Did the Author Really Mean That?

Today in my Dickens class, though in a roundabout way, the question was asked.

Did Dickens intentionally use all of the rhetorical devices that we analyze throughout his writing? (The actual question was how long it took Dickens to write his books, assuming that the more time he spent the more likely it was that his subtext was intentional.) This is a question I’ve heard in classes throughout my education—Did the author really mean that? Is it really possible that the author consciously layered in so much meta-textual meaning, or are we looking too hard? The paradox that jumps out at me most is the fact that a person can spend more time analyzing a sentence than the time it took to write the sentence—how do we reckon that?

Well, this is the question I’m going to answer. I’ll answer it from my personal experience as a writer and a reader, and from what I’ve heard from other writers. I don’t pretend to know what was going through Dickens’s head when he wrote A Tale of Two Cities, but I can make an educated guess.

The answer isn’t as simple as yes or no. Was that intentional? Well, is each step of a walk intentional? At times, yes. If you see a big puddle, you’ll intentionally take a bigger step, or a few steps around it. Most of the time, while you are in total control of your feet, you don’t have to actually think about the steps. Even walking up stairs will become subconscious if you’re used to the incline of the staircase. This is how writing is. Sometimes, word choice is intentional, like if the scene is crucially important, or perhaps when it’s the first time writing a new character’s voice. But I’ve been writing long enough now that I subconsciously (although I’m still vaguely aware of it, as you are vaguely aware of the steps you take) switch to phonetically harsher, uglier words when I’m describing a character that’s particularly gruff. It’s intentional, but not thought out. If it were thought out, the writing would take forever, just as a walk would take forever if you had to consciously control each blink, breath, and footstep the entire time.

There’s another factor that plays into the paradox of time writing versus time analyzing, which is that complexity breeds complexity. A Tale of Two Cities (this is the book we’re reading right now, which is why I’m referencing it) is bursting with different themes, all of them overlapping one another. So at any given sentence, Dickens has among dozens of different connections he can make, from a character to a theme, from a setting to a conceit, from one plot line to another. This is particularly true in writing novels, and I think I’d side with the student sick of over-analysis on this issue. While the writer may, let’s say psuedo-intentionally, describe a character in a way reminiscent of an earlier character’s description, rooting out all of these connections isn’t necessarily going to help understand core thematic messages of the book. At a certain point, the book becomes a minefield of significance, and each sentence is going to trigger at least two or three cognitive claymores. Intentional or no, these explosions aren’t all that important. Usually authors flag the really important stuff, so you know what the real thrust of their story is. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” could just be those two clauses, and could be buried as an aside in the fourth chapter of the second book. Instead, it is flagged by it’s placement as the opening sentence of the book, by it’s massive parallelism and length (excessive even for Dickens), and by the title of the chapter, “The Period,” which is what the first sentence is describing.

All that said, sometimes the author didn’t really mean that. Like I said, novels become so full of meaning that authors can accidentally imply things without even psuedo-intending to. There are also things that only seem significant based on the reader’s background, not the author and the text itself (for example, it would be absurd to argue that Dickens was making an argument about marijuana use based on the quote “Edith standing there alone, and listening to its waves, has dank weed cast up at her feet, to strew her path in life withal,” from Dombey and Son. Although I did have good, long laugh when I read that.) It may be interesting to see how a book changes based on the lens through which it is viewed, but believing the author to be actually commenting on something far removed from their frame of reference is counter-productive.

And there are times when an author does something that seems strange, or wrong, and this is taken to be significant. In these cases, it can be hard to decide if the author had some grand purpose or not. For example, in the first part of Don Quixote, three chapters are devoted to a novella, “The Ill-advised Curiosity” (or “El curioso impertinente”) that has no relation to the characters of the book except that they find it and read it. It’s an entertaining enough story, and it’s another fold in the reality vs. fiction theme being developed, but why spend so much time on it? Why is the story so remote from that of the characters? As a writer, I instantly suspected that Cervantes had written the novella separate from Don Quixote, and not being able to publish it or not thinking it good enough on its own, had decided to use it as part of the book. While I’ve never repurposed an entire story, I have done this with characters, jokes, and pieces of world-building from unpublished stories, thus my suspicion. In Chapter 44 of Part II, in reference to the fictional writer of Don Quixote, Cide Hamete Benengeli, Cervantes writes, “He said, too, that to go on, mind, hand, pen always restricted to writing upon one single subject, and speaking through the mouths of a few characters, was intolerable drudgery, the result of which was never equal to the author’s labour, and that to avoid this he had in the First Part availed himself of the device of novels, like ‘The Ill-advised Curiosity,’ and ‘The Captive Captain,’ which stand, as it were, apart from the story; the others are given there being incidents which occurred to Don Quixote himself and could not be omitted.” This from the Ormsby translation.

So my theory wasn’t correct, but Cervantes seems to hint at his own, personal reason for writing the novella. While there is literary significance to the novella, trying to understand its purpose as if Cervantes was some literary monk devoted solely to the craft of writing is as absurd as believing that Cervantes was just throwing words on a page and making accidental meaning.

So, did the author really mean that? Maybe. It depends. Look for flags. Know that something can be intentional without being thought out. Remember that the author was a person, maybe with a deadline to meet, maybe with a censor to fool, maybe tired of writing the same two characters for thirty chapters.

And if it makes the book more interesting, more impactful, or more fun to believe that something was intentional and purposeful, then go ahead and believe that the author really did mean that.

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