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Interpretation and Bridging Gaps

In: English and Literature

Submitted By summerjan
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Interpretation and Bridging Gaps In his approach to Reader-Response criticism, Wolfgang Iser stands between subjectivity and objectivity. For him, literary texts do not have one final meaning; nor are they open to as many meanings as there are readers. Iser’s two major books, The Implied Reader (1974) and The Act of Reading (1978), have continued to be sold and reprinted; he has also published an abundance of more recent articles. Iser distinguishes literary texts from non-literary ones and presents us with a phenomenology of reading that has significant implications for literary interpretation. He draws a distinction between literature and non-literature in the book titled: The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response and says: “Literary texts do not contain a referential meaning; if they did, they would not be literature.” Iser’s primary concern is the relationship between the text and its readers. According to Iser, the literary text has a ‘potential’, and ‘the structure of the text allows for different ways’ of fulfilling its ‘potential’. (qtd. The Act of Reading, 13) I believe that to achieve this effect, the literary text conceals as it reveals. The presence of holes or gaps in the text invites the reader to fill in the gaps, but the reader’s activity is guided and molded by that what is revealed. Iser’s blanks come with his points of suspended connectability between segments of the text. (qtd. The Act of Reading, 13) He focuses on the role of the reader, which is controlled by what the text reveals and productive wherever these blanks occur. In this way, reading is not totally subjective; nor is it totally objective. The literary text has relative indeterminacy which allows a spectrum of meaning actualizations. Stanley Fish, in a chapter of his book “Doing What Comes Naturally” that he entitles ‘Why No One’s Afraid of Iser,” considers his theory contradictory as Iser seems to shift the authority from the reader to the text and vice versa.(68-86) Fish describes the main contradiction in Iser’s theory as follows: It is at once spatial – in that it conceives of the text as an object with a particular shape (the shape of the ‘designated instructions’) – and temporal – in that the production of literary meaning is a process that the text only sets in motion; it is for the same reason a theory that can claim a measure of objectivity – its operations begins with something that is ‘given’ – and yet at the same time it requires the subjective contribution of the reader… It is therefore a theory that sets limits to interpretation… (qtd. Doing What Comes Naturally, 68-86)
What is taken as contradictory by Stanley Fish is the very concept of reader-text interaction. In his strong reaction to New Criticism, Fish polarizes the problem as an either-or situation. Iser, on the other hand, says: that “the meaning of the literary work remains related to what the printed text says, but it requires the creative imagination of the reader to put it all together”(qtd. The Act of Reading, 142) Which I agree with. I believe in order to understand the literary text, fill in the holes and bridge its gaps, we need to approach in several different ways and interpret it. We have to not only read the text closely but also read between the lines. Then I think all the gaps could be bridged, a little if not entirely. I tried to do that by creating my own interpretation and analysis for the poem “Metaphors” by Sylvia Plath. I have also asked other people for their own opinions and interpretations of the poem to understand it and its gaps better.
I'm a riddle in nine syllables,
An elephant, a ponderous house,
A melon strolling on two tendrils.
O red fruit, ivory, fine timbers!
This loaf's big with its yeasty rising.
Money's new-minted in this fat purse.
I'm a means, a stage, a cow in calf.
I've eaten a bag of green apples;
Boarded the train there's no getting off.
Sylvia Plath

