Authorial Intent Vs Reader Response Essay

Zadie Smith notes that her doubts about the readerly freedoms bestowed by poststructuralist theory set in around the time she became a novelist. (She discovered that she did believe in writing as “an expression of an individual consciousness” after all.) For me, the disenchantment had more to do with the slow-dawning realization that I was not a very good or clever poststructuralist reader. The results of my grim-faced, slash-and-burn treks through the “polysemy” of canonical texts were infinitely duller and cruder than any of my naïve high school efforts to figure out what authors actually meant. Eventually, I slunk back, tail between my legs, to the ranks of Humble Consumers. Whatever embarrassment attached to re-­embracing the old bourgeois delusions was far outweighed by relief. Sometimes, I learned, it really is better to receive than to give.

Zoë Heller is the author of three novels: “Everything You Know”; “Notes on a Scandal,” which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and adapted for film; and “The Believers.” She has written feature articles and criticism for a wide range of publications, including The New Yorker, The New Republic and The New York Review of Books.

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By Adam Kirsch

If a text can mean anything the reader wants it to mean, then why read it in the first place?

No book could announce its author’s intentions more plainly than “Paradise Lost.” John Milton declared his purpose in the opening stanza: “That to the heighth of this great argument / I may assert Eternal Providence, / And justify the ways of God to men.” And that is how “Paradise Lost” was read for the first century and a half of its existence: as a vindication of God’s justice. Because the sacred drama of the Fall will conclude with the salvation of humanity through the sacrifice of Jesus, Adam comes to realize that all his suffering is divinely ordained for the best: “O goodness infinite, goodness immense! / That all this good of evil shall produce, / And evil turn to good!”

Then, in the late 18th century, something changed. Readers like William Blake and Percy Shelley opened the same poem that pious Christians had been enjoying for generations, only they discovered something surprising: The hero of the poem is not Adam, or Jesus, or God himself, but actually Satan, the incarnation of evil. Because all the other characters act out of obedience to a divine plan, they can’t be said to possess the characteristics of heroism — boldness, daring, pride. Only Satan, who acts in opposition to God, has those traits, and as a result, he gets the best speeches — as when he declares, after he is hurled into hell, that “All is not lost; the unconquerable will, / And study of revenge, immortal hate, / And courage never to submit or yield.”

That is why, to Shelley, “Milton’s Devil as a moral being is . . . far superior to his God.” Yet how could it be that Milton, who was a deeply pious Christian and who explicitly said that his poem was meant to promulgate Christian truths, was actually, as Blake said, “of the Devil’s party without knowing it”? This could be possible only if the author was not actually the master of his own intentions. Perhaps Milton was ensnared by the false piety of his own time, and it took the antinomian insight of the Romantics to liberate him — to make him the poet of revolt that he secretly wanted to be all the time. Or perhaps the Romantics were simply imagining Milton as they wanted him to be. Either way, they permanently changed the way later readers would approach Milton’s epic; in a sense, they rewrote “Paradise Lost.”

The idea that readers could know an author’s intentions better than she does herself is, of course, deeply destabilizing to our usual ways of thinking about literature. If a text can mean anything the reader wants it to mean, then why read it in the first place? Isn’t literature supposed to help us achieve contact with other minds, rather than trapping us in a hall of mirrors, in which we can see only our own distorted reflections? Surely there must be limits to a text’s ­interpretability.

And of course there are — no one could finish “Paradise Lost” and claim that Satan was a minor character. Any reading of a book must read the book that actually exists. But the history of literature shows that, in practice, what an author believed she was doing in her work has no real sovereignty over later readers’ interpretations. Indeed, one way of defining great literature is that it allows itself to be endlessly reinterpreted: Hamlet can be a conscience-stricken intellectual for one reader, a victim of the Oedipus complex for another, without the two readings canceling each other out.

What Shakespeare himself thought about Hamlet is unknowable, and really it doesn’t matter; the words on the page constitute his final statement. The “Hamlet” we read today is richer than the play Shakespeare first produced by precisely the amount and variety of interpretation it has provoked in the interim. Great works of literature are like stars; they stay put, even as we draw them into new constellations.

Adam Kirsch is a columnist for Tablet. He is the author of two collections of poetry and several other books, including, most recently, “Why Trilling Matters.” In 2010, he won the Roger Shattuck Prize for Criticism.

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(I previously posted this as an answer to this question, but Hamlet wanted to focus on actual textual analysis rather than discussing the intent issue, so I've separated this out into a new Q&A)

It's easy, even for people familiar with literary analysis, to conflate asking "Did the author mean this?" with "Does the work mean this?".

As you'd expect with an issue like this, there's no objectively true answer about who's correct here—asking if the author is right doesn't make a lot of sense, because there's no scale to measure right against. Instead, I'll introduce some of the common schools of thought on the issue of authorial intent (how you should interpret what the author wanted to say).


Some people would argue that the author—the person who created and crafted the piece of literature—is the one who knows most intimately what they intended to convey through their work. This view was favoured by the majority of literature critics until around the 20th century, when New Criticism and the intentional fallacy became more accepted.

Biographical criticism is one of the schools of literature which favours the author's intent and meaning as opposed to examining the text alone:

Biographical criticism is a form of Literary criticism which analyzes a writer's biography to show the relationship between the author's life and their works of literature. Biographical criticism is often associated with Historical-Biographical criticism, a critical method that "sees a literary work chiefly, if not exclusively, as a reflection of its author's life and times".

This longstanding critical method dates back at least to the Renaissance period, and was employed extensively by Samuel Johnson in his Lives of the Poets (1779–81).

By using context of the author's life, views and experiences, biographical criticism tries to uncover meaning through what the author may have intended to convey. Historically, this tended to be applied rather literally—the author's word was taken to be generally true without debate. This is not necessarily true in more modern analysis, though, where a balance is achieved between accepting the author's word and the other factors.


New Criticism is the form of literary criticism that comes to mind when considering the text as the primary source of meaning. New Criticism emphasises close reading (for context, see 'What is close reading?'), and tries to find meaning through the author's choice of words rather than their experiences and historical context.

It is debated whether New Criticism's method of almost entirely excluding historical context is effective. In The New Criticism: Pro and Contra, René Wellek outlines the major issues with New Criticism:

Four accusations are made more frequently. First, the New Criticism is an "esoteric aestheticism," a revival of art for art's sake, uninterested in the human meaning, the social function and effect of literature. [...] Second, the New Criticism, we are told, is unhistorical. It isolates the work of art from its past and its context. Third, the New Criticism is supposed to aim at making criticism scientific, or at least "bringing literary study to a condition rivaling that of science" [...]. Finally the New Criticism is being dismissed as a mere pedagogical device, a version of the French explication de texte, useful at most for American college students who must learn to read and to read poetry in particular.

It is worth noting, for context, that René Wellek was not criticising New Criticism himself—he was merely outlining the common flaws pointed out by others.


There is another prominent group of literature critics who eschew both of the above approaches, instead favouring you as the main decider of a piece's meaning—reader-response criticism.

What reader-response criticism tries to say is that a piece of work does not have one objective meaning that can be determined through careful analysis. The linked Wikipedia article phrases it well:

Reader-response theory recognizes the reader as an active agent who imparts "real existence" to the work and completes its meaning through interpretation. Reader-response criticism argues that literature should be viewed as a performing art in which each reader creates their own, possibly unique, text-related performance. It stands in total opposition to the theories of formalism and the New Criticism, in which the reader's role in re-creating literary works is ignored.

While writing this, I've reflected on the issue a little, and reader-response criticism starts to make a lot of sense. Critics in the past have read pieces and tried to find a way to interpret works and find meaning, as if it is an inherent property of a work, but, as shown by the many schools of literary criticism, each reader does find a different meaning.

Notice that I've written this without any reference at all to any specific book (like Fahrenheit 451, as I stated in the question). That's because I'm almost certain you would be able to switch the book title and have the exact same argument without gaining any real knowledge—any answer will either have to interpret Fahrenheit 451 from each possible view point, or simply state one opinion. Instead, I hope that I've started to share the tools to find out the answer on your own, or at least recognise how many literature critics would approach the problem.

In brief answer to the specific question: "Is Bradbury right?"—it depends who you ask, and what they think about literary criticism. A biographical critic would say "yes, of course he's right—he wrote the book!"; a New Critic would ask for the textual evidence to prove it and reader-response critic would ask what you believed the text meant!

When trying to prove if your conjecture is 'right' (if such a statement makes sense), you should consider how you want to prove it—close reading and analysis of text is often quite sound proof, but you may miss some of the context and nuance without considering the author's life and context. For example, in Of Mice and Men, racism is a major theme, but by not knowing the context of the novel in 1930s America, the meaning is very much lost.

In works of fantasy or science fiction where there is little historical context, close reading or reader-response may be a better choice, because historical context may be less clear, and possibly harder to justify than in a work that is clearly set in a historical period. Nevertheless, as Hamlet points out, fantasy and sci-fi works do tend to have some link to reality, so dismissing the point completely (as I had originally done) is probably not valid.

In summary:

  • You can analyse literature from many different perspectives, but the predominant methods are author intention, text meaning and reader interpretation.

  • Confusing intention, meaning and interpretation can cause many issues when analysing texts, and, as pedantic as it may be, framing a question in a different way can drastically change its answer.

  • Asking who's 'right' or 'wrong' doesn't make a lot of sense in subjective analysis of literature—ask whether something can be 'proved' or 'disproved' instead for best results!

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