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Is there a "right" way to interpret a novel? If so, how do we make sure our novel is interpreted correctly? I have been told that there's no way of interpreting the true meaning of a book written by an author, because we don't know the intent they had. So, is there a standard way of making sure a book is interpreted correctly, instead of leaving it to the readers like most people seem to do? If not, what are the alternatives?

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    The title question seems to contradict itself. If there is no right way, then one cannot make sure that the non-existing right way is followed ... – Hagen von Eitzen Sep 7 at 11:20
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    It seems that one cannot control a reader's understanding, if that is what you mean. A novel exists in the writer's head, on the paper, and in the reader's head. Three different versions of the same story. – DPT Sep 7 at 18:47
  • Write the SparkNotes yourself, have a friend edit the Wikipedia page -- at least those who are looking for a quick interpretation will be guided to a standard interpretation. :) – April Sep 9 at 13:30
  • Hmm... I'm not sure if I've interpreted your question correctly in order to answer it. – Andrew Sep 9 at 15:15
  • On the other hand, I know for a fact that I've interpreted the meaning behind your title correctly, and have therefore put it upon myself to fix the contradiction. ;) – Andrew Sep 9 at 15:16
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This notion that a novel has a meaning that we can ferret out and interpret has been a staple of English teachers for decades. Essentially it is an attempt to turn a novel (or any other work of art) into a simple proposition. As far as I can tell, they do this because otherwise they can't figure out what they are supposed to teach about a novel.

The problem with this way of looking at a novel, though, is that if the novelist's concern was to make a simple propositional statement, why didn't they just make it? Why spend months or years working out complex plots and developing well rounded characters if all they really wanted to say was, "Be nicer to each other," or "Young men are false."

Tolkien, in his essay On Fairie Stories offers a different way of looking at things. The novelist is engaging in an act of sub-creation (sub-creation because God is the principal creator). The author is making a world that the reader experiences in a way akin to how they experience the ordinary world.

A work of art, then, is not a veiled proposition, but an experience. You don't interpret a work of art, you experience it. (A critic may interpret a work of art, particularly one from the past, by explaining the references that would enable a reader in the know to receive the experience whole, but which a modern or less well informed reader might not recognize, and which would therefore prevent them from fully experiencing the work.)

This does not mean that an author wants to leave the reader unchanged in their view of the real world. Every experience we have changes how we see, which changes how we experience everything that happens to us afterward. Thus the experience of art has the potential to change how we experience everything that happens to us afterwards in life, and in every subsequent piece of art we experience.

So, when John Steinbeck gave his readers the experience of knowing the Joad family and experiencing their struggles on the road to California, and in the migrant camps once they got there, he certainly intended that this should change the way they saw the plight of the actual migrants, and hopefully this would lead to them being treated better.

But he did not do this by asserting propositions. He did not do it by making arguments. He did it by giving readers an experience that affected how they saw every experience they had after they had read the book.

Modern neurology seems to confirm this, for we now know that the brain is highly plastic, rewiring itself as a result of every experience, and thus affecting how every subsequent experience is recieved.

So, as a novelist, you should not be attempting to have your readers decode a proposition or an argument from your novel. Still less should you be trying to make sure they all decode the same proposition. You should be attempting to give them an experience which will play some part in shaping how they see the world after they have read it.

But by the same token, you can't guarantee that they will all experience your novel the same way, since how they receive any experience is shaped by all the experiences they have had in the past. Thus your novel will be, at least subtly, and perhaps profoundly, a different experience for each of your readers.

Your responsibility, though, is to try to make it an experience that is as complete as possible, as convincing as possible, and as true as possible to the aspect of human experience you are attempting to reflect.

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    "if the novelist's concern was to make a simple propositional statement, why didn't they just make it?" - because just stating "totalitarian governments and the restriction of the freedom of speech are bad" is not as effective as writing the novel 1984, which shows in detail why it is bad and how people suffer because of it. – vsz Sep 7 at 10:33
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    @vsz, if he wanted to show in detain why is it bad and how people suffer because of it, he could have written a non-fiction book on the Soviet Union. It is not about detail, it is about creating an experience as oppose to stating a proposition. – user16226 Sep 7 at 11:52
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    @vsz That's not an answer to "if the novelist's concern was to make a simple propositional statement, why didn't they just make it?". That's an answer to "Why didn't the novelist just want to make a simple propositional statement?". – sgf Sep 7 at 12:31
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    Why do people write books to make a simple proposition? Well, you can tell someone anything you like, but they won't truly understand it until they experience it themselves. A book helps a person experience something, and understand it better, than if you just outright told them. Telling someone parenthood is great has almost no impact, describing the joy in a novel is something that a person can relate more closely too, and understand better. So, books are about helping us understand life, without explicitly changing our minds. – Issel Sep 8 at 1:49
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    @vsz Orwell (Eric Blair) did make that blunt statement directly and many times in non-fiction settings. 1984 was not a way to make the same statement again, it was a way to illustrate it and provide a visceral feeling around the statement. – TimothyAWiseman Sep 9 at 21:05
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It's impossible to make sure your book is interpreted the way you want it to be.

