The “Correctness” of Interpretation

From time to time I run across people who insist that the author’s interpretation is the only way to engage with a story. I am a rabid fan of The Last of Us, a story that is so powerfully gripping and moving that I cannot help but return to it again and again to feel. David Hume, a fantastic 18th century essayist, writes in his essay “Of Tragedy” that the agitation of the human soul is pleasurable. We are moved by love or anger, pity or sorrow, and those movements are a change from the tedium of homeostasis (the tendency towards stability). Nature may gravitate towards equilibrium; humanity cannot help but seek passions that move us from it. In this devotion to feeling we interpret the matter that moves us, sometimes jealously. We do not wish to feel as if we are wrong in our feelings or to be told that we are wrong in interpreting the subject that moved us to that feeling. Let us look at The Last of Us for an example of differing interpretations before moving to the author’s.

In The Last of Us, the question of Ellie’s sexuality seems to be open to interpretation (spoilers ahead). Yes, in the downloadable content addition to the main story Ellie does share a kiss on the lips with Riley, but the overall feeling of their attachment is open. Ellie isn’t sure of anything but that she doesn’t want to be parted from Riley. Ellie also refers to Riley as her friend and never says lover, girlfriend, or anything that implies a romantic or sexual relationship. Again, note the greatness of writers who leave ambiguous details for the audience to fill! Yet on the other side of the interpretation of Ellie’s sexual preference we note the humorous scene as Ellie thumbs through Bill’s pornographic material, wondering “what’s all the fuss about?” meaning, of course, the fascination with males or the penis, with the reasonable inference that Ellie herself does not share this fascination. Added with this kiss itself, Ellie certainly seems to have the ability to be interpreted as a lesbian. This is the openness of interpretation that capable storytellers use. Nothing is explicitly stated, hints and possibilities emerge, mirroring more closely the complexity and instability of human life.

Ellie’s humorous interaction with Bill’s man-gazine.

Now, let us move to the view that the author’s view of the story is the only correct one.

*warning, dense French philosophy ahead. Do not fear; I will steer the boat for us.*

A story, like most things, has a life cycle. It is born within the author’s mind. It grows through editing and polishing. Perhaps other editors come into the early life of the story to insert their own little creations and additions. Then, one glorious day, the story is born and we interact with it.

Once born, the story interacts with the audience, not its author. Imagine the born story moving out of mom and dad’s home into all of ours. Each relationship the story forms with the many members of the audience is different.

Understanding how a story interacts with (philosopher and literary critic Roland Barthes sexualizes this interaction in his book The Pleasure of the Text) us as the audience is essential to freeing us from the view that the author is the only one in control of interpretations. Barthes argues that resorting to an author-centric view of a text is imposing a limitation, “interpretive tyranny”, on the text (text can be considered as any body of writing for our purposes). Imagine Neil Druckman, the author of The Last of Us, coming into your home to tell you how to “see” Ellie. It seems silly, but if one argues the author is the authority that is essentially the case. If authorial intention is the king of our interpretations we must cede all thought and only look to the author for details to fill the ambiguity. Druckman may have a preference in his intentions, although given his expertise in storytelling I think his ambiguity is intentional because he understands the value of allowing the audience to participate in the life of a story. Druckman’s preference or interpretation of the story he creates may shape and mold how a story is formed, but cannot be so rigid and unyielding as to stop us from locating evidence and value in our own perspectives.

Rather than omnipresent and omnipotent, the author takes her (or his) place within the life cycle of a story as its creator. Once given to us, we are the interactors (lovers, thank you Barthes) with the story. If the creator has given room for interpretations, we fill that room. The interpretations we form as the audience are subject to reason and evidence, make no mistake. It would be unsupportable to argue that Ellie was into Eskimo love, for example. (Yeah, I really had to tone down what I was about to write. Mooo’ving on.) Thus given life from our interaction, the story takes on (sometimes unintended) attributes. The common view of a story may be entirely different from authorial intent. Observe the word “literally” which has been taken so out of context as to lead to the Oxford English Dictionary’s re-defining of the word! It is the same with stories, which is just a body of words. How can we still argue that the audiences’ interpretive views are “wrong”?

What we begin to see if we remove ourselves from authorial tyranny is that our interpretations tell us just as much about ourselves as the story. Interpretations allow for a much more interesting diversity of views, if employed within reason. If, in your view, Ellie is a gloriously and fantastically open lesbian (or not, whatever the case may be), stop to think how that interpretation connects to your view of lesbianism in your life now. This is the moment in which our interaction with the story moves from Hume’s agitation to our souls towards understanding, empathy, and realization about our own selves. And therein lies the value and power of literature.

Note that the most productive conversations are removed from questions of morality. Let us not argue that sexuality is right or wrong; that would be a critical/judgmental observation. If we are immersed into the interpretative we want to understand how we read a text, and what happens next.