“Problematics of Reading the Literary Text Through times and Cultures”
Dr. Mega Afaf
The moment of writing a literary work is a historical moment that expresses a human experience with all its aesthetics, thoughts, pains, joys, colors, hopes, imaginations and feelings that were destined to see the light at a specific moment in time. Reality shows us a lot of literary works that have proven their existence over time, and which are still vibrant with life, as if we were discovering them for the first time. What makes the literary work survive the test of time?
- Modes of Existence of a Literary Work
Here I recall two genuine figures in English and American literature.
If we take William Shakespeare, who passed 400 years ago, his works are still read, analyzed, studied and respected, achieving eternal success, overcoming the challenges of times and centuries (Jane, 2021). Most of Shakespeare’s works reflect their close connection with the historical, political and social context of their time of production (Zerin Alan, 2010). But despite their connection to their past time, they are still vibrant with life, and this is what gathers the scholars on the view that they deal with universal human issues, like love, hate, honor, heroism, betrayal, death, greed, jealousy, deception, revenge, courage, and preciousness among other topics… His works were also distinguished by idioms that bear wisdom, which make the reader of the present time use them until now (Ibid).
The second is the American writer Edgar Allan Poe, known for his writings on mystery and the Macabre. Poe is considered a unique artistic literary experience, as he proceeds from the principle of art for art’s sake, and thus he separated his works from time and space in order to devote the attention on the human experience.
It is true that like Shakespeare, Poe touched on global human subjects such as beauty, love, loneliness, crime, madness, evil, fear, terror, but I see that the secret of his longvity is his distinctive style and his broad imagination in which he mixed truth and imagination, and his masterpiece, The Raven is evidence of that.
In this context, we see Roland Barth’s assertion that the existence of a literary work is achieved through its linguistic form, in addition to the meaning it carries, because meaning is considered the basis for its existence. The question ‘ what does a literary work mean?’ is what keeps it going through the centuries, and so it becomes illusory to search for a final meaning (Vincent Jouve, 2004).
In addition, Umberto Eco sees ambiguity as an important feature of a literary work. For the aesthetic message is very informative and carries many interpretations (Caeasar, 1999).
Beside ambiguity symbolism according to Barthes is also important for the construction of a literary text, it adds more suggestions to the work (Jouve, 2004).
- Literary Criticism as a Second Creation
The moment of receiving a literary work is no less important than the moment of its creation, it is also surrounded by a historical, cultural and social context. Thus, this moment imposes on the text another context that is different in all its aspects, so that the reader here becomes an important element in the literary experience, different from the previous experience of production. This second experience differs from one reader to another. Here, René and Warren (1949) claim that each individual reading is an idiosyncratic experience, as it is coloured by the reader’s personality, education, philosophy, and his cultural and historical context. Thus, the literary work becomes subject to change over time, and the reader, on his part, becomes its second creator.
Barthes argues against reading a text by relying on aspects of an author’s identity or presence for he sees that considering the author in the interpretation of a text is to impose limits on the text. Therefore, it is necessary to liberate the text from its author because he contends that the meaning lies exclusively in ‘language itself’ and its impression on the reader (en.wikipedia.org, 2022).
However, this new reading of the literary text is crystallized only if it takes into account previous readings through previous times, and in this way the literary work is characterized by historicism (Rooney and Warren 1949).
From the perspective of literary semiotics, Eco considers that the literary message transcends the process of sender-message-receiver, because the reader approaches the text carrying with him a code different from the code of the writer on the one hand, and on the other hand, the text message requires the reader to be armed with linguistic and psychological competencies that allow him to read Text (Caesar, 1999).
In connection with this point, we quote Eco in the same reference:
” …the message is capable of activating different levels of reality: the physical technical level of substance of which the signifiers are made; the level of the differential nature of the signifiers; the level of the denoted signifieds; that of the connoted signifieds; the level of the various systems of expectations ( psychological, logical, scientific) to which the sign directs the addressee” (ibid, p: 65).
