Department of English Brock University


The Problem of Meaning in Literature


A brief introduction for my Year 1 students by Professor John Lye


Copyright 1996 by John Lye. See origianl webpage at:




"Meaning" is a difficult issue, and what I have to say here only

scratches the surface of a complex and contested area. How do we

know what a work of literature is 'supposed'; to mean, or what its

'real' meaning is? There are several ways to approach this:


* that meaning is what is intended by the author ;

* that meaning is created by and contained in the text itself ;

* that meaning is created by the reader.




The author


Does a work of literature mean what the author 'intended' it to

mean, and if so, how can we tell? If all the evidence we have is

the text itself, we can only speculate on what the priorities and

ideas of the author were from our set of interpretive practices

and values (how we read literature and how we see the world). We

can expand this:


1. by reading other works by the same author,

2. by knowing more and more about what sort of meanings seem to

be common to works in that particular tradition, time and


3. by knowing how the author and other writers and readers of

that time read texts -- what their interpretive practices

were (as reading and writing must be part of the same set of

activities), and

4. by knowing what the cultural values and symbols of the time



Any person or text can only 'mean' within a set of preexisting,

socially supported ideas, symbols, images, ways of thinking and

values. In a sense there is no such thing as a 'personal' meaning;

although we have different experiences in our lives and different

temperaments and interests, we will interpret the world according

to social norms and cultural meanings -- there's no other way to

do it.


We may have as evidence for meaning what the author said or wrote

about the work, but this is not always reliable. Authorial

intention is complicated not only by the fact that an author's

ways of meaning and of using literary conventions are cultural,

but by the facts that


1. the author's work may very well have taken her in directions

she did not originally foresee and have developed meanings

which she did not intend and indeed may not recognize (our

historical records are full of authors attesting to this),

2. the works may embody cultural or symbolic meanings which are

not fully clear to the author herself and may emerge only

through historical or other cultural pespective, and

3. persons may not be conscious of all of the motives that

attend their work.


For an expanded consideration of meaning and the author, see my

page The concept of the death of the author and the study of

contemporary theory




The Text


Does the meaning exist 'in' the text? There is an argument that

the formal properties of the text--the grammar, the language, the

uses of image and so forth--contain and produce the meaning, so

that any educated (competent) reader will inevitably come to

essentially the same interpretation as any other. Of course, it

becomes almost impossible to know whether the same interpretations

are arrived at because the formal properties securely encode the

meaning, or because all of the 'competent' readers were taught to

read the formal properties of texts in roughly the same way. As a

text is in a sense only ink-marks on a page, and as all meanings

are culturally created and transferred, the argument that the

meaning is 'in' the text is not a particularly persuasive one.


The meaning might be more likely to be in the conventions of

meaning, the traditions, the cultural codes which have been handed

down, so that insofar as we and other readers (and the author)

might be said to agree on the meaning of the text, that agreement

would be created by common traditions and conventions of usage,

practice and interpretation. In different time periods, with

different cultural perspectives (including class, gender,

ethnicity, belief and world-view), or with different purposes for

reading no matter what the distance in time or cultural situation,

competent readers can arrive at different readings of texts. As on

the one hand a text is an historical document, a material fact,

and as on the other meaning is inevitably cultural and contextual,

the question of whether the text 'really means' what it means to a

particular reader, group or tradition can be a difficult and

complex one.




The Reader


Does the meaning then exist in the reader's response, her

processing or reception of the text? In a sense this is

inescapable: meaning exists only insofar as it means to someone,

and art is composed in order to evoke sets of responses in the

reader (there is no other reason for it to exist, or for it to

have patterns or aesthetic qualities, or for it to use symbols or

have cultural codes). But this leads us to three essential issues.


1. Meaning is 'social', that is, language and conventions work

only as shared meaning, and our way of viewing the world can

exist only as shared or sharable. When we read a text, we are

participating in social, or cultural, meaning. Response is

not merely an individual thing, but is part of culture and


2. Meaning is contextual; change the context, you often change

the meaning.

3. Texts constructed as literature, or 'art', have their own

codes and practices, and the more we know of them, the more

we can 'decode' the text, that is, understand it -

consequently, there is in regard to the question of meaning

the matter of reader competency, as it is called, the

experience and knowledge of decoding literary texts.


(I have a brief page on various Reader Response positions which

you might like to look at.)


Your professor might insist on your having and practicing

competency in reading by insisting that any interpretation you

have (a) be rooted in (authorized by) the text itself and (b) be

responsible to everything in the text -- that is, that your

interpretation of any line or action be in the context of the

whole of the work. But you may have to learn other competencies

too. For instance in reading Mulk Raj Anand's The Untouchables you

might have to learn what the social structure of India was like,

what traditions of writing about and/or by Untouchables were in

effect in India in the early 1930's, what political, cultural, and

personal influences Mulk Raj Anand was guided by in constructing

the imaginative world of this short novel; you might have to

learn, in reading John Donne's poems, about, for instance, the

'platonic' (really, Florentine Neo-Plotinian) theory of love. As

another kind of competency, you might have to practice reading

certain kinds of literature, whose methods seem alien to you or

particularly difficult for you, so that you can understand how

that kind of literature works.


You may see that this idea that meaning requires competency in

reading can bring us back, as meanings are cultural and as art is

artifact, to different conventions and ways of reading and

writing, and to the historically situated understandings of the

section on the Author, above; at the least, 'meaning' requires a

negotiation between cultural meanings across time, culture,

gender, class. As readers you have in fact acquired a good deal of

competency already; you are about to acquire more. The point of

this brief essay is that 'meaning' is a phenomenon that is not

easily ascribed or located, that it is historical, social, and

derived from the traditions of reading and thinking and

understanding the world that you are educated about and socialized