I imagined the speaker in "Metaphors" holding up a mirror to herself; one that allows full-length representation and subsurface penetration. And I looked at her choice of words in the poem, in my mind I visualized the image in the mirror shifting from a woman into a riddle, an elephant, a house, a melon on two tendrils, a loaf rising in the oven, a purse, a stage, and a cow. And I asked myself, why the poet used those particular images? Does the speaker here really become a series of objects or creatures? Or are they only metaphors? I thought it made more sense that they are metaphors that reflect a pregnant woman. “I'm a riddle in nine syllables” I asked myself what the meaning of the number nine in the first line which is also repeatedly reflected in the number of lines in the poem and the number of syllables in each line. I wondered if it is reflecting the 9 months term of a normal pregnancy but I didn’t know for sure till I connected it to “An elephant, a ponderous house,-- A melon strolling on two tendrils.” I thought maybe the woman feels elephantine because of her increased weight and girth? Perhaps she feels she's as big as a house, now her body has become an object in which a separate being dwells. I pictured the melon on tendrils and I thought perhaps it means that her melon-shaped gravidity makes her legs seem by comparison like slender tendrils. I also asked myself: how is that image is similar to the previous line? I thought of the elephant and realized that it too has a body that is round and heavier than its legs. I guess it is no accident that the poem's title is a nine-letter word as well. “O red fruit, ivory, fine timbers!” I wondered what it the red fruit is reflecting. I assumed the red fruit to be the fetus, and the ivory (reminiscent of the earlier elephant) perhaps the child's skin or the child's bones? “This loaf's big with its yeasty rising-- Money's new-minted in this fat purse-- I'm a means, a stage, a cow in calf.” The yeasty rising loaf is the commonly referred to bun in the oven. Perhaps the slow baking or rising of the loaf is similar to the slow growth of the fetus? But it might also refer to the slow increase in size or weight. I thought of the fat purse as another metaphor for the woman's belly, stuffed with the precious cargo of newly minted and still uncirculated money. But how does the woman turns from a rising loaf, a fat purse and a cow into a stage? Perhaps the woman feels she has lost her own identity in becoming a means for reproduction or a stage on which a dramatic production is about to debut. “I've eaten a bag of green apples” I wondered how eating a bag of apples is relevant and I thought if I ate that many apples I would probably feel nauseous. The apples mentioned are green apples, and they are usually sour. Perhaps it is reflecting the occasional pains or illness a pregnant woman feels? The bag of green apples she ate might also refer to the pregnancy itself, and that it caused abdominal swelling demanding release. “Boarded the train there's no getting off.” I wondered what the train referred to. Is it the impregnation? Is it refereeing to her decision to get pregnant? Or is it referring to motherhood and the infant she is now taking care for? Perhaps the train is a metaphor for all that--a non-stop journey with a destination. Many of the people to whom I read the poem disagreed with my interpretation. I wondered why and the first reason I thought of is that some people look at the poem through a positive perspective and others through a negative one. Those who interpreted it through a negative point of view gave me the following remarks: * The speaker concentrates on the symptoms and things that happened to her during the pregnancy rather than on the fact that she was bringing another life into the world. She didn’t convey that she was fortunate to be involved in a miracle. Instead she focused on her misfortunes and afflictions due to the pregnancy. * The color green means misfortune and green apples must have been used to refer to her unborn child. Maybe all she means is that she is now pregnant with a baby that she knows nothing about and does not want. And an interpretation that I disagreed most with and found peculiar is: * "Boarded the train there's no getting off" refers to her committing suicide.
I disagreed with the previous statement because although I know the speaker in the poem is a woman, I have no way of knowing for sure that the poet was speaking about herself. When I did my research on Sylvia Plath, I found that she did indeed kill herself. According to a brief biography online: “Plath took her own life after she completely sealed the rooms between herself and her sleeping children with wet towels and cloths. Plath then placed her head in the oven while the gas was turned on. The next day an inquiry ruled that her death was a suicide.” (Sylvia Plath, Wikipedia) However despite this fact being true, there isn’t any evidence that the speaker in the poem is the poet herself. That remark was perhaps the readers attempt to bridge the gap between her, her world and the world of the author. I think another reason for the differences in interpretation is that some people apply a psychoanalytical interpretation according to how they relate to the poet and understand the emotions she is conveying through the text. Like in Letty’s Identification with Billie Holiday. “An individual can find a source of psychological strength in an emotional identification with another person, even if that other person is a relative stranger.”(4) People who said, Plath was depressed in the poem never met her, neither did I, but I assume they identified with emotions that they found in the poem. Perhaps trying to make sense out of the literary text is not meant to get us the perfect and only true interpretation, nor is it meant to fill in all the holes in the text. Perhaps the gaps can only be bridged partially and must remain there for the sake of it and meaning can never be exact and complete.

Works Cited: (1) Iser, Wolfgang. The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978), p13, p142 (2) Fish, Stanley. Doing What Comes Naturally (Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1989), p68-86 (3) Tyson, Lois. Learning for a Diverse World. (pg 47) (4)

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