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Meaning, Interpretation, and Tension in Literature

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Meaning, Interpretation, and Tension in Literature


"Iraqi Head Seeks Arms." (Pinker, p. 69) Quiproquo, double entendre, pun. These are instances of finding more than one possible meaning to an event, most often a phrase. We can't read Shakespeare, or Molière, or the works of many other authors if we don't believe that something can have more than one meaning. "There is no topic in philosophy that has received more attention than meaning, in its multifarious manifestations." (Dennett, p. 401) Meaning is one of our most intimate bedfellows – it is always in our minds. In Webster's Third New International Dictionary, meaning is defined as follows;
1meaning 1a: The thing one intends to convey by an act or esp. by language b: the thing that is conveyed or signified esp. by language: the sense in which something (as a statement) is understood 2: The thing that is meant or intended: INTENT, PURPOSE, AIM, OBJECT

It is especially interesting that there is a difference between 1a and 1b in this definition, because this implies that there can be at least two meanings for a given event or utterance; what the meaner intends, and what the witness understands the meaning to be. The number of possible meanings grows when we consider that there may be many different meanings, or levels of meanings of the meaner. There could also be many witnesses to the event, each with her own interpretation. Each of these situations is like a different context, which could reveal a new sense.

One area in which the possibility of the existence of more than one meaning or interpretation creates tension is literature. "Intention, text, context, reader – what determines meaning? Now the very fact that arguments are made for all four factors shows that meaning is complex and elusive, not something once and for all determined by any one of these factors." (Culler, p. 65) We become preoccupied with trying to weed out which meaning is better than another. It seems that really, there are many possible meanings for any given event that are equally valid, but the particular meaning selected (and its degree of validity) are contingent upon the context.

Let us set up an example. For a book, we will use Eric Carle's The Very Hungry Caterpillar. (The Very Hungry Caterpillar is a celebrated children's book written and illustrated by Eric Carle. The book concerns a caterpillar that is apparently very hungry. It goes through the pages eating different sorts of food generally meant for human consumption. It stops near the end, forms a cocoon, and eventually it turns into a butterfly.) First, we can assume that Carle had some form of intent when he wrote the book, that it meant something to him. We can't really know what this meaning may be or may have been, though it may have included a desire to enrich the literary (as well as general) education of young children. Let us now imagine that a parent reads The Very Hungry Caterpillar to a child. The meaning of the book for this parent is most likely quite similar to that assumed piece of Carle's meaning in that they are using it as a didactic tool. They are helping the child learn to read, and the book is a nurturing activity they can share.

The scenario gets more interesting, however, if the reader is someone with a gender-studies background. They may interpret this story in a way that pertains to their focus of study; the caterpillar is a metaphor for someone choosing a non-mainstream lifestyle. The caterpillar eats all these foods that aren't traditionally thought of as optional sources of nutrition, at least by other caterpillars. His caterpillar contemporaries must find him very strange indeed! Yet he continues along his merry way, and at the end he is rewarded for following his intuitions and going against the grain by becoming a butterfly, a symbol of his fulfillment. What if his peers had gotten to him, and he had chosen to eat only caterpillar food? Perhaps he would not have been such a happy butterfly at the end.

What if an entomologist reads this story to her child? It is bound to have different meanings still, for both child and adult, than the cases mentioned so far. It most likely comes in the company of many other bug-related books, and the discussions that ensue are probably much more interested and informed than those in a different setting. Yet another possibility; a college student who is undecided as to a major reads the story to his little sister over winter break. He may feel the caterpillar represents him in his present situation. The caterpillar seems a bit frantic, is trying all these foods in hopes of finding the right one. He doesn't know what he wants. We feel that there is a bit of a time pressure, he must choose soon! Then at the end, he transforms. Perhaps he is able to move on because after trying all of these different possible paths, he chose the one he liked best. He camps out in his cocoon to write his butterfly thesis, and then he graduates.

Are any of the above interpretations of The Very Hungry Caterpillar better than the rest? What makes one valid and another not? Whose privilege is it to decide on the validity? If we concede that each of the above interpretations is valid in its own context, then we can move on to a more interesting observation. What happens if we try to place one meaning in or to derive it from a different context? It would seem more than a little ridiculous to hear a child spouting the analysis from the gender-studies context, and we can be pretty sure that Carle did not intend the book as a guide or motivation for indecisive college students. There are boundaries at work here. We have different contexts, and within these different contexts we have many different possible meanings. But a meaning that may make sense in one context may not be generated in another.

