Symbolism & Subtlety-or-How much interpretation is too much?

I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve ever had problems interpreting symbolism and subtlety in novels. Poetry and I just do not get along for that very reason; I just can’t wrap my mind around it and get out of it what others seem to be able to do intuitively.

Part of the reason I’ve signed up for Lit classes is in the hopes that by having group and class discussions, I’ll be exposed to insights and new ways of looking at things, thereby hopefully increasing my abilities to enjoy a good book.

Currently my class is reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved. For those that may not be familliar with it, and to do it a complete injustice, I will summarize it thusly: It’s a book about slavery and the effects it had on its survivors.

Morrison is very deliberate in her writing and the novel is chock full of symbolism and subtle references that one might not initially catch, particularly if not looking for them or without some background information.

For instance, the story takes place in a house numbered, nay named, 124. The novel begins on page 3, the missing number in the house address. The 3rd child born of the protagonist Sethe, is missing (due to circumstance I will not divulge so as not to spoil the novel for anyone).

There also is an epigraph to the novel, which is a quote from Romans, which I was informed (hopefully correctly) was a letter written by Paul the Apostle. There are three men in the novel all named Paul. Not only does the name tie back, but again the number three.

At one point during a class discussion about all of these little things, the guy that sits next to me leaned over and in a sort of exasperated way pointed to his books and said, in essence: Look, the typing is black, the page is white. It must be Morrison making a social commentary on racial relations…

Which, while obviously a gross hyperbole, got me thinking. If given enough time and patience, a group, or even an individual, can pick apart any writing (or any art really) and draw up almost any conclusion they wanted to. So when is enough enough? At what point does it make the leap from simple interpretation to illogical assumption?

How does one know if they are interpreting what the author intended or if they are drawing conclusions based on personal experience and biases that go beyond the author’s intent, or even just recognizing a convenient coincedence?

Any thoughts?

You don’t. There is no clear-cut indicator. Which is why you need to intrepret things carefully.

However, the fact that you are thinking about the issue is a good sign. In one of my writing classes, we had a phrase we used: “The Misfit’s black hat*” Whenever someone came up with some convoluted interpretation of a story, someone would ask, “Is that the Misfit’s black hat?” and we’d have to assess whether the interpretation was really there, or just a connection of irrelevancies.

A good teacher should encourage the type of questions you’re asking.

*A reference to Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” It involves a crazed killer called “The Misfit” who wears a black hat. Someone once went to O’Connor and smugly said he understood the meaning of the black hat. O’Connor told him in strong terms that the Misfit wore a black hat because people of his social class and his part of the country always wore black hats, and that was all to it. The incident is covered in O’Connor’s collected letters, along with a marvelous letter castigating a class for coming up with a nonsensical interpretation of the same story, say, in effect, just because you can justify an interpretation doesn’t mean it has any relation to the story.

You have clearly not experienced the horrors of reading numerous critical commentaries on Season of Migration to the North, one of which contained this very analysis. Never underestimate the ability of literary critics to find meaning in everything. Sigh. 4 units of my life I’ll never get back…

If I had more faith in my abilities to interpret, this would not be as much a concern for me as it is.

Having to rely as I do on my fellow students, and my occasionally overzealous instructors, I wonder if I’m missing it or if they’re seeing something that just isn’t there. Your “Misfit’s black hat,” as it were.

I would have to assume that the truth lies somewhere in the middle, or else all poetry has no meaning because I’m unable to understand it, and I know that that is not the case.

My instructors are encouraging, but not as far as this line of thinking goes. Rather, they would prefer we picked apart every single word and made every single connection possible, no matter how obscure. With this novel especially, more than any other so far this quarter, and frankly I am a bit disturbed by that.

Other than relying on a that-doesn’t-feel-right instinct, how would you recommend that I interpret things carefully? I’m actually beginning to see my instructors and some of my fellow students in a poor light because they seem so wrapped up in finding these connections and I can’t help but feel that they’re over-doing it. Yet, generally there is logic to support these connections and so I cannot dismiss them.

Perhaps I am just unable to grasp that one author could write something with so much room for interpretation? That there could possibly be this many obscure connections in a single text?

The more I think about it, the less certain I am about which end of the spectrum is closest to being right.

Damn I love literature.