Is it fair to see something in a work of art that the artist never intended?
I remember thinking back in high school that many of the symbols and themes my teachers pointed out to me in poems and stories were most likely thought up by people who wanted to flaunt their own intelligence, instead of trying to get to the meat of what the author was saying. With youthful indignation, I thought this was an affront to the writer, who was probably trying to say something else entirely. I mean, how do we know Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” is about the dangers of blindly following tradition? Maybe she was thinking about the randomness of teenage cruelty. Or the decline of the nuclear family when family members will turn so easily on one of their own. Recently I read about a critique that explored “The Lottery” through its allusions to Islam. I suppose the possibilities are endless.
By the time I got to college and graduate school, as an English major I was less judgmental of my teachers and fellow readers. I jumped into the search for symbols and themes as gleefully as everyone else. I was particularly pleased with what I hoped was an original recognition of the significance of food in “A Rose in the Heart” by Edna O’Brien. The story explores the dynamics of mother-daughter bonding. To me, the food described in the story perfectly paralleled the rise and decline of the suffocatingly close relationship. When the mother and daughter are close, they eat off the same plate. When they are separated by physical distance, the mother sends the daughter “a cake, a pound of butter, and a chicken.” In the end, the mother abandons the daughter while she is standing in the dining room. Who knows? Maybe O’Brien just likes to eat. The only way to know for sure is to ask O’Brien.
I read on Mental Floss about a young man who in 1963 wrote letters to 150 novelists asking, among other things, how they felt if readers inferred that there was symbolism in their work where they had not intended. Their answers, some of which are on the website, are as diverse as the writers. Joseph Heller said he sometimes liked it when readers saw things he didn’t know were there because it helped him learn something about his own work. Ray Bradbury said each story is a Rorschach test, but he wished people didn’t try so hard to find the man under the old maid’s bed, because in most cases he isn’t there.
As a writer, I’m usually pleased when a reader points out something about one of my stories that I didn’t know was there, unless they’re way off the mark of what I intended. Then I worry that I didn’t work hard enough to convey what I wanted to convey. On the other hand, a work of art is a conversation between the artist and the beholder, and the beholder has a right to contribute to the conversation. As a reader, I enjoy recognizing themes and symbols, but I do wonder if they’re in my head or the writer’s.
Nathaniel Hawthorne would probably say it doesn’t matter. In The Marble Faun, he says, “Nobody, I think, ought to read poetry, or look at pictures or statues, who cannot find a great deal more in them than the poet or artist has actually expressed.”
What do you think?
(Image from DinPattern)