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?