Interpreting Texts

to interpret: v. to explain the meaning of; to expound the significance of; to represent or render the meaning of.

The term interpretative essay covers a wide range of argumentative assignments that may also be called critical, analytical, or simply argumentative. For discussion purposes, this section will focus on writing aimed at interpreting texts of one kind or another.

Interpretative essays argue that a story, poem, essay, or other created work means one thing rather than another. At the same time, writers who interpret understand that other interpretations or meanings can be found by other readers of the same material. Certain areas of study such as literature, philosophy, and religion seem to lend themselves more obviously to interpretive writing than others, such as mathematics, chemistry, and physics. This seems so in part because literary, philosophical, and religious questions seldom have agreed-upon answers, while the more scientific disciplines do. But at the frontiers of every scientific discipline, things are still up for grabs—that is, open to interpretation. And as soon as one asks social or political questions of scientific knowledge, one is again involved in matters of interpretation.

Interpretation implies that there may be more than one explanation with merit; your job is to point out why a particular meaning is the best possible or the most probable. As I suggested at the beginning of this section, interpretation is especially important in so-called humanistic disciplines such as history, literature, philosophy, where almost all concepts are a matter of one interpretation versus another: What was the chief historical cause of the war in Vietnam? Was it ideologic, economic, or geographic? Kant believed one thing, Hegel another: With which philosophy do you most agree? What did poet Robert Frost mean in the poem "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening"? These questions should be regarded as matters of interpretation rather than as having right or wrong answers.

Don't think, however, that interpretation applies only to the arts and humanities. When political scientists conduct an opinion survey, different political scientists will interpret the results to mean different things. When the economic indicators point to inflation or recession, liberal economists will explain things one way, conservative economists another—all a matter of interpretation. Some biologists believe dinosaurs became extinct because the climate changed gradually, others because it changed rapidly when a large meteor collided with the earth; physicists differ in their explanations of the origin of the universe as chemists still argue about proper definitions of the atom—still more matters of interpretation. In each of these examples, experts make a guess (called a hypothesis) that such or such is the case, but cannot prove, beyond a doubt, that they are correct.

In the following example, Mary interprets the meaning of a painting, Inner Energies, by artist Tracy Leavitt, in this way:

The artist is trying to point out that technology is running away from us.

Jason, however, interprets the same painting this way:

Thus this portrait is the expression of the woman's drive to identify with man's accomplishments.

While Ron suggests:

With this idea Leavitt suggests that we are not following

God as we should be.

In other words, interpreting a work, an event, an idea may lead different writers to different conclusions. Just be sure that your interpretive statement is supported by data, analysis, and/or expert opinion. The best interpretations are those that convince others to believe you.

Another kind of more personal—and more general—interpretation occurs at the end of Steve's critique of Robert Frost's poem, "The Road Not Taken," when he sums up the poem's meaning as a lesson in life:

There comes a time in life when people have to make a decision, and people often wonder what it would be like had they made the other choice. That is what "The Road Not Taken" is about. If you take life too seriously, you are going to miss it. You have to take it one step at a time. If something does not go your way, you must learn not to dwell on it.

In this instance, Steve says the poem means this to "you" Yet I actually see his statement as a very personal one. (Were he to work further on this interpretation, I'd suggest he change the pronouns from "you" to "I" and

The most common interpretive acts in college may center around poetry and fiction. In most cases, your teacher will want you to be more precise, to stick closer to the text than Steve has above. An especially important part of interpreting is demonstrating where you got this or that idea, which often means bringing into your text a passage from the text you are interpreting. In the following example, Katherine quotes a line from the poem "Elegy for Jane," by Theodore Roethke:

The poet leans over her grave and speaks his last words to her, "I with no rights in this matter/Neither father nor lover." He can do nothing now, and feels remorse that he never expressed to her his love. Love, Roethke seems to argue, must be shared when it happens or it will be lost forever.

Here, of course, we see just how much an act of interpretation depends on careful analysis in the first place.

Look at a final example of interpretive writing as William investigates the meaning in Charlotte Perkins Gillman's short story "The Yellow Wallpaper" :

We begin to question [the narrator's] emotional state when she envisions the wallpaper lady creeping, by daylight, through the estate grounds. At night, the narrator struggles to set her imaginary friend free. At the climax of the narrator's breakdown, she falls to the level of a child's mentality. We cannot help but pity her when she begins to gnaw at the wooden bedframe out of frustration. She becomes a child in her own world—at last, secure. The story ends with her claiming, "Here I can creep smoothly on the floor, and my shoulder just fits in that long smooch around the wall, so I cannot lose my way."

John was ludicrous in claiming that his wife was suffering from only "temporary depression." She was a full-time mother, wife, and writer. She was also a victim of a fulltime mental illness which required attention if ever to escape from it. Since the woman never received the necessary help, she eventually disintegrated to the level of a child.

In this example we see the documentation of the problem in the first paragraph, then the writer's conclusion, based on it, in the essay's last paragraph. This is a good job of interpretation.

When you write interpretively, keep in mind that your interpretation is one of several that may have merit: you must support assertions with evidence—direct quotations are especially useful for interpreting the meaning of texts; you must separate fact from opinion; qualifying words (perhaps, maybe, might) show that you are still open to other possibilities; and you must define, explain, analyze, and evaluate carefully as you work out your interpretation.

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