child, and his mother is dead, and he cannot understand that.

So he tries to think it through, tries to explain it to himself in a way that doesn’t hurt so much, but there is nowhere he can go with that thinking. He remembers the dead fish and the dead mother and, in his mind, “Then it wasn’t so. It hadn’t happened then.” There is no knowing the antecedent of these pronouns. The “it” could be the fish’s death, the mother’s death, the killing of the fish, or even the catching of the fish. “It” could be all these things together or something else entirely. The fact that the reader cannot know is symptomatic of the fact that Vardaman cannot know either. At different moments in the narrative, the fish means different things—sometimes comprehensible, sometimes not, but always fluid according to Vardaman’s mental state. What is most significant here is that Faulkner has painted Vardaman’s character “not as he talks, acts, or otherwise appears to others,” but “as he ‘really’ is” (Hale 9). By breaking down the boy’s linguistic expression, the author has allowed a view of the private Vardaman, rather than his public persona, highlighting the discrepancies between an individual’s internal and external life. The reader is, now, not observing Vardaman from the outside, nor even just listening in on his thoughts. Instead, the reader has been put into the position of Vardaman himself, feeling the character’s private responses when he or she could just be witnessing them. As scholar Dorothy Hale writes, this “private identity is what makes each self not just unique but profound” (11). Through study of Faulkner’s illogical language and the way he employs it, the reader is able to gain access to that profound selfhood of characters. We do not know why Vardaman’s mother is a fish, but we can relate to how, on the most personal level, his child’s mind is comprehending her death.

Another important consequence of reading the novel’s language for its own sake is the network of linguistic connections it allows the reader to make. When one stops obsessing over the message the text is trying to convey, possibilities are opened for the text to express things that don’t make logical sense. From the start, we have been looking at Vardaman’s declaration, “My mother is a fish,” only in terms of Vardaman and his mother. If we are reading the text rationally, this is the only way to do it. When we let go of meaning, however, a connection surfaces between this repeated phrase and Vardaman’s sister, Dewey Dell. The word ‘guts’ is used ten times in the novel: once as a description of Vardaman’s fish, and the other nine about Dewey Dell’s pregnancy. Dewey Dell does not want to be pregnant, and her personal goal throughout the novel is to get an abortion, in order to spare herself the shame of a child conceived out of wedlock. She refers to herself as “a little tub of guts” (Faulkner 56) and feels that “everything in the world for [her] is inside a tub full of guts” (56). The child, too, growing inside of her, is guts. About her lover, Lafe, Dewey Dell thinks, “He is his guts and I am my guts. And I am Lafe’s guts. That’s it” (58). It is impossible not to tie this, on the purely linguistic level, to one of the first images portrayed of Vardaman’s fish, when he exclaims to his father, “It was full of blood and guts” (36). If one follows this image throughout the book, further connections between the fish and Dewey Dell’s pregnancy emerge.

There is one particularly powerful image in monologue #30, a Dewey Dell monologue: “I saw Vardaman rise and go to the window and strike the knife into the fish, the blood gushing” (115). When, in the space of her own mind, her own private ‘reality,’ Dewey Dell conjures this thought—this sight, given the context, she could not possibly be seeing—the reader knows it is a thought purely her own. Dewey Dell envisions this violence against that other “little tub of guts,” just as she wishes to destroy the invasive “guts” in herself. In the end, though, she is unable to succeed in getting the abortion. Likewise, she never is able to cook—and thereby destroy—that fish (58). It is this sort of connection, fascinating in its own right and curious in its implications, which the reader would never be able to get at if not through language alone. It cannot be explained in logical terms; the young woman never opens up to her brother about her pregnancy, and there is no way he could have known the situation she is in or, more specifically, the unique language she uses to describe her condition. Yet, somehow, he strikes a note that holds true for his sister’s most private struggles, cutting to the quick by making the fish a symbol of death and motherhood for both Addie and Dewey Dell.

In Addie Bundren’s sole monologue, the consideration of words and their value is taken up directly. Addie feels that “words are no good; that words don’t ever fit even what they are trying to say at” (Faulkner 163). This sentiment can be applied to the whole novel and everything Faulkner achieves through his manner of writing. Of course, one does not walk away from the book with the feeling that “words are no good,” but there is a sense that they don’t quite match what they are trying to convey. Faulkner uses this flaw of language to make it more powerful, giving his words permission not to say anything. They must simply exist. They must simply feel right. As Addie explains, “when the right times [comes], you [don’t] need a word for that anymore” (164). This is true for As I Lay Dying. When a character’s sentiment is true enough, deep enough, the words that would normally describe it are nullified. To make his readers privy to the most essential bits of his characters’ internal consciousnesses, Faulkner uses words that move in an around “what they are trying to say at,” allowing them, finally, to fit—to be good for more than empty signification.





