From the first time I picked up a piece of literature to my current status as an English major, I’ve been trained to look beneath the surface. Rain is not just rain-it’s a symbol of rebirth, spiritual cleansing, or baptismal renewal. A green light is not just a green light (thanks, Gatsby). A woman can never put on a white dress without also signifying her innocence and purity-obviously.
There’s a whole collection of symbols that I, along with my other fellow English majors and literary enthusiasts, have stored up, ready to apply at any given moment. It started out as a classroom practice, but I find myself falling into this analytical mindset in my everyday life. It’s come to the point where I have to stop myself from holding a pen in my hand in preparation for annotation mode, even if I’m just reading a book for fun. If I haven’t marked up a book, it feels like I have neglected it, as though underlining and circling is my way of expressing love and attention for the characters. Not everyone shares my sentiments-some might even hold to the belief that a book is meant to be read, not vandalized with a pen. But for me, the ink is not a way to violate the pages, but a way to stain them with my memory and my presence-to let the next reader know that I was there, so that even strangers can connect just by holding the same book in their hands.
I’ve always wrestled with the question of whether authors intend to have their books read so thoroughly, and if there’s even any point to extracting these meanings from their novels. Clearly I’ve decided that there is-otherwise, I wouldn’t be studying what I am today. That fear still creeps up once in a while, however, especially when someone confronts me with the dreaded question: “What’s the point? It is what it is, and nothing more.”
I didn’t think, however, that I would face that question in one of my own English classes.
In this course, we read Alexander Pope’s mock epic The Rape of the Lock, a poem filled with objects that signify more than what they are at the surface-symbols, if you will. At least, that’s what my classmates and I assumed, until we read a critical essay by Jonathan Lamb suggesting the contrary.
In his essay “The Rape of the Lock as Still Life,” Lamb argues that Pope did not intend for his things to take on a deeper meaning or to possess “thingness.” (Side note: I’m still not entirely sure what “thingness” is, but hopefully I’ll figure that out by the end of this course and get back to you.) Rather, Lamb believes that Pope’s things are merely present as what they are-a lock of hair is a lock of hair, nothing more and nothing less. Just as a still life painting should not be interpreted beyond the objects on the canvas, The Rape of the Lock should be viewed only as a world of surfaces. In essence, Lamb is asking us to ignore our tendency to look for alternate meanings and just observe the things for what they are.
I’m sorry, but I have to politely disagree with you, Mr. Lamb.
If we can’t know for sure what Pope intended, there’s no way to argue one way or the other-and win. Lamb is entitled to his opinion, as am I, so I don’t think that we can tell people how they should read their texts. If books were written for universal interpretation, then the author would just go ahead and include footnotes-something to the extent of “Reader, this IS a symbol” or “Reader, this is NOT that complicated, so stop reading into it.” I’m sure that would make reading easier, but definitely not as fun.
I’ve experienced this confusion in narrative interpretation from a writer’s standpoint, as well. In my creative writing classes, there are always a few students who take some of my writing to mean more than what I intended or make comments that stray from my original purpose. Surprisingly, I don’t feel worried or concerned that I’m not communicating effectively, and I don’t feel the least bit offended. Rather, I see it as somewhat of a compliment-they’re not just reading my writing, but thinking about it as well. They are looking beneath the surface.
And that’s what art, in literary or landscape form, is really about-making us think, and helping us to see things that we wouldn’t expect in our everyday lives. Therefore, it doesn’t seem to be problematic if the creator’s intentions do not align with the interpretations of those who experience their creations. It’s okay to apply a text (or any art, for that matter) to your own life and appropriate it based on your own beliefs, instead of trying to act as a mind reader of the author. “Art for art’s sake” may be relevant, but art is created for your sake, too. In other words, embrace being a little selfish-you deserve it.