Some writers have actively disavowed particular audience interpretations of their works. In many cases the audience either ignored the author or sometimes even actively attacked the author's interpretation. Famous examples include Tolkien saying the ring is not an allegory for particular technologies (and then scholars writing more essays on the topic) or many characters in television shows that the audience has interpreted as gay, bisexual, or trans.

So, even explicitly stating the "correct" interpretation of your work won't ensure people interpret it that way. Your audience will simply think you are lazy. What you can do is give your work to beta readers to check that their interpretations are not totally off base from what you expect.

Not having one unambiguously correct interpretation of your work is a good thing.

Sure, your audience may not interpret your work the way you want them to, but this also means your audience may give you more credit than you deserve. Your audience will inevitably project their own life experiences on to your work, and this allows them to relate to your work in ways that you would never expect. A decade from now, people may think you predicted things you never knew were coming.

  • Interesting side note: this by the way is of paramount importance to the interpretation of the Bible, and your mention of authors correcting false interpretations is also a significant contribution of the scripture to itself. One need only look at how many varying interpretations there are today of e.g. the Bible or the U.S. Constitution to know how easy it is for people to interpret it wrongly. (<- This is an objective statement; which interpretation is actually correct is irrelevant to its truth value.) The ambiguities of language... – Andrew Sep 9 at 15:23
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Contrary to Mark Baker, my experience of English teachers is that they teach that novels don't "have a meaning that we can ferret out." The idea that it is possible and useful to figure out the intentions of the author is called the intentional fallacy, and that's a term I learned in 11th grade English.

Usually these teachers are right. Most authors do not want their novels to have an unambiguous message. But there are exceptions. No one doubts Harriet Beecher Stowe's goal in writing Uncle Tom's Cabin.

If you have a point you want to make, and you want people to get it, then it is not hard. You just have to be willing to be a little unsubtle.

  • I posit that by reading a lot of words and understanding the thrust, morals, and outcomes of the story, one can indeed determine the intentions of the author, at least if they had intentions. – Andrew Sep 9 at 15:25
  • @Andrew Sometimes, but not always, or at least it may sometimes be arguable. As one example, I watched "Drag Me to Hell" and thought it was a bad horror movie without a message. Then I happened to read an interview with the director where he claimed there was an explicit message. Not only had I not seen the message, I think the movie almost conveyed the opposite message to the one claimed when analyzed. – TimothyAWiseman Sep 9 at 21:11
  • @TimothyAWiseman Okay but then maybe it was just bad at conveying the message or the message was simply incorrect. – Andrew Sep 10 at 16:41
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    @Andrew I agree completely, but that does place us in a position where it is not always possible to determine the intentions of the author. Perhaps The Murders in the Rue Morgue by Edgar Allan Poe is a better example. Poe is articulate and skilled as an author, and much of his life is well documented and well studied, but what his intention with that story was remains highly debated. – TimothyAWiseman Sep 10 at 18:09
  • @TimothyAWiseman That doesn't make it a fallacy to determine or try to determine the intentions though. – Andrew Sep 10 at 18:21
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I'm going to say that it depends. It depends on the message an author wants to transmit and how they write it.

Let's say I'm writing a romance. X starts out single and looking for their soulmate and ends up discovering that Y, their long time friend and confidant, is it. The message here would be to look at the friends of the sex that attracts us carefully because they may turn out to be our best match. However, a reader may simply read the story as "X's quest for love" with no particular message that anyone should look at their bff and think twice about the relationship.

Now let's say I write about X, who found the love of their life only to lose them due to a terrible accident. After some years, family and friends insist X should stop mourning and search for a new love. X resists even when Y shows up and it's obvious both develop strong feelings for each other. The very narrator underlines how sometimes people refuse a new opportunity simply because they're too stubborn to let go of the past and fight for a brighter future, always using X as an example, naturally. In the end they are finally together and, many years in the future, X and Y are happily together. Or X doggedly resists and ends up, many years in the future, bitter and unhappy, mourning both the lost lover as well as regretting not being with Y, who married someone else. This message is simple and difficult to miss.