Works Cited

Delville, Michel. “Alienating Language and Darl’s Narrative Consciousness in Faulkner’s ‘As I Lay Dying.’” The Southern Literary Journal, vol. 27, no. 1, 1994, pp. 61–72.

Faulkner, William. As I Lay Dying. New York: Vintage Books, Random House, 1930. Print.

Hale, Dorothy J. “‘As I Lay Dying’s’ Heterogeneous Discourse.” NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, vol. 23, no. 1, 1989, pp. 5–23.

Slaughter, Carolyn Norman. “As I Lay Dying: Demise of Vision.” American Literature, vol. 61, no. 1, 1989, pp. 16–30.

Works Consulted

Benstock, Shari, and Stephen M. Ross. “‘Voice’ in As I Lay Dying.” PMLA, vol. 94, no. 5, 1979, pp. 957–959.

Kerr, Elizabeth M. “‘As I Lay Dying’ as Ironic Quest.” Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature, vol. 3, no. 1, 1962, pp. 5–19.

The Fictional Author


I have never met Tim O’Brien, yet if you asked me to describe him in a few words, I could. This is no result of extensive research of the man. If I wanted to know factual information about Tim O’Brien, I could pick out a biography on any of the plethora of biographical websites online and read what they have to say about him . Or I could even pick up a book by the man himself, as has written a few wrote many non-fiction accounts of defining events in his life. But I did not do either of those things. All I did was read a couple of his fictional stories, yet I feel as if I can give as good a description of him as any a biography. Does this mean my description of him should be discounted, simply because I have not read his actual biography? Should we discount what an author’s fictional work says when searching for understanding of who a person was or is?
Generally, when I read a novel, I do not approach it with extensive knowledge of who the author is and rarely do I ever put in an effort to research the background of the book. If I do have any pre made assumptions, they often are not conscious, perhaps the result of some deep subconscious associations with the cover picture or the authors name. Yet, I seem to end every novel, fiction and non fiction, with some new aspect of understanding of the author. This is not always easy to grasp, but once discovered it is not hard to believe that all literary texts reflect an author’s character to some extent.
I am not one to encourage the use of the cliche “don’t judge a book by it’s cover”. However, when it comes to literary analysis, from reading for the purpose of critiquing to just reading for entertainment, it is almost always inevitable that the reader will form some idea about the character of the author, true or not. Maybe I do not judge a book by its cover, but can I judge an author by the cover of the book, or the title of the book, or the content of the book?
This was certainly the case with one of my personal favorite literary works, The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. To start things off, it is very important, crucial really, that the book is understood to be a work of fiction. That is, the publisher themselves made it very clear to categorize the book into the genre of fiction. Upon first reading the book, however, this is not completely apparent. The reality is, the book is not as clearly a work of fiction as those who have not read it would believe it is. The fact that O’Brien uses his own name for the main character and that he elaborates on the horrors of war in such vivid first person detail, makes it hard to believe that they are all fabrications of his mind. It is paradoxical, really, that some prior knowledge of O’Brien can actually lead the reader to make the wrong assumptions, thus interfering with the reading of the book as a whole. For example, knowing that O’Brien actually did fight in the Vietnam war, but not knowing when or where he was, leads readers such as myself to fall under the impression that the novel is actually a memoir.
Of course, the complexities between a book being deemed fiction or non fiction are a bit more complicated than just reading a genre label on the back of a book. As Tim O’Brien put it in an interview with Port City Daily, “The line between fiction and non-fiction is not as absolute as we think in our common-sensical world.” (Snow) It turns out that many works of fiction have some truth, or non-fiction, ingrained in them. One such thing is often the beliefs of the author. Ultimately, it is hard to figure that the book is, in our understanding of the word, fiction, without doing some extensive outside research, or reading the fine print on the back of the book (which few do.)
Viewing O’Brien’s book as a true memoir inherently leads the reader to make assumptions that the text reflects significant aspects of his person. That, after all, is one of the most central purposes of a biography or memoir: to expose some characteristics of a person. Every scene of the book seems to define him to a different degree and reveal the varying traits of his character. Upon early inspection The Things They Carried can be easily misinterpreted as O’Brien’s description of his past experiences during the Vietnam War; such as his experience with the draft and his witnessing of death during battles as well as his time spent in makeshift recreational room and finally his adaptation to life upon returning home. We learn exactly when the narrator tells us. That is, we learn about his fear of being shamed for running from the draft, his deep love for a sick girl, and his emotional damage cause by witnessing a close friend of his die.
Not only does this method of reading as a memoir produce some vividly different understandings of the novel than reading it as a work of non-fiction would, the lack of a divide between the author and the narrator also serves as a comfort when analyzing the author. The fact that O’Brien narrates his own seemingly true biography, makes it easy for the reader to make assumptions about his personality in real life. As Norman Friedman excellent articulated in his “Point of View in Fiction: The Development of a Critical Concept”, ”We cannot be the worse for the wisdom of these big men, these large souls [the Victorian novelists]. But, for better or worse, the fashion has changed; we like fiction unadulterated; we like the sense of taking part in an actual, a present experience, without the interference of an authorial guide.(Fried man 28)” When the author and the narrator become the same person, we become more comfortable making conclusions about the author based on the text. We do not need a guide, as we are not learning through hearsay, but from an original source.
Though our initial impressions, based off the idea that The Things They Carried might have been a non-fiction work, of O’Brien’s character may have been misperceived, we still made an attempt to understand the author through his written work. In fact, some of the assumptions that we made purely off what the text said, like O’Briens uneasiness with the draft, is not far off from what the reader comes to understand about O’Brien when he is revealed to not be the narrator of the book. This is because as an author, O’Brien is revealed in the text regardless of the fictional nature of the book. Helene Cixous put it eloquently in her piece “The Book as One of Its Own Characters”, “ Between authors and books, not everything can bet taken for granted. At the point where the author (“I”) thinks s’he can close the door on a chapter, the book puts its foot in the door.” (Cixous 403) Although the author is often a separate entity from the characters in there own novel, the novel still manages to capture some image of the author within it.


