Friday, June 06, 2008

When is a Pearl Necklace not just a Pearl Necklace?


When a literary critic thinks about its symbolism, of course.

Sarah's over at Romancing the Blog, giving some details about the classes she recently taught as part of the North Carolina State University Encore! program. She spent some time analysing the symbolism of a scene in one romance, only to be told later, by the author of the novel, that no such symbolism had been intended.

Sarah observes that
Literary critics talk about the Intentional Fallacy. Wikipedia helpfully tells us that “W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley in their essay ‘The Intentional Fallacy’ (1946 rev. 1954)” wrote that “the design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art.” Academics often ask where the meaning of a text resides: is it in the text itself, is it solely in the reader, or is it in the mingling of the two, the combination between how the reader, with her unique personal experiences, reads a text with its unique references and descriptions. If Claudia didn’t “mean” to construct a particular symbolic structure, does that make it any less valid when the reader’s experience is improved by believing that those symbolic structures are there? If the reader finds symbolism in a text, doesn’t that mean that it’s there, whether or not the author intended for it to be there?
I'm one of those who believes that "the meaning of a text resides [...] in the text itself." I believe (and yes, writing about belief in the context of textual analysis is making me feel like I belong to a branch of literary critics who resemble the Protestant Reformers in advocating a return "ad fontes") that the words of the text are the main source of evidence when a reader is trying to understand what that text means. So if, for example, a pearl necklace is mentioned, and all we are told in the text itself is that the heroine likes pearl necklaces, it's going to be more difficult to sustain an argument that the necklace has a particular symbolism. However it would make the critic's argument more convincing if she could show that the perceived symbolism helps to illuminate a particular theme in the work, or the characterisation.

That's one of the main reasons I prefer prose to poetry, by the way. There tends to be a much greater volume of words in a novel, which makes it easier to find larger quantities of evidence against which one can test one's hypothesis.

One may also place the text in its cultural and historical context in order to assess whether or not a particular interpretation is convincing. If a particular symbolism is extremely well known, it's more likely to have influenced the author e.g. if the author writes a scene in which a young woman is offered an apple by a snake, it would seem very likely that the scene alludes to the story of Eve in the Garden of Eden. Some cases are much less clear, and in yet others it may in fact be obvious that the symbolism or allusion could not possibly have been intended by the author. To give an extreme example, if a literary critic wants to believe that a medieval poet was thinking about Buffy the Vampire Slayer as he wrote a particular poem, that's the critic's prerogative, but it's not going to convince me and I'm not going to believe that the poem really contains symbolism which alludes to Buffy.

Thirdly, one can ask the author what she intended, or read what the author has written about her own work. This might be helpful in terms of proving that the author has, indeed, watched a few episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but it's not so helpful in ruling out possible influences. Most authors seem to describe their process of writing as one which, particularly in a first draft, can be a bit mysterious (hence the talk about Muses and the subconscious). Regardless of what the author was consciously intending, she may have been influenced by her cultural context, the reading she's done in the past, the traditions of the genre in which she writes, etc.

Ultimately, I suppose, whether any of this matters depends on what we're trying to do when we analyse texts. Are we assuming that a text will be basically coherent (though it may include some elements which run counter to certain other elements) and there is one correct way to interpret it? If so, then it's not surprising we'd talk about "evidence." We're thinking of the critic as the literary equivalent of a detective, building up a case by organising the clues in order to find the pattern which makes sense of them and, finally, presenting them to the judge (the peer review process). As Sarah's observed, one may or may not believe that's the purpose of literary criticism or of reading.

If one believes that the process of reading is most valuable because of what it can do for the reader, and how it can illuminate the reader's life, or if one believes that "the meaning of a text resides [...] solely in the reader" then talk of evidence and authorial intention may become completely irrelevant.

