Dan Green has written an interesting response to my post from a couple days ago on the value of using an author’s biography to interpret his or her writing. Dan’s post has made me think a little more about my conclusions and has made me want to defend the use of biography in interpretation more than I originally did.
Perhaps I’ll contradict myself; that would be okay with me, as I felt uncertain about my conclusions in the first place … my first post was exploratory and not meant to be definitive.
So, Dan argues that:
using biographical information, about the author or about others on whom she may have drawn in creating characters, to “interpret” a work of fiction is the opposite of interpretation. Inevitably it reduces the work to “what really happened” or to a disguised form of memoir.
In my view, using biography to interpret fiction can be the opposite of interpretation, but it doesn’t inevitably reduce the work to a “disguised form of memoir.” It depends on how the critic uses the information.
What was irritating me as I read the Woolf biography was the notion that people might use biography in exactly the way Dan describes — as the key to a book, as a source of definitive answers, as a way of dismissing other forms of meaning.
But I also think it’s possible to use biographical information in criticism in ways that aren’t simplistic or reductionist. As I’m reading Frankenstein, for example, I’ve thought about how Victor Frankenstein might be modeled on Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley’s husband. The introductory essay to my edition considers this possibility, pointing out correspondences between the two, for example, the drive both of them share to change the world and the obsession they both have with science. What this identification of Frankenstein with Percy Shelley allows a reader to see is that the novel may be critiquing not only the kind of ambition Frankenstein exhibits, but the version of Romanticism and particularly the adoration of the Romantic hero valorized by Percy Shelley. The novel then becomes, in part, a way of rewriting Romanticism itself.
Can you see the larger point about Romanticism without knowing a thing about Percy Shelley? Probably, although you would need to know something about the literary context within which Mary Shelley was writing. The biographical information, however, adds a sharpness and focus to the argument that wouldn’t otherwise be there.
Ultimately, I think context is useful in interpreting literature — it can help you understand what is happening in the text itself — and biography is one form of that context. Biography shouldn’t be used to close down other possible interpretations, but it doesn’t necessarily do so, any more than other ways of reading do.