If only understanding the role of Tim O’Brien in his own book was achievable by reading under the assumption that he is recalling events.The reality of things, of course, is contrary to this all. While reading the book as an autobiography would be more satisfying, at least to those, myself included, who support Norman Friedman’s belief that readers prefer a connection between author and narrator, abolishing the need for a guide, reading the book as a fictional work still gives us a very good view to O’Brien’s character.
Upon understanding that the narrator is not the author, The Things They Carried becomes a conglomeration of various stories written from the perspective of a man who happens to share the same name as the author, Tim O’Brien. It is a peculiar idea, but O’Brien quite literally uses himself as a fictional character in his own novel. That is, he creates a fictional version of himself to be the narrator. It is important to keep in mind, that while both, the author and narrator, share the same name, they are not the same person. The author did not genuinely have the experiences that the narrator claims to have. Even though the novel is a fiction, O’Brien does manage to reveal certain aspects of himself within the context of the story.
Even though the novel is a fictional work, O’Brien does manage to provide grounds by which the reader can make assumptions about certain aspects of him within the context of the story. As Steven Kaplan has written in his “The Undying Uncertainty of the Narrator in Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried”, “Tim O’Brien takes the act of trying to reveal and understand the uncertainties of war one step further, by looking at it through the imagination.” (Kaplan 44) That is, O’Brien’s imagination and opinions on war is exposed throughout the novel, although he is not necessarily narrating the book. Most obvious is while we know that a lot of the specific events mentioned in the book did not actually happen to O’Brien himself there is a certain understanding that the events are inspired by true moments in author O’Brien’s life. The intention of writing the book can be interpreted as mutual between the fictional narrator O’Brien and the author O’Brien. As both the character and the author were in Vietnam and shared similar experiences, it is only natural to wonder how the events portrayed in the book experienced by the narrator reflect what O’Brien the author really went through.
In addition to the shared general war time experiences, like being around death and having significant moral conflicts, a characteristic of O’Brien the author is exposed when the topic of truth comes up in the novel. The distinction that the narrator offers between story truth and happening truth is characterized as the former being a more valuable representation of what reality is like. Story truth offers true possibilities, even if what the story refers to did not actually happen. It does not have to be true, it just has to have potential to be true. Happening truth, on the other hand, is overly limited to one reality, while story truth describes a universal truth. This opinionated distinction, while offered by the fiction narrator O’Brien, is unanimous with the beliefs of the writer O’Brien. This is proven when analyzing the draft scene in The Things They Carried. There is a moment where the narrator almost avoids the draft by running away to Canada. The “story truth” of the narrator’s experience reflects O’Brien the author’s internal uncertainty about how to respond to the draft, which was later revealed by an interview With Larry McCaffery. The fear of exile experienced by the fictional O’Brien is directly parallel with that of the author, who also battled with the question of “living exile”, that is, to live isolated from society out of shame for letting down his country. “I couldn’t face that”, O’Brien the author admitted, “To live in Canada or Sweden for the rest of my life was a frightening prospect”. (McCaffery 133)
The two very different ways of interpreting the book, as a fiction and as a non fiction, can naturally lead to the formation of different interpretations of the text. It is intuitive that the predisposition of readers will affect the outcome of how the text is to be interpreted. With that in mind, we begin to realize that the author is thus fair game for interpretation as well. While the reading and interpretation of The Things They Carried can, and often does, change upon finding out the book is a work of fiction, we are still able to tease out some information about the author, as exemplified by the analysis above.