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The photo is of Margherita of Savoy, Queen of Italy, from Wikipedia. According to a website which has photos of her wearing many of her pearl necklaces
Queen Margherita’s passion for pearls became legendary and she would rarely be seen without some pearls of her enormous and most exquisite collection. One of her necklaces, with 280 pearls, came from Queen Maria Adelheid of Sardinia, born Archduchess of Austria, the late wife of her father-in-law, King Vittorio Emanuele II. It had been bought in Prague by Maria Adelheid’s brother, Archduke Leopold. Another and even more impressive necklace was actually formed by several necklaces given in four years by her husband, King Umberto, and was formed by 684 pearls!
Pizza Margherita is named after her:
In 1889, Rafaele Esposito of the Pizzeria di Pietro e Basta Cosi (now called Pizzeria Brandi) baked pizza especially for the visit of King Umberto I and Queen Margherita. To make the pizza a little more patriotic-looking, Esposito used red tomato sauce, white mozzarella cheese and green basil leaves as toppings.
So now I know the symbolism that's present in a Pizza Margherita!

15 comments:

  1. Victoria Janssen06 June, 2008 17:12

    Rambling a bit:

    So, when my heroine is wearing a jeweled collar-like necklace, and I intended that to thematically reinforce the idea that she's a prisoner (of her political role, of being female, of her husband)...I guess it doesn't really matter if the reader has some other interpretation. She comes to the text with her own associations and connotations and interpretations.

    Once I've sent the book out into the world, it isn't mine any longer, and is open to that. The text has become static as far as I'm concerned.

    So what happens when, say, a famous author's early Regencies are republished, and she edits them before that second publication? Surely the changes she made, as author, are indicative of something interesting.

    Hmm, I wonder if I can get a copy of Mary Jo Putney's THE RAKE & THE REFORMER?

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  2. Victoria, there's an entire field of academic pursuit called bibliographic criticism, in which academics debate about how best to present texts in book format. They have lovely little fits about texts in which authors changed things for republication--which form is "better," more "intended," more "scholarly"? If the author changed because he was bowing to societal pressure (like GBS's change to the end of Pygmalion, for example), then isn't the author's "true" intention the first version? It's fun watching them debate it all. Don't get them started about Shakespeare, or Emily Dickinson's punctuation! Or, God help us, James Joyce.

    Laura, you say: "a pearl necklace is mentioned, and all we are told in the text itself is that the heroine likes pearl necklaces, it's going to be more difficult to sustain an argument that the necklace has a particular symbolism." But surely an author who MEANS the symbolism one can find in a pearl necklace isn't going to want to beat the reader over the head with it. Or maybe I'm not reading you correctly. If the girl is innocent and virginal and pure, then surely the pearls could represent that, even if all we're told is that she likes them? Or do you mean in a text in which we're NOT told anything about the person wearing the pearls except that they're her favorite?

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  3. I guess it doesn't really matter if the reader has some other interpretation. She comes to the text with her own associations and connotations and interpretations.

    I've heard about a small number of authors who get really irate with readers who don't reach the "right" conclusions after reading a book.

    Many other authors might include symbolism as an extra layer for readers to enjoy if they want to/if they spot it, but regardless of whether or not any readers found it, and regardless of how particular readers chose to interpret the novel, those authors would be happy as long as the book was being bought and read and, hopefully, enjoyed at any level(s).

    surely an author who MEANS the symbolism one can find in a pearl necklace isn't going to want to beat the reader over the head with it.

    It depends how you define "beat the reader over the head," doesn't it? It seems that in this particular instance repeated mention was made of the virgin heroine's wish to be given this sort of necklace. That level of emphasis on the object could be read as a way of drawing attention to it (with the implication being that it did have some underlying meaning beyond simply being a pearl necklace). In another context an item (e.g. an apple) might only need to be mentioned once, but because there's a strong general awareness in society of its symbolism, its mere presence might be enough to alert a reader to the presence of symbolism.

