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.
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!