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Course Information
  WRT 120 Syllabus
  Lit 165 Syllabus
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Notes for Effective Writing I
  Understanding the 'Rhetorical Situation'
  Writing Descriptively
  What Makes a Good Story?
  Building a Thesis
  Notes on 'Purpose'
  Strategies for Writing Introductions
  Strategies for Writing Conclusions
  Assignment #5: Argument
  Understanding Rational Argument

Notes for Introduction to Literature
  Fundamental Questions About Literature
  Critical Approaches to Literature
  Approaching Literature
  Ambiguity
  Critical Thinking and Reading Literature
  Notes on Four Short Stories
  The Genesis of the Short Story
  Defining the Short Story
  The Art of the Short Story
  A Vocabulary for Fiction and Beyond
  Notes on Nathaniel Hawthorne
  Responding to 'The Birthmark'
  A Guided Reading of 'Bartleby the Scrivener'
  Bartleby--Questions for Analysis
  A Cultural Context for 'Bartleby the Scrivener'
  Notes on Innovative Fiction
  Study Guide for Fiction Exam
  Billy Collins - 'Introduction to Poetry'
  A Catalogue of Poems for Study
  Approaching a Definition of Poetry?
  Reading Poetry
  The Craft of Poetry: Imagery
  Readings from 'The United States of Poetry'
  The Craft of Poetry: Sound
  The Craft of Poetry: Structure
  Lines of Continuity
  Study Guide for Poetry Exam
  The Birth of Drama
  On Tragic Character
  Stepping Through 'Oedipus the King'
  Analyzing 'Oedipus the King'
  The Relevance 'Oedipus'Today
  Study Guide for the Drama Exam

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~~ LITERARY AMBIGUITY ~~


Here's a classic example of perceptual "ambiguity."
Depending on your view, you might see an old woman or a young woman.
Which do you see first? Can you see the opposite?
Which "interpretation" of these ink marks is the "correct" one?

 

The Online Glossary for the Compact Bedford Introduction to Literature defines ambiguity in a literary context as follows: "[Ambiguity] allows for two or more simultaneous interpretations of a word, phrase, action, or situation, all of which can be supported by the context of a work. Deliberate ambiguity can contribute to the effectiveness and richness of a work.... However, unintentional ambiguity obscures meaning and can confuse readers."

Hopefully the terms Meyer uses above--"deliberate" and "unintentional"--aren't themselves a little misleading. Creative writers probably aren't "deliberately" ambiguous, unless you understand their deliberateness as a deliberate attempt to use words artistically, precisely; beauty and ambiguity end up being the byproducts of an artist's power with words. Just as a writer is not "deliberately ambiguous," only a weak piece of writing would be "unintentionally ambiguous." Meyer helps us understand here that literary ambiguity means more than "vague" or "imprecise," or "unclear"--but just the opposite--literary ambiguity suggests multiple meanings, all of them clear to the reader.

Nonfiction writers rarely strive for ambiguity; usually the aim in nonfiction is to make one's point unambiguous and unequivocal. Nonfiction writers hope that any two readers approaching their text would come away with the same understanding of it. On the contrary, imaginative literature is "richly ambiguous" in the sense that it supports differing "interpretations" (meanings). Two readers can experience the same work in different ways, pull different ideas, emotions, memories from it; they can pursue differing associative meanings. Some readers may even develop highly personal interpretations in the sense that no one else reading the same work would be likely to choose to interpret it quite the same way. Although the knee-jerk tendency in such a case might be to declare those interpretations "wrong," it's more enlightened (and way more interesting) to realize that no interpretation can be "wrong." We make meaning from a work of literature in highly personal, sometimes highly eccentric ways. And even these eccentric interpretations have a place; they're valuable at least to the person who makes them. I'd even claim that they're part of the deep enjoyment one gets from reading. What could be worse than someone telling you your feeling about a character is "wrong"? That would destroy your experience of the work, not add to it. Sometimes people agree, sometimes they don't. In my view, and in the view of reader response critics generally, there are no "wrong" interpretations, any more than it would be appropriate to say of the above picture that people who see the old woman are "wrong." Great literature is open to interpretation; it is "ambiguous."

Still, all interpretations are not completely created equal. Those highly eccentric ones may be valuable to you personally, but someone else might not benefit too much by them. It's fair to say that some interpretations are "strong" (convincing to others) and others are "weak" (not convincing to others). You can persuade others to agree with a stong interpretation, but you will probably find that you are the only one who gets much out of your weak one.

 

 

 

     

 


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