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Reading Analytically

10.2.3 Authorial Intent

Something to think about

In a groundbreaking 1967 essay, Roland Barthes declared that “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author.”3 In the fifty years since its publication, “The Death of the Author” has greatly influenced the way students, teachers, and academics conduct analysis. Most critics have come to acknowledge that the personal and historical context of the author is entirely irrelevant, as Barthes might seem to suggest we must free ourselves from the trap authorial intent. This is to say, what we have to work with is the text itself, so it doesn’t matter what the author wanted to say, but instead what they did say. Therefore, we should work from the assumption that every choice the author made was deliberate. As a result, their words may provide insight into their beliefs, frustrations, background on the subject, and their education on the subject. These elements are essentially and entirely important reading their word and reaching an understanding of what the author stood to gain or lose in publishing their work.

Moreover, this choice to avoid speculation about the author’s intent or personality is consistent with the theories of textual analysis explored in this chapter’s introduction. Because meaning is always and only constructed through interpretation, we should let go of the idea that the author (or the “secret meanings” the author wrote into a text) is hidden somewhere beneath the surface. There is nothing “hidden” behind the text or in between the lines: there is only the text and those who interpret it.

This idea might seem to contradict one of the central frameworks of this textbook: that unpacking the rhetorical situation is crucial to critically consuming and producing rhetoric. Overlooking authorial intent does not mean that the author’s rhetorical situation is no longer important. Instead, we should simply avoid unproductive speculation: we can consider the author’s occasion, but we shouldn’t try to guess about their motives. For instance, one might argue that Kate Chopin wrote The Awakening because she herself toiled through the mundane society life of New Orleans at the turn of the century and she intended to “pull the curtain” on the oppressive life she led. However, in biographical and historical research, there is no evidence that this was the case. So, what was her intent? That is unknown. What is known is that she chose her subject matter carefully, wrote compelling characters, and provided themes that reflected a unique worldview just like any other excellent writer. Moreover, how can we entirely know what her intent was without discussing the novel with her?

The choice to focus on what the author actually wrote, assuming that each word is intentionally chosen, is part of the rhetorical situation of analysis. Your audience might also be curious about the author’s intent, but your rhetorical purpose in this situation is to demonstrate an interpretation of the text rather than the author.


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Expression and Inquiry by Christopher Manning; Sally Pierce; and Melissa Lucken is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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