    Or maybe I'm not reading you correctly. If the girl is innocent and virginal and pure, then surely the pearls could represent that, even if all we're told is that she likes them?

    As I said, the more often something is mentioned, or the more the author "beats the reader over the head" with its symbolism, or the more cultural currency that symbolism has, the easier it will be to prove that the symbolism is present. It may well be present even if you can't prove it "beyond reasonable doubt," just as someone may be guilty but be found innocent in court because there isn't enough evidence to demonstrate guilt. I'm just thinking about how you gather clues and how many/what type of clues you'd need in order to be able to convince the judge.

    Another thing that occurs to me is that this is a historical romance, and some symbolism might be the result of historical accuracy, not authorial intention. For example, debutantes wore white. So a modern author might well mention that her debutante heroine is wearing white merely because she knows that's what debutantes wore, not because the author particularly wants to put emphasis on the symbolism of the white dress.

    It seems that something like that may have happened with the example you picked up on. The pearls were perhaps present in the picture the author used for inspiration because young women tended to wear pearls, and perhaps they tended to wear pearls because pearls were associated with innocence. That could be a sort of residual symbolism.

    Of course the pearls might also symbolise purity within the modern text, but you might have to find extra evidence to be able to prove whether or not the symbolism was merely a consequence of the author's historically accurate research or whether within the text itself the pearls served this symbolic function.

    Still, regardless of how the symbolism got there, I think that if, as I said in my post, it "illuminate a particular theme in the work, or the characterisation" then that may well be sufficient evidence to convince others that the symbolism is there and that this is a useful way of interpreting the text.

    But actually, when I gave the examples of the pearls, I was wondering how one would go about proving the sexual symbolism you identified. I would tend to think that Queen Margherita, for example, wouldn't have attached that symbolism to pearl necklaces, and neither would Regency debutantes. Of course a modern author might well think of that meaning when describing those characters' pearl necklaces, but you'd probably need quite a bit of textual evidence in order to be able to prove it.

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  4. Queen Margherita's passion may have been inspired by the fact that her name MEANS "pearl." For a variety of examples of pearl symbolism, see the medieval poem THE PEARL, by the anonymous poet known as the Pearl Poet or the Gawain Poet, depending on whether one is discussing THE PEARL or SIR GAWAIN AND THE GREEN KNIGHT.

    Incidentally, a pearl necklace was a common gift to a bride from her parents (or possibly her betrothed), so that might have been the intended symbolism.

    As I once remarked about symbol-hunting in Tolkien gone mad, if a character is supposed to be a Christ symbol, is it too much to ask that he redeem something?

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  5. It seems that we have to ask the question, why are we interested in symbolism? I'm interested in a literary analysis for two reasons (I think): 1) To make my reading experience of a novel fuller, richer and 2) to explain why and how a novel generates a certain experience.

    To take Laura's example, if someone finds lots of items in a medieval romance which seem to refer to Buffy Season 3, then we can call that symbolism of a sort. It even might make the novel more enjoyable for some, covering my criteria number 1. However, it's not clear that it helps me understand how the book creates an experience in me or in its original readers. It's sort of like taking a recording of the Moonlight Sonata and pointing out some funny recording artifact that makes me say, "ooh, cool!" My "ooh cool" is an experience, but it's not obvious that I learned much new about the Moonlight Sonata itself.

    Actually, if one of the purposes of literary criticism is to explain why a reader has a certain literary experience, then the reader's conscious or unconscious understanding of symbolism would appear to take precedence over any authorial intention.

    Hmmm. so I guess I'm proposing two sides of a coin. On one side, we want to know how the work itself functions, how it's potential to create an experience in a reader is built. On the other side, we wish to look more at the psychology of the reader and understand how they take that work and create the reading experience.

    I like that last paragraph. Strike the stuff before it.

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  6. Queen Margherita's passion may have been inspired by the fact that her name MEANS "pearl."

