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On the Challenges of Literary Interpretation

Recently, conversating about a paper I was preparing for a conference with my professors. The paper dealt with an unorthodox interpretation of a very well-known canonical text, Beowulf, which is not the main topic of this post. Our conversation provided me with new insights into the nature of literary interpretation, reminding me that, any text is fundamentally ambiguous always allowing space for new interpretative possibilities. Since then, in fact, I engaged in a reflection on the challenges of Literary Interpretation. To begin, I realised that any act of literary interpretation is in a way an act of presentism. Presentism, in this sense, has to be understood as "[a] bias towards the present or present-day attitudes" (“Presentism, n.” 2022). It means that it represents the tendency to interpret past events in terms of modern values, concepts, and any sort of another category by attaching them to a text which are most likely to have been alien at the time this exact same text has been produced. Accordingly, any act of literary interpretation is in a way an act of creating a bridge between the present and the past. By looking at a text through a modern lens, we can gain new insights and understandings of the ideas, values, and beliefs of the time informing the text was written and the way in which these elements may have shaped it.

Another important aspect of this discourse is also about the implications of the interpretation that results from such a process of critical reflection. Interpretations may, in fact, differ from each other but this cannot exhaust the possibilities for new interpretations to emerge. The only thing is that their differences cannot be reduced. If two critical positions differ one from the other, their oppositionality will always survive despite all without creating the conditions for which one interpretation must be in a relation of mutual exclusivity.

Despite being radically opposed, two interpretations will always occupy a microscopic space in the light of the vastness of interpretative possibilities without being definitive. And yet, I believe this is the reason why interpretations can exist or coexist in a seemingly paradoxical way. By acknowledging the space between them, we can appreciate the complexity of the matter and recognize that there is no single, absolute truth when it comes to interpreting a certain text. Instead, we can understand that each interpretation is a valid point of view, even if it stands in stark contrast to the other. Thus, in order to fully understand the issue, we must be willing to recognize and consider both perspectives, even if we ultimately disagree.


"presentism, n.". OED Online. December 2022. Oxford University Press. (accessed January 29, 2023)

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