There seems to be a great deal of similarity between this observation and what is described as a 'niche' in biology. A niche is "a constellation of properties of the environment making it suitable for occupation by a species." (Mayr, p. 288) The environment mentioned in the definition includes the organisms that live in the environment, as they each affect each other, just as meanings help to make up a context, from which new meanings can be generated. A niche seems to be very comparable to a context, and the meanings that can come from a certain context are analogous to the organisms that can come from a particular niche. We can even look at old stories or meanings as fossils from other contexts.

In both cases, entropy and natural selection seem to be at work. Within a particular context, there are infinite possible interpretations, just as there are infinite possible organisms in a niche. There are also infinite possible contexts and niches. "...there is no determining in advance what might count as relevant, what enlarging of context might be able to shift what we regard as the meaning of a text. Meaning is context-bound, but context is boundless." (Culler, p. 67) As more meanings are created, that creates more contexts for even more possible meanings. However, not all meanings are selected in a given context, perhaps just because they lacked relevance. Like organisms for a niche, some possible meanings are not as likely to come into being.

But is meaning always reliant on a context, or an audience? "The issue we are broaching is whether meaning can be said to be inherent in a message, or whether meaning is always manufactured by the interaction of a mind or a mechanism with a message... In the latter case, meaning could not said to be located in any single place, nor could it be said that a message has any universal, or objective, meaning, since each observer could bring its own meaning to each message. But in the former case, meaning would have both location and universality." (Hofstadter, p. 158) It's tempting to say that something has meaning in and of itself, and it seems rather egocentric of us to wonder if things only have meaning if we give them meaning. This idea doesn't seem to bother Dennett, though. "The Library of Babel presupposed readers: the people who inhabited the Library. Without them the very idea of the collection of volumes would make no sense at all; their pages might as well be smeared with jam or worse." (Dennett, p. 113) But the question is still valid.

Hofstadter suggests that a message or an object can contain meaning, and that it doesn't need to be put into context to obtain that meaning; it carries meaning with it regardless. He talks about records and jukeboxes. A record is a code: grooves in patterns that yield music, the message contained. Jukeboxes don't alter the meaning of a record, they just extract the information that is already there. "One of the ways that we identify decoding mechanisms is by the fact that they do not add any meaning to the signs or objects which they take as input; they merely reveal the intrinsic meaning of those signs or objects." (Hofstadter, p. 164) However, what happens when we do get more than one meaning from something; when the same stimulus solicits different reactions from different witnesses?

We might think at first that the generator of the stimulus holds the most basic, the most universal meaning. After all, theirs was the starting point, and all consequential meanings are added on an endlessly lengthening tab. Even here, though, we run into a problem. Does every generator of a stimulus have an intent or purpose? The dictionary definition of meaning depends on such an assumption. Dennett disagrees. "Why couldn't the most important thing of all be something that arose from unimportant things? Why should the importance or excellence of anything have to rain down on it from high, from something more important, a gift from God? Darwin's inversion suggests that we abandon that presumption and look for sorts of excellence, of worth and purpose, that can emerge, bubbling up out of 'mindless, purposeless forces.'" (Dennett, p. 66)

So we know that something can have more than one meaning. We see that there are parallels between meanings as parts of contexts and organisms as parts of biological niches. We don't know yet if meaning is inherent, or if we attribute it. It seems that the latter might be the case, especially if we concede that certain things from which we derive meaning were created without intent or purpose. Perhaps our concept of meaning is a manifestation of our tendency to make up stories to explain things, or desire as humans to fill emptiness and to expand. We certainly don't have all the puzzle pieces yet; hopefully our understanding will evolve and expand as more information becomes available.

Works Cited:

Carle, Eric. The Very Hungry Caterpillar. New York; Philomel. 1969.

Culler, Jonathon. Literary Theory. New York; Oxford. 1997.

Dennett, Daniel. Darwin's Dangerous Idea. New York; Touchstone, 1995.

Hofstadter, Douglas R. Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid. New York; Basic Books. 1979

Mayr, Ernst. What Evolution Is. New York; Basic Books, 2001.

Pinker, Steven. The Language Instinct. New York; HarperCollins, 1994.

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