    I had a quick look at Wikipedia, which says that "The name derives from the Greek Margarita, a pearl" and I'm sure you're both right, but the name still makes me think of daisies. In Spanish margarita means "daisy" (though my dictionary also gives pearl as a subsidiary meaning) and in Italian I think margherita has this meaning too.

    Which is undoubtedly an example of how different readers might perceive different meaning/symbolism in the same thing.

    On one side, we want to know how the work itself functions, how it's potential to create an experience in a reader is built. On the other side, we wish to look more at the psychology of the reader and understand how they take that work and create the reading experience.

    I think I'm not really interested in either of these things. It's probably because I think of the text almost as an artefact, which must be deciphered/understood. So my focus is on trying to understand it as an object, not in relation to readers. I'm also interested in what the artefact can tell us about the social/cultural context in which it was created. Obviously readers would be part of that context, but I'm far more interested in the author (because the socially prevalent ideas/attitudes have been filtered through and/or critiqued by the author) than in readers. It seems that I have something of a cultural historian's attitude towards literary criticism.

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  7. And having just said that I'm mostly interested in the books, only slightly interested in their authors, and hardly interested in the readers, I came across an item on the Smart Bitches site about how ebooks might change the economics of publishing:

    Books as promotional materials for other activities? I’m confused. I’m still rather startled at the degree to which authors are asked to make themselves in to celebrity representatives for the sales of their own books, and that they allow greater access to themselves for the sake of a voracious readership that wants more, more, more between the issue of each new book.

    [...] whether I’m reading an ebook, or a print book, I’m still after the book, not the promotional reading. I’m a solitary person by nature; I don’t have any desire to sit in a room with other people to listen to my reading. I want to read by myself in the quiet. I’m not after the author and I’m not after the experience of reading-as-interaction. I just want the reading of the book, in any form.

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  8. Virginia DeMarce07 June, 2008 15:05

    Although not wishing to be prosaic, there were numerous marriage alliances from the 16th and 17th centuries onward between the ducal house of Bavaria, Savoy, and the Austrian Habsburgs.

    Bavaria produced freshwater pearls. There was a legal requirement that the jewelry a duke of Bavaria presented to his bride must consist of Bavarian freshwater pearls (just as the counts of Schwarzburg-Rudolstadt had to give their brides jewelry made from gold that was panned out of the Schwarza River within their jurisdiction).

    This means that these families had accumulated a lot of pearls as time went on, and weren't inclined to let them go to waste.

    Virginia

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  9. From the Online Etymological Dictionary:

    Margaret
    fem. proper name (c.1300), from O.Fr. Margaret (Fr. Marguerite), from L.L. Margarita, fem. name, lit. "pearl," from Gk. margarites (lithos) "pearl," of unknown origin, probably from an oriental language, cf. Skt. manjari "cluster of flowers," also said by Indian linguists to mean "pearl," cognate with manju "beautiful." Arabic marjan probably is from Gk., via Syraic marganitha. The word was widely perverted in Gmc. by folk-etymology.

    Phrase pearls before swine is from Matt. vii.6; an early Eng. formation of it was:
    "Ne ge ne wurpen eowre meregrotu toforan eo wrum swynon." [c.1000]

    Which is a misreading of L. marguerite "daisy" as margarite "pearl."

    The latter indicates how the conflation came about. You may recall that in LITTLE MEN, Meg's daughter, who was named for her, is called "Daisy."

    WV -- szvanaw; Inuit word meaning "hunting literary symbols with a harpoon"

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  10. There was a legal requirement that the jewelry a duke of Bavaria presented to his bride must consist of Bavarian freshwater pearls (just as the counts of Schwarzburg-Rudolstadt had to give their brides jewelry made from gold that was panned out of the Schwarza River within their jurisdiction).

    So in that case do the pearls (or gold) have a symbolism that's related to their source? It would seem as though there could be some symbolism about the bride being welcomed by the country by being given its most precious product and/or by association with the pearls (or gold) she's to be considered one of the treasures of her new country.

