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UNIVERSITY OF EL SALVADOR

SCHOOL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES


FOREIGN LANGUAGE DEPARTMENT

Readings and Conversation II (LCI214)


Semester I 2015
UNIT 3: LITERATURE

Interpreting Literature
Many people are wary of interpreting literature. They see interpretation as arbitrary,
arcane, and possibly fraudulent, as something teachers do to baffle students. However,
we all interpret as we read. To read (at least with understanding and appreciation) is
to interpret.
Interpretation includes a number of different things readers do. Most commonly,
people think that to interpret is to decode meanings hidden in the writing by the
author. The question asked is, "What did the author really mean?" This question
shows a simplistic understanding of what imaginative writing is and how literature
works. Other areas of this map discuss the writing process and how it leads to
discovery.

Here, I want to
discuss the
reader's role in
relation to the
writer and the
text.

I. The World of the Writer


When someone writes something, he or she does so in a context. This context includes
the writer's feelings, beliefs, past experiences, goals, needs, and physical environment.
When J. R. R. Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings, his personal context (world)
included his childhood experiences in South Africa, his becoming an orphan, his love
of languages, his love for his wife, his extensive reading in literature and mythology,
and many other things.

II. The World of the Text


The text develops its own contextcall it a world.
The Lord of the Rings develops its own world. As any reader of the novel knows, this
world is complex, with an extensive prehistory, a cosmology, and several unusual
species.

UNIVERSITY OF EL SALVADOR
SCHOOL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
FOREIGN LANGUAGE DEPARTMENT

Readings and Conversation II (LCI214)


Semester I 2015
UNIT 3: LITERATURE

The world of The Lord of the Rings affected Tolkien and, as the world developed, it
guided his work in completing the novel. Tolkien's letters show this reciprocal
influence between him and his unfolding imaginary world.
I cite this work of fantasy because it clearly shows how the writer creates a world that
in turn affects him or her.

III. The World of the Reader


When one reads, one reads in the context of his or her own world. What the reader
encounters is not the world of the author; the reader encounters the world of the text.
More information on this process.
The meaning which the text has for the reader emerges from the interaction of
the reader's world with the world of the text. The meaning does not reside in the
text or in the author's intentions. The meaning happens as the text is read and
reflected upon.
Of course, knowledge of the author's world and intentions, and of the responses of
other readers, can help one read a text betterwith more insight and satisfaction.
Interpretation, then, is something a reader does in response to a text. But it is
important to recognize that a text can be meaningful to reader who cannot express
that meaning in words. "Meaning precedes explanation."
Have I just said that a text can mean anything at all to a reader? Yes, I have. However,
if one is to share the meaning of a text with someone else, one has to be able to explain
that meaning in clear and convincing terms. In fact, discussion among readers can
develop the meaning(s) of a text in more detail and more depth. Even if two readers
disagree on the meaning of a text, they can each gain from discussion.
When you write out your interpretation of a novel, you create a text which has its own
world. The reader of your interpretation responds to it in terms of his or her world,
just as you read the novel in terms of your world. Thus, this same diagram applies to
your interpretative text as well as applying to your reading of the original text.
Interpretation is not an arcane skill taught only to the initiated. It is an activity we all
take part in, in more ways than we realize. What I've said about interpretation applies
also to music, movies, television, drama, the visual arts, . . . .
I hope you will take courage in your skills as a reader, realizing that the meaning of a
text is not fixed in advance, but something that happens as you read, reflect, and
discuss. Discussing what you read can be an adventure as you explore meanings.

UNIVERSITY OF EL SALVADOR
SCHOOL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
FOREIGN LANGUAGE DEPARTMENT

Readings and Conversation II (LCI214)


