Interpretation #

We should contest, rather than confirm our certainties. The more unsettled we are, the more we learn. Challenge all assertions; question all conclusions.

Andre Gide: “Never trust someone who claims to know the truth; trust those who are looking for the truth”.

It is critical that we accept the possibility others will see things differently than we. Literature is full of imponderabilia; things that cannot be precisely determined, measured, or evaluated. Good writers do not provide simple answers to complex problems. Instead they show both sides of an issue or character and let us decide. Shakespeare usually presents nuanced situations and ambiguous characters for us to ponder. Most works of art are an enigma.

Modernity gave us the toleration valorised by Locke and Voltaire. John Stuart Mill’s celebration of human diversity.

The Australian Curriculum defines scientific literacy as:

An ability to use scientific knowledge, understanding, and inquiry skills to identify questions, acquire new knowledge, explain science phenomena […] and draw evidence-based conclusions in making sense of the world, and to recognise how understandings of […] science help us make responsible decisions and shape our interpretations of information.

We are of course “a part of all we have met”, (Tennyson) and so our conditioning plays a great role in how we perceive things completely different than others.

Much of history, social and literary criticism has the quality of one of those inkblot tests in which everyone sees what they want to see. The process aspires to be objective, however it more often becomes subjective, intuitive, imaginative and capricious.

The Rorschach test is a psychological test in which subjects’ perceptions of inkblots are recorded and then analysed using psychological interpretation, complex algorithms, or both. Some psychologists use this test to examine a person’s personality characteristics and emotional functioning. It has been employed to detect underlying thought disorder, especially in cases where patients are reluctant to describe their thinking processes openly. The test is named after its creator, Swiss psychologist Hermann Rorschach.

Shirley Hazzard claims:

We read in all the ages. We have mysterious inclinations, our own intuitions, our individuality toward what we want to read from our childhood. Even our most ancient works in moving us become part of our immediate experience.

The most difficult interpretive skill is to discern whether a situation or character is being satirised or endorsed. Irony can also often be missed.

Literature communicates through word associations, figurative language, symbols, metaphor, images and sound patterns that resonate in different ways to different people. We can easily be cast under spells to see things how the author contrives us to see them. Our ingenious human brains can confect reasons why sitautions are an exception to a rule we otherwise righteously acknowledge.

The words on the page should be critical, however, the nature of the English language seems susceptible to “alternative reactions,” or multiple meanings, as Joseph Conrad wrote,

“No English word has clean edges. They carry so many connotations as to be little more than “instruments for exciting blurred emotions.”

When Conrad was asked why he wrote novels in English, he claimed he didn’t want to pollute his native Polish language.

Adapted from:

Literary Interpretation #

Literature is wide open to subjective interpretation. Each of us have singular upbringings together with our psychological baggage of cultural values, mindsets and even dogmas. Good literature can disturb and make us question our assumptions.

Poetry is the language of unashamed deep emotion.

”thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears” Wordsworth

It uses multi-dimensional language, directed at the whole person, not just intellectual and understanding or intelligence but also the sensuous, emotional and imaginative.

According to Seamus Heaney,

“The poet’s skill lies in the summoning and semantic energies of words."

It relies on nuances, suggestion, the multiples meanings of words and the inferences we all choose to draw.

T.S. Eliot claims: #

“Emotions are sometimes too complex for simple rational language and the thoughts too deep for intellectual articulation. For this reason, Poets resort to metaphor, images, rhythm, style and myth."

T.S. Eliot further maintaines:

“The reader’s interpretation may be different from the author’s and be equally valid – it may even be better. There may be much more in a poem than the author is aware of. “

Examples: #

In Faulkner’s A Rose for Emily, the clause describing Colonel Sartoris:

“he who fathered the edict that no Negro woman should appear on the streets without an apron”,

was interpreted variously.

Three readers singled out the word “fathered” as a touch of ironic humour. Some saw it as heroic, others as neutral and abstract while the third as sexual.

“Fathering” as in originating and owning the statement.

Ideologically it could refer to paternalism; “fathering” the state of affairs – a dominating unquestionable mindset.

The sexual; “fathering” the edict seems in some suggestive way as fathering the woman, through inter racial sexual intercourse.

Language and Purpose #

There are many different purposes for which we use language, both spoken and written. Often there is an underlying (covert) purpose of which we may not be aware, as well as the apparent (overt) purpose.

Take the incident of two men and a woman in a railway carriage. One man smokes, unaware that it is a non—smoking carriage.

After a few minutes the other man turns to the woman and says:

“DO YOU mind if I smoke?”

Let us Look at the purpose here.

  1. Overt purpose — to discover if he may smoke (conscious).

  2. Possible covert purpose

a) to establish contact with and ingratiate himself with the woman

b) to reproach the other man.

Even if he did not intend to reprove the first man, his words may have the effect of doing so.

Despite the fact that lexicographers use common usage, some, unless you agree with Humpty Dumpty, lexicographers give the provenance of language to its common usage, not the preserve of any Judge, regardless of how lofty, aloof or arrogant they can puff themselves up to be.

Words are subject to interpretations:

Pickwickian interpretation involves words or ideas meant or understood in a sense different from the apparent or usual one. Unless you agree with Humpty Dumpty,

“a word means whatever I wish it to mean, and that is all!”

Examples of deception in reporting deaths: #

A respectable family’s uncle was condemned to death by electrocution for a nasty crime. To salvage the family reputation, they negotiated the following media release to make it appear innocuous:

At the time of his death, Uncle Charles occupied the chair of a well connected electrical institution. The ties that bound him to his position were strong indeed. His death came as an extreme shock.


When it became evident that ex-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s great-great uncle, Remus Rudd, spent time in prison from 1883 and eventually hanged for horse stealing and train robbery in Melbourne in 1889, Kevin Rudd’s staff sent back the following biographical sketch:

“Remus Rudd was famous in Victoria during the mid to late 1800s. His business empire grew to include acquisition of valuable equestrian assets and intimate dealings with the Melbourne-Geelong Railroad..

Beginning in 1883, he devoted several years of his life to government service, finally taking leave to resume his dealings with the railroad.

In 1887, he was a key player in a vital investigation run by the Victoria Police Force.

In 1889, Remus passed away during an important civic function held in his honour when the platform upon which he was standing collapsed.”