The approaches and philosophies of postmodernism agree on relying on the recipient while approaching literary texts, so we find most of them even if they differ in their mechanisms, unleash his freedom away from the structure. For example, the phenomenological approach separates the literary work from its previous references, just as it strips the reader of his emotion and returns – at the same time – the subject to its moment (Al-Hayani 2019). Thus, the reader, according to Gadamar, brings the text from the past to the present, he is interested in the intention of the text only, explaining that the reference of the text to its author or to the context of the moment of its production is only a primitive interpretive rule, because the meaning of the literary text whenever time passes from one historical and cultural context to another can be deduced from it New meanings because the recipient or reader is not independent of his current historical and cultural situation (Chorfi, 2007).
This encounter between the reader and the text results in a new common space in which the past meets the present to create a new reading of the text. On this basis, the meaning of the text becomes in constant change from one generation to the next. Therefore, every meaning cannot be the final meaning of the text (Ibid ).
Here, reception theory agrees with phenomenology in relying on the reader to interpret the text, but it takes into account the chronological record of the literary work, so the reader relies – in addition to other criteria – on previous texts that dealt with the text under study (Ibid). These previous texts are used as a reference for the reader, adding to it his own social, cultural and historical context (Al-Hayani 2019).
Likewise, the pragmatic approach and the speech act approaches do not differ from the aforementioned approaches in their interest in the context in order to create the meaning that changes with the change of the context and the reader.
- Are There Limits to this New Creation?
From the foregoing, we have stated that every reading of a literary text is tantamount to a new creation, albeit by a little amount. However, if we take into account the time distance between writing and reception, and we accept the hypothesis that time has an effect on changing the reading, then to what extent is this secondary reading acceptable? And are there standards that govern this reading, or are we giving free rein to our ideas, forming the text again and again without limits?
In light of this, Umberto Eco first, drew attention to two terms when approaching the literary text. The first is the term usage, which means subjecting the text to the reader’s intentions without searching for the text’s own purposes. The second term is interpretation, which falls within the deep research into the structure of the text (Chorfi, 2007).
Eco is considered one of the most prominent theorists concerned with the issue of interpretation in literary works, and this is through his many works on the interpretation of literary work, such as The Open Work, Limits of Interpretation, Interpretation and Overinterpretation, Lector in Fabula among other works.
Eco believes that giving the reader absolute freedom in the process of interpretation may lead to arbitrary results that may produce what he terms as Double interpretation. In this perspective, we find him strongly criticizing the deconstruction approach that allows the text to say anything without control because of the believe that the literary text is originally meaningless, and thus Eco sees that the reader will indulge in a process of slipping meaning (Ibid).
In order to ward off the chaos in the interpretive arena, and in order to avoid double interpretation, Eco established his own interpretive project.
The reader in Eco project oscillates between loyalty to the text and freedom in interpretation at the same time, and his loyalty to the text comes through the criterion launched by Eco in the name of the Model Reader. This latter that the writer builds in the text at the first stage of its production is manifested through the strategies that the writer puts into the text, and when discovering these strategies, the ordinary reader turns into a Model reader. Thus, in exploring these textual strategies, the reader becomes loyal to the text and under the author’s authority at the same time. In addition to this, Eco allowed the reader some freedom, by relying on his linguistic, cultural, or historical encyclopedia that helps him build meaning, and this is what Eco means by the intention of the reader.
For Eco, the text is a structural unit with elements linked to each other by a set of relationships. Thus, giving any element a specific meaning cannot be separated from the other semantic dimensions that characterize other formal semantic areas, and this is what Eco refers to as the intention of the text. In order to activate the intentionality of the text, Eco proposes to take into account other elements such as the semantic system, i.e. the subject system, i.e. topic, and finally isotopy, all of which impose control in the interpretation of the text, as he demonstrates the importance of determining the topic in order to sort out isotopies (ibid). Therefore, the intention of the writer exists in the text through the author’s textual and linguistic strategies which Eco refers to as the Model Reader (Cappozzi, 1999). In addition, the author’s textual strategies can manifest in the stylistic features, narrative structures embodied in characters and their actions, point of view, plot structure, rhetoric, imagery and ideology. It also embodies the writer’s autobiography, his sociocultural context, political and historical context that are in some way present and reflected in the text (Caesar, 1999).