Now let's imagine a story where Y is a person fighting for a brighter future. It's not just finding a soulmate - though that is an important concern - but also about working upwards in their career while managing friendships and family connections that sometimes pull them down. The mishaps that Y faces will each give little messages - maybe one should get rid of friends that pull you down, maybe caring for a sick parent will give you grief and destroy your dreams unless you drop them in a home, maybe... You get the idea. In this case, the message is not clear, and maybe it isn't meant to be. Or maybe the message is that life is difficult and there's no right answer for it.

The first two examples present fairly simple messages. It's difficult to say that one can never love again after reading the second novel, for example, because everything points in one direction as the correct one and the rest as wrong. But a novel like the third is rich in problems and the reader can find a dozen little messages. If a reader is struggling with the decision of caring for an elderly parent or send them into a home, maybe that is the message they'll give greater importance to, whereas if the reader feels their bff keeps pulling them to parties and all-nighters rather than focus on college, perhaps they'll come at the end saying the message of the book is focused on managing friendships.

But it can be deeper than that: perhaps X did get rid of the destructive friend only to discover that they lost the one person in their life who believed in them, and getting rid of them meant that X's confidence becomes diminished as everyone else dismisses and belittles their efforts. Now the message could be that an apparent destructive friend can also help you. Will the reader, based on their experience, say that it is proof that one should keep friends even if they're sometimes bad for you, or should one get rid of them nonetheless and simply make new ones? Both ideas can be true at the light of the novel. Based on their own experience, the reader will fill in the blanks.

In conclusion: depending on the complexity and ambiguity of the novel, the message may be nearly explicit (maybe as much as the fairytale that ends with a morale) or may be multiple and vague, giving the reader the responsibility of finding it and putting it together.

Although, there may be cases where the author wanted to send the message A in a light handed approach, giving only vague hints and innuendos. In this case, a reader may end up saying that the message was E. Why? If you leave it to the reader to put the pieces together, someone with a different life experience from you will see things you did not. If you really want the message to be clear, you must make sure that there is no ambiguity, that every apparent alternative is clearly wrong. In that case, the reader may disagree with the message, but they can't say the text means something else.

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The question has two parts: The role of the writer and that of the reader.

The reader's role is to understand the novel in good faith. As long as the reader is providing their genuine understanding of the novel it cannot really be considered wrong. Which is not to say any analysis must go unchallenged. A reader acting in good faith can be persuaded their initial analysis was misguided or a misunderstanding.

However, if the reader uses their literary analysis as a tool for push an agenda then it could be considered wrong. Unfortunately there is no way to tell if a literary analysis (or the critique of the analysis) is being made in good faith. This can then devolve into a game where the intentions of the parties are called into question. It can also become murky with 'bad faith' analysis altering the perceptions of the 'good faith' reader.

Perhaps something a writer can do to avoid bad faith interpretations is to write (and answer questions about the book) in 'good faith'. One example I can think of here is to avoid the strategy adopted by one popular children's book author saying 15 years after the book is published "I didn't explicitly say characters x, y, and z were straight [because it was assumed in the sensibilities of children's books at the time]... surprise, they're actually gay! [because now its cool]".

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Short answer, from Archibald MacLeish:

A poem should not mean
But be.

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/17168/ars-poetica

applies equally well to novels.

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    Okay? Why? . . . – Andrew Sep 9 at 17:08
  • @Andrew I don't think there is a "why". This is one poet's opinion. It matches the way I read. It may help the OP. – Ethan Bolker Sep 9 at 17:51
  • How? . . . . . . – Andrew Sep 9 at 19:16
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    I like the irony of a poem with the objective meaning of "poems should be beautiful, not objective". ... I think this answer would be better if fleshed out to explain how a novel with no clear meaning is still good for certain readers. – MichaelS Sep 10 at 1:35
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    But maybe it's because I'm not a writer in any sense of the word, just like reading this exchange. Sorry if that first message came off ****-ish. I just really couldn't fathom what more expected, but with more time to think about it/your last comment, I see what you mean. – TCooper Sep 10 at 22:20
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As others wrote, you cannot make sure the reader interprets your novel the way you want it to be interpreted. However, you still can influence it.

You might read your draft and explicitly look for ways how it might be misinterpreted. You won't find all possible alternative interpretations, but you might find a few.

Then, after finding possible alternative interpretations, you have to decide whether you are OK with that possible interpretation.

Obviously if you are OK with it, you don't need to change anything. But you might find a possible interpretation that you explicitly do not want the readers to arrive at.

In that case, you can go through the text and look for things that specifically support that interpretation, and change them so they no longer support it. You also might add things that explicitly contradict that interpretation.

For example, if you have two characters that are good friends, and you fear that readers read a love interest into it that you want to avoid, you might look for scenes that could be seen as hints of love interest, and look whether you can rewrite them so that they look less like love interest. Or add plot elements that contradict a love interest (like, the character being in love with someone else).

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