    Inuit word meaning "hunting literary symbols with a harpoon"

    I hope I'm not quite that aggressive in my pursuit of symbolism, and I certainly wouldn't want to harm a book by hunting down and killing its imagery ;-)

    Thanks for the etymological information.

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  11. Virginia DeMarce08 June, 2008 17:58

    It was part of the ceremony in which a bride, at the border, entering her new country, was literally stripped of the clothing she was wearing and re-clothed in new, being the products of the territory of of her new husband. It was symbolic of a change of political allegiance.

    One of the most interesting descriptions is the delivery of Anne of Austria from Spain to become the bride of the future Louis XIII of France.

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  12. Surely the issue of the intention of the creator of a work (in words or in visual form) and the reception of it by readers/viewers and so on must have been widely debated? Surely it goes without saying that creation and reception are the obverse and reverse of the same coin? In the performing arts, the interpretation of the performer(s) forms an additional layer. Added to that, intellectual and emotional impulses, as well as the degree of technical competence of the creator, must be taken into account - inspiration and execution can be at very different levels.

    Interpretaion of symbolism must always be taken with a very large pinch of salt, and must take as much account of the critic's social context as that of the creator. Identifying symbolic elements is, no doubt, fun for literary critics, as it is for art historians, but it must never be regarded as certain, and it always tells us at least as much about the critic as the creator - and usually more.

    Any work of art, as someone has said above, becomes common property once it is published, displayed or performed. Unless an artist wants to create work in secret simply as personal therapy, he or she does so with the intention that the reception of the work will complete it, and the reader's/viewer's response is as essential to its meaning as the creator's work.

    Some symbolic interpretations deal with concepts that are so wide, so universal, that discussing them becomes meaningless. If a given material or natural creature - gold, for example, or any large, powerful male animal - has scores of symbolic meanings in virtually all human communities, both historic and prehistoric, one is on a hiding to nothing in going on about it.

    In archaeology, detailed typological series are our downfall: object-oriented archaeologists can have hours of fun refining and tweaking our typologies to a high state of complex perfection. But the moment we start to regard them as 'true', as reflections of the real lives of the people of the past whom we study, we are in trouble. They are no more than frameworks that are an aid to study, and they must always be regarded as imperfect and mutable, just like real life. The same is true of detailed studies of symbolism. Fun to do - but never, never fall into the trap of believing too deeply in it!

    ;-)

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  13. One of the most interesting descriptions is the delivery of Anne of Austria from Spain to become the bride of the future Louis XIII of France.

    Virginia, that was a rather tantalising statement on which to end your comment!

    Agtigress, I've been focusing on internal textual evidence because that's something which often makes it easier to substantiate any theory about symbolism in a particular work. I haven't done much work on iconography, but when I did I was particularly careful, not just because of my ignorance in the field, but also because my impression was that it required quite a different sort of approach than textual studies. For example, it's not uncommon for a written text to include statements in which the author explains the symbolism.

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  14. Virginia DeMarce09 June, 2008 00:52

    I didn't mean to be tantalizing. It's just one of the most extensive and detailed descriptions of the ceremony that I've come across.

    Similar actions had been in use for centuries, of course. There's the one way back in the 800s when one of Charlemagne's grandsons, still a child, was sent to become duke of the southern French territories. In that case, Louis the Pious and his courtiers brought the boy to the northern side of a bridge. The boy crossed the bridge by himself to be welcomed by the nobility of Languedoc and his new courtiers.

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  15. Laura, the "hunting symbols with a harpoon" referred to the mad symbol-hunters who kept trying to prove, for example, that LORD OF THE RINGS is an allegory, even though Tolkien himself not only explicitly denied it but even described what the plot would have been if it HAD been an allegory!

    WV: qtsyp---Inuit word meaning "This is SO not an allegory!"

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