Furthermore, the encyclopedia, possible worlds and the Model Q are also highlighted in Eco’s approach. Based on the reader’s encyclopedia, Eco gives space to the reader to construct his possible worlds related to the narrative he is reading. They are thought generated through the reader’s inferential walks about the characters, events and text’s properties.
The Lake is a poem written by Edgar Allan Poe in which various images are expressed at the level of the narrative structure. In the first stanza, we read the image of a lonely lake which inspires beauty :
“So lovely was the loneliness
Of a wild lake, with black rock bound,
And the tall pines that towered around”(p.35).
Here the beauty of the lonely lake is amalgamated with its objects and their colours. There is a lake which we guess is blue, ‘black rock’ and ‘tall pines’ and these pines are obviously green. This beautiful image of the lone lake is intensified through the sign ‘wild’ that also needs a particular focus and interpretation. Eco’s Model Q (1976)best represents the various interpretants which the sign ‘ wild’ evokes.
The Model Q relies on the relation between the sign and its interpretant, Eco (2014) states that it can be a relation of synonymy, or a relation of inference. For the interpretant is the idea that the sign evokes in the mind of the addressee which itself is a sign which evokes another interpretant which again will evoke another sign in an infinite way. As the interpretant can be a linguistic sign or anything else. Therefore, this kind of encyclopedic knowledge is best represented through Model Q which is structured in the form of interconnected nodes (Eco, 1976). In the light of this, the sign ‘wild’ can be interpreted as follows :
Uninhabited nature human
Untouched animals plants behaviour
Savage pure fearful
The MQ of the Sign ‘Wild’.
These various connotations of ‘wild’ that are evoked in this tree: uninhabited, savage, untouched, pure, fearful …evoke mystery that adds to the charm of the lake.
what attracted my attention in Eco’s interpretive approach is his concern with both the textual strategies without neglecting the context in order to approximate an adequate interpretation.
The literary experience is beforehand an aesthetic experience. Its interpretation is an everlasting universe. Hence, two worlds meet, i.e, the author’s and the reader’s at the platform of the text. In this paper, we have discussed some important issues: Modes of existence of a literary work, literary criticism as a second creation and finally, the possibility of having limits to this second creation. Through this paper we would like to convey the idea that the balance between the author consideration and readers’ contextual contribution is preferable for a comprehensive reading of the literary text.
–Capozzi, R.(1999). Interpretation and Overinterpretation : the Tights of Texts, Readers and Implied Authors, in : Thomas.A. Sebeok (edi).Reading Eco.An anthology.Advances in semiotics.Indian University Press.
-Michael Caesar (1999). UMBERTO ECO. Philosophy, Semiotics and the Work of Fiction. Polity Press in association with Blackwell Publishers Ltd.
-René Welleck and Austin Warren (1949). Theory of Literature. Penguin Books.
-Umberto Eco(1976). A Theory of semiotics.USA.Indiana University Press.
-Umberto Eco (1994). The Limits of Interpretation. Advances in Semiotics. India University Press.
– Umberto Eco (2014). From the tree to the labyrinth. Historical studies on the sign and interpretation. Translatd by Anthony Oldcorn. Harvard: Harvard University Press.
Articles in Websites
–Sonali Jain (2021). Why do we still Read Shakespeare Today. Accessed in:
https:bookwritten.com/p=5328. Last updated: October, 3rd. 2022. Visited: 2022.
-Zerin Alam (2010). Reading Shakespeare in the context of His Own Time. Accessed in: core.acuk/download/pdf/61807776.pdf. Visited in: 2022.
-The Death of the Author (2022). Qccessed in:
-8 Reasons Why Edgar Allan Poe is Still an Important Figure. Accessed in:
Literarywonders.com. Last updated: Feb 14th, 2022. Visited: 2022.
References in Arabic
-فانسان جوف ( 2004). الأدب عند رولان بارث. ترجمة. عبد الرحمان بو علي. دار الحوار.
-محمود خليف خضير الحياني (2019). النظريات النقدية الحديثة. مناهج ما بعد الحداثة. عالم الكتب الحديث للنشر و التوزيع. الأردن.
– عبد الكريم شرفي ( 2007). من فلسفات القراءة إلى نظريات التأويل. دار العربية للعلوم. لبنان. منشورات الإختلاف. الجزائر.