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.