Literary Analysis: It’s All About Context
You know, I never really thought the ongoing debate on whether or not authorial intent is important in the interpretation of a piece of literature would ever affect my daily life. I mean, I thought it was an interesting topic that I could discuss with some friends on a misty October morning over a cup of tea, but I wasn’t expecting it to come right up and slap me in the face. What kind of theoretical question does that? Just three weeks ago, however, I found out.
I was out of my element, first of all, greatly increasing my susceptibility to metaphysical confusion. More precisely, I was on foreign exchange in Melbourne, Australia riding a train with my host family on the way to see The Crucible at the Performing Arts Center when the first sign that something was amok appeared:
“So the reviews said it was just hilarious,” one of the women in our group told me, knowing that I was a Miller fan. “The way you girls made it sound, I didn’t even know it was a comedy!”
I exchanged a befuddled glance with one of my fellow American exchange students and tried to be polite. “It’s… not.”
And we weren’t lying; we were probably 99% certain that the Crucible was not a comedy. I’m going to assume that most everyone reading this has read this Arthur Miller play at some point in their high school English career, but if you haven’t and don’t care about spoilers, here’s what you need to know: a bunch of young women try to cope with their stringent seventeenth century Puritan society by dancing around in the woods, sacrificing chickens, and summoning spirits. They get caught, realize they can only escape severe punishment by accusing the adults around them of compacting with the devil, and bada-boom, Salem Witch Trials! No matter how well they can argue that the girls are lying, most characters end up dead by public hanging, highlighting the danger of humans’ tendency towards hysteria and scapegoat-blaming. Oh, the laughs are abundant in this one!
Still, I was surprised to find myself laughing along with the rest of the audience all throughout the play at the same lines that would only incite horror in me when read aloud in my English class at home. At first I thought it was just that I hadn’t accounted for the differences between reading the play and seeing it performed; I mean, this production’s John Proctor was sassy, as opposed to just resentful like his paper counterpart. However, once Judge Danforth arrived and the court proceedings got intense, the humor shifted away from the arguably comical characters and to the logical fallacies of the court. The audience laughed when it was revealed that the only way to avoid punishment for a crime was to confess to it. They laughed when Abigail turned on Mary Warren. Well, even I had to admit that the proceedings were extremely farcical, but I had always assumed that it was supposed to be scary satire, not funny satire.
Although I had definitely enjoyed the play, it wasn’t until the train ride home that the girl I was staying with said something that cleared up my confusion: “It’s just so stupid, you know?” she grinned. “How could anyone think witches are real?”
Oh, wait. “You know it’s not really about witches, right?” I asked carefully, trying not to sound rude. “It’s about the McCarthy trials, you know? Communists, Red Scare?” Well, of course she knew, actually. She was an intelligent young woman and I had probably offended her. Still, she seemed to shrug this fact off as if she didn’t see its implications as they appeared to me. To me, and to the other American exchange students that were at the show that night, The Crucible wasn’t a story of how laughably terrible the legal system was in theocratic Massachusetts; it was a reminder that it was possible for equivalent injustices to arise in the 1950s and probably even today– an idea that’s a little too real for us to be laugh-out-loud hilarious.
It all reminded me of when we read Oedipus Rex in a theology class last semester; no matter how well we students thought we understood and enjoyed it, our teacher kept trying to convince us that he had inside information that he used to glean more meaning from the text. Apparently, the play was written to criticize the way that the Athenian military would just go around invading tiny Greek islands that wouldn’t support them in the Pelopponesian War, which seemed very plausible the way he explained it, but was ultimately shrugged off by the class. I mean, we weren’t voting Athenian citizens; we had no responsibility to understand Ancient Greek political issues and were perfectly capable of enjoying a good play about a guy who could have really benefited from some DNA testing technology and drawing our own thematic conclusions from it. Dare I say, we even laughed at the poor guy. He didn’t even see it coming!
So I came to the conclusion that you can’t just expect people to interpret any piece of literature the same way you do, because it’s a ridiculous expectation. The truth is that whenever someone tries to extract any meaning at all from a book, or play, or poem, chances are they’re not just using the words in front of them, but all the context available, including not only the historical setting and words of the author, but current events, the reader’s personal experience, etc. And news flash! Those things will vary from person to person.
So, I encourage everyone here to try and look at their favorite piece of literature from another point of view. You never know what you might discover. I, for one, learned that The Crucible is a can be a phenomenal comedy if you stop worrying about human nature long enough to laugh at some old farmers who had no idea what they were talking about.
P.S. Related story with a YA lit tie-in: I never really liked the Divergent series by Veronica Roth until I managed to convince myself it was about the modern college admissions process. Just think about it; they tell you that your life is plain over if you don’t decide what you want to do with it when you’re a mere adolescent, then you spend an entire book taking a gigantic test that’s pretty much rigged against you (SAT/ACT) that decides your career. I’m pretty sure that was not the intended meaning of the book, but I’m totally entitled to my opinion.
- Cory C, 12th grade, currently reading Inferno by Dan Brown because it sounded better than actually doing her European History homework.