Finding the meaning of literature is a personal conclusion not a definite destination.
There is nothing wrong with reading a book and contemplating what the “deeper meaning” is. There is nothing wrong with analyzing symbols and metaphors, searching for their relevance to an underlying theme. But looking for these things in an attempt to find the author’s intentions for the story is a futile cause. There is a value to analysis, but it is a personal matter. While analysis will not lead to absolute truth, there is an importance to evaluating how a story affects a particular individual.
1. The author’s meaning, underlying theme, true intentions are rarely clear to the author himself.
It would be very simple if a story was born because the author considered what he wanted the story to mean, brainstormed how to get this meaning across, and communicated this meaning through writing. Unfortunately, that’s not how stories are written. C. S. Lewis said, “And I don’t believe anyone knows exactly how he ‘makes things up’. Making up is a very mysterious thing. When you ‘have an idea’ could you tell anyone exactly how you thought of it?” 1 Authors rarely have the ins and outs of his stories planned out from the beginning, much less have the “true meaning” of a story decided.
I enacted an experiment myself to prove that the author’s intentions behind a story are nearly impossible to uncover. The short story I wrote was less than seven hundred words, but it combined all the random ideas in my head into one comprehensive tale. After sending it out to half a dozen readers, I asked each one to tell me what they thought my meaning was. One person thought it was a mystery, one thought it was fantasy, and one thought it was about heaven. None of them was my intention, but all of them made me excited. I enjoyed the fact that each one came up with a different meaning. To me, that’s what makes a good story. Every person should get a different meaning from a story.
2. There is more to the story than whatever makes it to the reader.
It takes 250,000 words to write a 50,000 word novel. For every chapter a person reads, there are outlines, sketches, brainstorming ideas, sticky notes, cut scenes, and many drafts that will never ever be read. Yet, all these things contribute to the story the reader does read. Readers who don’t write may not see all the writing that happens before the final draft hits the bookshelf, but every reader reads the result of the author’s extensive work. Rarely is the book in a person’s hands the book that the author sat down to write. Characters change, plots twist, and original meanings may no longer be relevant by the time the story is published. A book is more of a process than a finished project. A reader must assume that the writer took his job as an author seriously and utilized the process of writing as a way to shape the final story the best way he could. Analysis that assumes a reader can account for the process of a story is flawed.
3. A reader must trust the author.
Bouncing off what I said above, the reader needs to trust the writer. They wrote the countless drafts that are never read. They stayed up late trying to create the world, the characters, and emotions that others only have the pleasure of reading. They experimented with plot elements and tested their characters to find the perfect balance of emotion. The story is theirs to write they way they want. Readers should not try to figure out what might have happened if the characters had made different decisions. If the characters were to make a different decision, they would have. That’s the beauty and art of writing. Writing is figuring out what has to be said, whispered, kept a secret, or screamed to world. No writer is going to write a perfect story, but the reader needs to accept the story from the writer and trust that they way it’s written is the way it’s supposed to be.
Writing Should be Analyzed…But for Personal Reasons
By now, I sound like a grumpy writer who hates all English assignments. No. Literature elements are important. Reading with a desire to learn is important. Literature analysis is not wrong as long as it’s for personal growth. Finding the author's meaning is pointless, but readers can still learn a lot from stories. Authors base their stories on real emotions, real life events, and real conflicts that affect most of our lives. This allows every reader to read a slightly different story with a slightly different personal meaning. Digging out the author's “true intentions” negates the ability of a story to influence readers differently. Every reader should analyze every book they read, and experience what the story has to offer them personally.
~ Alyson Schroll