West Chester University

Fall 2001

Spring 2002

West Chester University

Fall 2002





Course Information
  Lit 165 Syllabus
  About the Instructor

Notes for Introduction to Literature
  Approaching Literature
  Your Response and Mine
  Critical Approaches to Literature
  Fundamental Questions about Literature
  Four Short Stories (Considerations)
  Genesis of the Short Story
  Responding to 'The Birthmark'
  Notes on Nathaniel Hawthorne
  Bartleby - A Guided Reading
  Bartleby - Questions for Analysis
  A Few Notes on Herman Melville
  A Vocabulary for Fiction and Beyond
  Notes on Innovative Fiction
  Five Writers Define the Short Story
  A Study Guide for the Fiction Exam
  Ars Poetica
  Poets Define the Art of Poetry
  Reading Poetry
  Supplemental Poems
  The Craft of Poetry - Imagery
  The Craft of Poetry - Sound
  The Forms of Poetry
  Revisiting Theme, Ambiguity, Irony, Symbol, and Parodox in Poetry
  Study Guide for the Poetry Exam
  The Birth of Drama
  Aristotle's Tragic Hero
  Stepping Through Oedipus the King
  The Relevance of Oedipus Today
  Oedipus the King -- Study Questions
  Ibsen's Theater / A Doll House
  A Study Guide for the Drama Exam
  Study Guide for the Final Exam

General Announcements


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  A Weblog for LIT 165
  Writing Assistance on the Web

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  LIT 165 Discussion List



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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