Questions Surrounding the Interpretation of Literature

Every act of communication is multi-faceted and can be explored from numerous perspectives. Every time we participate in a conversation, leave a voice message, send an e-mail, or leave a post-it-note on someone's door, its success is dependent upon quite a few different elements.

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Every message has four types of elements: author, text, reader, and context.

Every message (or text) is sent by an author to be interpreted by a reader.

Likewise, this interpretation relies on cultural clues to make sense of its meaning. We enter the complexities of these four elements each time we seek to communicate with another person or every time we read a work of literature.

Literary scholars tend to be very interested in the complexity of this process, exploring not only the words and stories that surround our messages, but also their larger cultural contexts. Many are also concerned with exploring the ethical and theological implications of the literary process. Consider the following portion of a love letter:

I am beside myself. I can’t continue on. Each day further empties my soul a little of its passions until I am afraid I will soon be left with nothing. Why have I come to such a state? Why am I floundering? I know what I must say to you: Be betwixt me and all others, for I love you and no other.

The most basic understanding of this letter is dependent upon the author and the reader each having a clear sense of what the message itself is suggesting. Likewise, the context in which the letter is exchanged alters our understanding in important ways. For instance, we will think something very different if the letter is one exchanged between thirty-something co-workers than if the letter is one mailed from prison. These four basic elements can be used to examine any text in a large number of ways. Consider the following more extensive questions surrounding our hypothetical love letter:
  • We can begin by asking who the author of this letter is and what he or she is like.

Does he have a history of failed relationships? Was her family life particularly painful? Is he melodramatic, rich, and/or manipulative? Is she confident, long separated, and/or hard-working? For example, the message means something very different if written by a kind, older woman than if written by a coy manipulator.

  • We can ask questions about the author’s writing abilities.

For instance, is this a once in a lifetime breakthrough, a hidden confession finally out in the open, or is this the sort of thing the author says every time she writes her love? As a love letter, our author wishes for a response. Perhaps the letter writer hopes to influence a cold, aloof woman he has watched from afar. He stresses his bewilderment and loss in hopes of influencing her to pity him.

  • We can examine the text of the letter itself.

When we examine a text we can ask questions about its story or narrative, about its language, and about its performance. For example, the letter writer tends to present her micro drama. The final words italicized stress the fidelity of the lover for her love. As we read the letter, we move from confusion to awareness and resolution. The language itself can be examined, the rhythm of sentences, the sound effects of the words. For instance, the author uses the word "I" nine times; perhaps this implies an essential self-centeredness on the part of the author. Also, several of the sentences are short declarative statements or interrogative questions. These tend to stress the felt emotion of each line.

  • We can also ask questions about the way the letter is "performed."

Is this simply a letter from one person to another? Or is it a part of a novel whose author expects others to read. Perhaps it is a portion of a play that the audience will hear recited on stage, the recipient breathlessly reading the words aloud to his friends, asking their opinion. The genre of any text tells us a lot about what the author expects of her audience. The meaning, the importance of the lines, is somewhat dependent on the way they will be delivered.

  • Each act of communication also calls for the listener’s (or reader’s) response.

We bring our own ideas, expectations, and viewpoints to a reading. For example, what do you think about the excerpt? Do you find it passionate, touching, banal, pretentious? Have you yourself written such a letter? The person who tends to idealize such matters is more likely to read such words favorably than the person who has grown to distrust the words of lovers.

  • In addition, our own worldview influences the way we understand the letter.

Imagine three different readers: the first believes that romantic love is the height of human expression; the second thinks that such love is immature and needs to grow into a deeper, greater love; the third believes in arranged marriages. How will each reader understand this letter? The first might be moved to tears of joy; the second, impatient or even amused; the third, shocked because such a letter violates her deepest cultural assumptions.

  • The author, the text, and the reader also are each within a larger social and metaphysical context.

For example, how different would our understanding of this letter be, if we learn that the letter is actually part of a devotion written by a nun to God. (Such works are written within the monastic, contemplative traditions of Christianity.) The letter is then understood as one example of the soul’s desire for God. The religious context of the letter deeply shapes its language, its assumptions about God, the human person, and loyalty. Everything changes.

  • Texts themselves, as physical and social objects, have a context. Many of the works we read and study are long separated from their original authors and contexts.

What happens, for instance, if our hypothetical letter is part of a rare collection of such letters from the thirteenth century? We can then ask questions about the institutions that collect such letters: Why do they find them important, rare, protected? Does the institution's treatment of such works support or inhibit its original meaning? Should works of devotion become materially prized documents?

  • We can also ask about our own contexts.

What does it mean to read such a letter in a college-level course? Why are we considering these questions at all? What does it reveal about the purpose we attach to academic studies? For example, this course claims in part that students should study human texts because human experience is valuable and has intrinsic worth.

  • We can also ask broader ethical and faith questions of a text (or the larger process of interpretation).

For example, what responsibility does our author have to tell the truth? Would we judge her differently if she were lying?

Equally, how do we judge the recipient? How should he treat the letter when he receives it? Does it matter if he returns her feelings?

We can also ask what our responsibilities should be to the letter writer and the text? For example, if we think the letter is a waste of time, what should we tell others who might want to read it? Should we admit that the problem may be with ourselves rather than the letter? Or is the letter really that bad?

Likewise, what does writing a love letter reveal to us about the larger matters of faith? For example, what do our human love letters reveal about the divine love letter? Is the impulse to write love letters expressive of some void within ourselves that can only be filled by God?

All of these matters enter into how we interpret works. We are not always aware that all are present; we need not always pay attention to every matter to have a successful understanding, but all such questions can be asked meaningfully. It's part of what makes reading literature a rich and complex experience.

Suggestions for Developing our Responses

All of these questions suggest the kinds of questions we can ask as we formulate our responses to literature. As you record your reactions for response papers, prepare to develop arguments for your critical paper, or even as you work to answer specific questions for your journal, you might consider using the heuristics under "Asking Questions of Texts." These are lists of questions designed to help expand and enrich your thinking. Keep in mind that the lists are extensive.

You should pick one or two broad categories, such as "How does the author seek to influence the audience?" or "How does narrative encode meaning in the text?" Once you do this, you should read over the questions in these categories and pick two or three questions that help stimulate your thinking.

For example, when reading John Donne's "Holy Sonnet #10", I might choose the categories, "How do the author's life and identity influence the work of literature?" and "How do elements of language shape the text's meaning?" In the first case, I would look over the possibilities suggested, perhaps read the editor's introduction to Donne, and note that Donne experienced the deaths of much of his family.

What does this suggest about Donne's taunting of Death in his sonnet? In the second case, I might read over the questions and choose, "What kinds of images are important?" and "Are any figures of speech present?" This would lead me to consider the notion of Death itself dying in the poem, and I would pay attention to Donne's stress on Death's deeds through war, sickness, and drugs.

Once you come up with tentative answers to your questions, you can apply them to the assignment in question. Looking at Death in Donne's "Holy Sonnet #10," you can write a short response paper that explores why you find his view comforting or problematic. Equally, you might write a critical paper that explores the motif of Death in several of Donne's sonnets.


"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding