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STUDENT: 391422 Year I

Theories & Methodologies
Winter 2000

How Useful Is The Concept Of Authorial
Intention In The Interpretation Of Literary
Works?
A short story of a young man – “who could not go to Oxford” – his struggles and
ultimate failure. Suicide. There is something [in this] the world ought to be shown, and I
am the one to show it to them – though I was not altogether hindered going, at least to
Cambridge, and could have gone up easily at five-and-twenty
Thomas Hardy

This quotation states an author’s intention as he embarks on the creation of a literary work,

one that will eventually become Jude The Obscure. This is a specific example of a broader

issue. Whether it is useful in interpreting the resultant novel is highly contentious. It describes

the basic plot and implies that autobiographic events are, to an extent, incorporated. Yet to

interpret the main protagonist’s exclusion from university as the central event obscures key

themes, such as destructive Fate, which are not mentioned in the quote. Using external

information to establish Hardy’s intention may be invalid, but whether intent can be

established from the text alone is also debatable.

To decide the extent to which authorial intention is useful in literary interpretation

requires definition of terms such as “interpretation” and “meaning”. “Interpretation”, here,

will be the use of a sign system (language) to construct an independent “meaning”. The term

meaning is more difficult to define, in relation to the cryptic triangle that links author, text and

reader. Some modern critics see it as a reader’s subjective construction, negating the

usefulness of authorial intention. Yet this is to apply general philosophy to literature, which

works by its own perverse logic. E.D. Hirsch’s author-centred meaning is more constructive
Student 391422 Theories & Methodologies Essay: How Useful Is The Concept Of Authorial Intention In The
Interpretation Of Literary Works?

in conducting practical hermeneutics. This essay discusses the extent to which authorial

intention is the key to objective meaning in literary works, when interpretation is made under

certain conditions.

Whether authorial intention can be established at all is central to the debate. I accept

the consensus that an author’s mental processes at the time of writing are inaccessible. The

text is certainly no basis for Freudian psychoanalysis of its author. However those who feel

that readers construct individual meanings for themselves, psychologically or culturally

detached from the creator’s meaning, incorrectly dismiss the presence of an author in an

autonomous text. The weakness of Radical Historicist views, that a text only has a meaning

for the time in which it was written, is demonstrated in the musings of Sartre’s Antoine

Roquentin (1964, p.9): “Naturally I can no longer write anything about that business on

Saturday and the day before yesterday – I am already too far away from it”. Such philosophic

truisms are a barrier to practical interpretation. E.D. Hirsch brings this debate back into focus

stating that, “the irreproducibility of meaning experiences is not the same as irreproducibility

of meaning”. He differentiates between the “meaning” of works (i.e. what a text says, that

Hamlet is a play about a Prince whose father is murdered and who seeks revenge) and the

“significance” of its relationship to a reader (a modern reader citing Hamlet as suffering from

a Freudian Oedipus complex). In practice, unfortunately, it is impossible to entirely separate

these tidy categories. For Hirsch, authorial intention can be established as the author has set

down his meaning as the words of the text (it can therefore be determined for anonymous

works). As an interpretive tool, however, certain restrictions must be placed on the concept.

First is the claim of the oft-misconstrued “The Intentional Fallacy”. It rightly

dismissed the basis of Romantic literary criticism, which saw authorial intention as the

standard by which a literary work should be judged. Jude The Obscure does not so much fulfil

the intention laid down in the opening quote of this essay as distort it. The work turned out to

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Student 391422 Theories & Methodologies Essay: How Useful Is The Concept Of Authorial Intention In The
Interpretation Of Literary Works?

be a lengthy novel rather than the “short story” that was intended. However this allowed

Hardy to achieve far more, expanding the breadth of Jude’s tragedy to the point that his

university rejection is almost peripheral. While the novel could be seen as failing to fulfil its

intentions then, it cannot be seen as a failure as a work of art. Moreover, if one evokes any

kind of evaluating response to the text one has spilled outside the Hirsch-defined realm of

“meaning” that concerns interpretation and into “significance”.

Similarly, it is not the proper role of the interpreter to use authorial intention as a basis

for investigating matters outside the work. Statements in a text should only be attributed to the

dramatic speaker. If biographical inference subsequently attaches this to the author the

interpreter has stepped over into the realm of criticism or misinterpretation. Meaning must be

independent of author psychology. In writing, authors take on an artificial voice, which makes

even naturalistic autobiography impossible. A writing process as mechanical as it is personal

is imposed by the constraints that good prose and poetry necessitate. Vonnegut (1991, p.27)

satirises his impersonal role as “a trafficker in climaxes and thrills and characterization and

wonderful dialogue and suspense and confrontations”. On the other hand T.S. Eliot's idea that

artists should depersonalise their raw experiences, and that readers must approach texts

impersonally, is an impossible ideal. Welleck1 demonstrates that while we are aware that the

word "vegetative" has a different meaning in metaphysical poetry, we cannot prevent it

evoking connotations of its modern sense. The authorial intention approach cannot therefore

interpret an entirely objective meaning, but all a reader can do is accept their unconscious

historical and subliminal self as a small but immovable barrier.

Nor should authorial intention necessarily be the leading criterion for establishing

meaning, though the derived meaning will be that intended by the author. Style and genre may

be more important, and all interpretation must be sensitive to context. That is not to support,

however, the Marxist view that social context is everything and the individual (therefore

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Student 391422 Theories & Methodologies Essay: How Useful Is The Concept Of Authorial Intention In The
Interpretation Of Literary Works?

authorial intention) nothing. Nor do I agree with Hirsch's analysis of decontextualised works,

in which it is difficult or impossible to establish authorial intention. In this scenario even he

claims that the reader becomes the author of meaning. However I contend that external and

biographical information can be used to estimate authorial intention (though this is much less

reliable than intention derived from the text), creating some standard of validity in this most

subjective area of interpretation. Authorial intention stretches into another text’s meaning

when external information is required for unpacking allusions to other authors. Some genres

seem more suited to establishing authorial intention through textual autonomy than others.

Novels, even when they are part social commentary like Dickens’ satires, establish a more

self-contained context for autonomous textual interpretation.

External information is not useful in establishing authorial intention except in the case

of decontextualised texts. Authors can easily misconstrue their own intentions. They may cite

an intention that was unsuccessfully conveyed and is therefore not part of the text's meaning.

Intentions may change during the writing process. Interestingly Hardy edited the Jude The

Obscure quote once the novel appeared. As Alexander Pope puts it: "Sir, let me see your work

and you no more!”2 Hirsch's narrow definition of intention usefully excludes external

comments, such as Hardy's note, terming them authorial plans. This disproves a leading

example in the argument against the usefulness of authorial intention. A love poem may be

written for money rather than love, but this cannot be determined from the lines of the

emergent poem. Hirsch would argue that the poet's primary intention was to write a love

poem, and this can be determined from the text. Need of money is an external plan, the

motivation for an intention rather than the intention itself. So to interpret Jude The Obscure

we should derive authorial intent from the novel itself, discarding Hardy's note.

There is also Gadamer’s argument3, which defines interpretation as a circular

experience between text and reader where it is effectively the reader who is interpreted. If this

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Student 391422 Theories & Methodologies Essay: How Useful Is The Concept Of Authorial Intention In The
Interpretation Of Literary Works?

were the case authorial intention would not be useful at all, but I disagree. Gadamer has a

point insofar as the reader has to construct meanings from the symbols of a text. However, an

author who intended these symbols to mean something laid them down purposefully. Meaning

should not transcend the limited possibilities of an author’s language. While Hirsch himself

admits that his clinical definitions are muddied in reality, they make more sense than

combining interpretation, understanding and application into one entity. The biggest shortfall

of Gadamer’s theory, however, is that no reading of a text can be more valid than another.

Authority can only lie in the readings of past critics, incorrectly elevated above the author.

Dismissing the author has particularly important implications in interpreting religious texts;

they lose their moral authority. On a Christian website Dr Michael Bauman angrily attacks

critics “who think that the Bible’s meaning has nothing to do with the intention of either the

God who inspired it or the people who wrote it”4. Whether Gadamer reflects the way things

are is immaterial. If we can only speak to ourselves using others’ words, then analysis not

only of authorial intention but everything we encounter in our lives is useless. Conversely, I

do not agree with Hirsch’s assertion that a text meaning anything is tantamount to it meaning

nothing. More accurate is that, in the practice of textual hermeneutics, a text meaning

anything is no more useful than if it meant absolutely nothing.

The concept of authorial intention can certainly be useful in literary interpretation,

principally in assigning an objective meaning to works. Objective meaning is the sharable

aspect of authorial intention that different readers of different eras can reach through their

individual interpretive processes. Meaning should be interpreted on the basis of what authors

successfully lay down in their texts. Hirsch emphasises that this does not prevent a text’s

meaning being ambiguous, incomplete or profound. From this standpoint it could be said that

T.S. Eliot’s poetry has an incomplete meaning but much scope for evaluation. Equally, there is

such a thing as unconscious intention; a meaning sensitive to the language possibilities of the

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Student 391422 Theories & Methodologies Essay: How Useful Is The Concept Of Authorial Intention In The
Interpretation Of Literary Works?

time must have been intended by the author, irregardless of whether he or she accepts it.

Author centred meaning does not prevent interpretation by creating historical and

psychological gaps, it is more of a bridge. It is therefore reasonable to maintain that the “best”

meaning of a text is that the author intended.

Hirsch’s delineation between meaning and significance (evaluation) can be used to

iron out ideological disputes about authorial intention. Radical historicism defines shifts in

significance rather than meaning; it is not that the author’s intention is inaccessible, but that

we cannot respond to a text in the same way an author’s contemporaries would have done.

Similarly, the psychologist view should contend that each response to an author-based

meaning is different. T.S. Eliot, seen as pioneer against interpretation based on authorial

intention, has been misinterpreted. He merely saw textual autonomy as favourable to author

psychology. The following words do not seem those of one who rejects an author: “To enjoy a

poem under a misunderstanding as to what it is, is to enjoy what is merely a projection of our

own mind . . . that to say one “gets enjoyment from” poetry does not sound quite the same as

to say that one “enjoys poetry” ". Moreover, Eliot did not feel that meaning shifted between

readers but as part of a changing literary tradition, where a new text changes the way some

previous texts are perceived. In a Hirsch sense, Eliot is actually talking about a shift in

significance here, and the use of authorial intent remains intact.

Finally, authorial intention is useful for judging the validity of different interpretations.

No interpretation can be either complete or definite, but the intention of the author is a

normative principle against which likelihood can be gauged. Pierre Macherey5 views such

ideals as a “normative fallacy”. He believes that since all texts are jagged and incomplete their

gaps and omissions should also be included in interpretation. I contend however that

interpretation should be based around what is unquestionably there, leaving other aspects to

the field of criticism.

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Student 391422 Theories & Methodologies Essay: How Useful Is The Concept Of Authorial Intention In The
Interpretation Of Literary Works?

To sum up, in such an abstract field a counter-argument can be derived against any

theory. Gadamer’s anti-author notions are not the “blunderbuss utterances” (De Molina, 1976)

that they have often been condemned as. Nevertheless, this stance may be of more use in the

field of philosophy than applied interpretation. Conversely, the main weakness of Hirsh’s

theory is that he constructs an artificial framework around interpretation with his strict

delineation between meaning and significance. It could be argued that Hamlet’s Oedipus

complex is the result of Shakespeare’s extraordinary instinct about human behaviour,

depicting sexual neurosis before Freud defined it. The anachronistic use of Freud is actually a

valid piece of interpretation rather than evaluation, merely described using Twentieth Century

jargon. Overall however Hirsch’s direction of thinking is the more convincing. The concept of

authorial intention is therefore extremely useful, if not vital, in the interpretation of literary

works, as it is the key to objective meaning.

2, 112 Words.

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Student 391422 Theories & Methodologies Essay: How Useful Is The Concept Of Authorial Intention In The
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Bibliography
Bauman, Dr. Michael (2000). The Ethics of Meaning: The Case for a Conservative
Hermeneutic
SUMMIT MINISTRIES
http://www.summit.org/Resources/EthicsofMeaning.htm
[Accessed 13/11/2000]

Hammond, Brean S. Pope: Harvester New Readings
Brighton: Harvester, 1986

Harris, Wendell V. Literary Meaning: Reclaiming The Study Of Literature
London: Macmillan, 1996

Hardy, Thomas Penguin Classics: Jude The Obscure
England: Penguin, 1998

Hirsch, E.D. Jr “Objective Interpretation” in Newton-de Molina, ed. On
Literary Intention: Critical Essays.
Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1976

Hirsch, E.D., Jr. Validity in Interpretation
New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967

Newton-de Molina, ed. On Literary Intention: Critical Essays.
Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1976

Poggemiller, Dwight, (1995). Hermenteutics and Epistemology: Hirsch's
Author Centred Meaning, Radical Historicism And Gadamer's Truth and
Method
PREMISE II (8), 5. Pg. 10. Uniform Resource Locator
http://capo.org/premise/95/sep/p950810
[Accessed 13/11/2000]

Sartre, Jean-Paul, trans. Baldick, Robert Nausea
Great Britain: Penguin Books, 1965

Vonnegut, Kurt Slaughterhouse 5
London: Vintage, 1991

Wimsatt, W.K., Beardsley, M.C. “The Intentional Fallacy” in Newton-de
Molina, ed. On Literary Intention: Critical Essays.
Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1976

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Student 391422 Theories & Methodologies Essay: How Useful Is The Concept Of Authorial Intention In The
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1 Described in Hirsch, E.D. Jr “Objective Interpretation”
2 Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot, line 68, in Abrams, M.H. & Greenblatt, S ed. The Norton Anthology Of English Literature:
Seventh Edition, Volume 1. USA, Norton, 1999
3 Described in “Gadamer’s Theory of Interpretation” in Hirsch, E.D. Jr, Validity In Interpretation (1967); and also
Poggemiller, “Dwight, Hermeneutics and Epistemology: Hirsch's Author Centred Meaning, Radical Historicism And
Gadamer's Truth and Method” (1995)
4 Bauman, Dr. Michael (2000). “The Ethics of Meaning: The Case for a Conservative Hermeneutic”
5 Mentioned in Hammond, Brean S. Pope. Harvester New Readings. Brighton: Harvester, 1986