Meaning, Interpretation, And Tension In Literature

1889 words - 8 pages

"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...

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