So is this simply a matter of a shared name between a character and the author inspires assumptions about the author? Or doe it perhaps transfer the power of the text to reveal something of the author? Not quite. Such hidden”biographies” are not unique to O’Brien’s novels, nor are they limited simply by a name change of the protagonist. Kaplan, in his “The Undying Uncertainty of the Narrator in Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried” brings up an example of The Heart Of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad as a similar example. He writes, “similar to the pattern used by Joseph Conrad’s narrator, Marlow, in Heart of Darkness, so incisively characterized by J. Hillis Miller as a lifting of veils to reveal a truth that is quickly obscured again by the dropping of a new veil (Kaplan 47) This “truth” is the truth of what the author often ends up sharing about themselves, intentionally or not.
What does this say about literature? Well, for one thing, the author cannot escape being a part of the fiction. Whether the author means to write a piece of fiction or to truly write an autobiography, we find ways to interpret the text as a reflection of the author. What is important to note from this, and may certainly present itself as an atypical approach to understanding the author within the context of their text, is that it is inevitable that we come to understand the author through his writing. Even if the reader has not read a biography of the author, the writer is still reflected in the book. Readers are this able to make interpretations of the texts and come to conclusions, accurate or not, about the author, as they are up for grabs in the text. Thus, the author, turns into something like a character. They might try to hide behind a veil of text written from the perspective of a fictional character, but ultimately the author is exposed by the reader.


Snow, Hillary. “Interview: The Big Read author Tim O’Brien on ‘The Things They Carried’ and finding truth in fiction”. Port City Daily. January 13, 2014.

Friedman, Norman. “Point of View in Fiction: The Development of a Critical Concept.” PMLA. Vol. 70, No. 5. Modern Language Association, 1995.

McCaffery, Larry, and Tim O’Brien. “Interview with Tim O’Brien.” Chicago Review, vol. 33, no. 2, 1982

Kaplan, Steven. “The Undying Uncertainty of the Narrator in Tim O’Brien’s The Things they Carried. Vol.35, No.1. Critique. 1993.

Cixous, Hélène. “The Book as One of Its Own Characters.” New Literary History, vol. 33, no. 3, 2002,

Finding Dedalus

Holidays and weekends simply go away too fast for us. We would start by planning some elaborate activities, in hope of some true excitement, only to find ourselves lost, wandering about the day with no sense of orientation. By nightfall we have no choice but to exclaim, “nothing really happened!”

Such feelings are similar to our reaction towards “An Encounter,” a short story in James Joyce’s Dubliners. A lot has been said about other pieces in the collection. For one, scholars have done elaborate research trying to figure out the meaning of “The Sisters,” in particular, the word “paralysis,” which is mentioned in the beginning of the story. It has been argued from multiple angles that “paralysis”, which symbolizes the dark and lackluster Irish society, constitutes the underlying theme of all the stories in Dubliners. (Kelly, xxiv) But when it comes to “An Encounter,” much less can be said. The narrator and two friends of his, playing truant, originally planned “to go along the Wharf Road until we came to the ships, then to cross in the ferryboat and walk out to see the Pigeon House.” (Joyce, “An Encounter” 20) But one of the three never showed up, and they never got to the Pigeon House; instead, the narrator and Mahony encountered “a queer old josser,” who bored them with his monologue and made the narrator feel afraid. (26) The ending is abrupt, and just like our typical weekends, “nothing really happened.”

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