Semester I 2015
UNIT 3: LITERATURE

Understanding, Explanation, Meaning,


& Interpretation
Interpreting literature often seems arbitrary or mysterious to students. Actually, there
is an essential mystery to the human ability to understand symbolic communication.
In this section, I will discuss some of the basic aspects of interpretation.
Starting at simplest point, one needs to understand the text at a literal levelto know
what the plain sense of the text is. Explanation can help one's understanding by
defining words, supplying background information, or otherwise supplying the reader
with necessary information for understanding the text.
Meaning in this context designates the significance of the text for the reader: the
impact or value the text has for the reader. One can read a text with understanding but
find that it has no meaning, since it makes no impact on one.
It is important to grasp that a text can have meaning for a reader without that reader's
being able to explain the meaning. Meaning comes first; explanation of the meaning
follows.
Read the following verse from Sirach (40.1). It probably does not present any
problems for your understanding. Each of you should be able to explain its literal
sense, although even explanations of literal sense will differ, since each person reads
differently. The meaning of the verse, its significance for you, its impact on you, will
vary much more widely.
An Experiment
After reading the verse, write briefly on its meaning for you. Try to relate its meaning
to elements of your world as a reader, as well as to the world of the text.
Hard work was created for everyone.
and a heavy yoke is laid on the children of Adam,
from the day they come forth from their mother's womb
until the day they return to the mother of all the living.

The meaning of a piece of writing can be further amplified with a variety of


techniques. Some of these techniques involve analysis, such as working out the form
or structure of the text. Other techniques involve associating imagery and feelings
with the text. Further techniques could make use of research that would extend
understanding as well as explanation of meaning.

UNIVERSITY OF EL SALVADOR
SCHOOL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
FOREIGN LANGUAGE DEPARTMENT

Readings and Conversation II (LCI214)


Semester I 2015
UNIT 3: LITERATURE

I want to emphasize that both understanding and meaning can, and often do, come
before explanation and interpretation. Explaining and interpreting make clear and
explicit what may only be implied as one reads with understanding. People often
mistakenly assume that one must be able to explain and interpret a text before it has
meaning.
Surplus Meaning
Since literature is symbolic, its meaning is not simple or single. Because of the nature
of symbols, literature has what is sometimes called "surplus meaning": one can never
really exhaust or completely state the meaning of a piece of literature. Another
reading, or another reader, will produce new meanings, or new shades of meaning.
Surplus meaning does not imply that a literary text can mean anything at all. Although
the limits to what a text can mean are vague, those limits do exist. They are
established by discussion among readers of the text, by the text itself, and by its
cultural and historical context. A reader must be able to convince other readers of the
validity and reliability of his or her interpretation. Even so, not all readers will agree.
While the surplus or multiple meanings of literary texts may frustrate those who want
single, clear meanings, in fact surplus meaning should excite readers, since it opens
the text to reading, rereading, and discussion that continually develop insight and
meaning.
Sometimes what is meant by interpretation is "mapping" features of the text onto
features of another system of ideas. For instance, some literary critics map texts onto
Freudian psychology, or onto existential philosophy. Using the Pentad* or the
Pollution Cycle can be seen as this kind of mapping.
If the author intended such a mapping of his or her text onto another set of ideas or
events, the text itself is an allegory. Any text may be read allegorically by a clever
reader; however, unless the author's intent was allegorical, such interpretations can
be very misleading). An example of Biblical allegory, for instance, may be found in
Ezekiel 17 or Hosea 1-3.

Conclusion
The meaning of a piece of literature resides in the reader's freedom to respond.
Discussion of literature assumes a community of those discussing the poem, novel,
essay, story or whatever. For a reader's response to be more than idiosyncratic, the
reader must engage in dialogue with other readers of that piece of literature. The
dialogue may be face to face, it may be electronic, or it may be in print. For a reader's
understanding of a piece of literature to succeed, it must survive in the continuing
dialogue of readers.

UNIVERSITY OF EL SALVADOR
SCHOOL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
FOREIGN LANGUAGE DEPARTMENT

Readings and Conversation II (LCI214)


Semester I 2015
UNIT 3: LITERATURE

ANNEX
*The Pentad is organized in five sets of questions (i.e., Action, Actor-Agent, Scene,
Means, and Purpose), which cover the major content areas of literary analysis.

BURKES PENTAD
Action:

Actor-Agent:

Scene:

Means:

Purpose:

What happened?
What is happening?
What will happen? What could happen?
What is it? (e.g., an act of revenge, justice, blind chance)

Who did it?


Who is doing it?
What did it?
What kind of agent is it?

Where did it happen? Where is it happening? Where will it


happen?
When did it happen?
What is the background?

How did the agent do it?


What means or devices were used?

Why?
Why not?(What did the agent want to accomplish and why did
he/she/it have to use this approach to achieve the purpose? Why
not do it another way?)