Interpretive Decisions and Intention

-Rachel

Hi guys! In order to help you understand some of Fish’s ideas a bit more and allow you to apply his ideas to Nineteen Eighty-Four, it is important to unpick some of the key terms that Fish uses. This post aims to discuss ideas of the intention of the reader and simply the term ‘interpretive decisions’.

Stanley Fish describes ‘interpretive decisions’ as something that the reader makes prior to reading a text. The example that Fish gives in Interpreting the Varorium is Lycidas by Milton. He suggests that prior to reading the text, he has made ‘at least two interpretive decisions’, those being that ‘Lycidas is a pastoral’ and ‘that it was written by Milton’[1].  To simplify, ‘interpretive decisions’ are assumptions made by the reader about the text they are going to read before they engage with the text itself. So to look at Nineteen Eighty-Four, potential ‘interpretive decisions’ made by the reader could include: the text is written by George Orwell; it is an example of dystopian fiction; it is a political text. This list in not exhaustive but just a suggestion of ideas readers may have before reading the text for the first time.

What is important about ‘interpretive decisions’ is not what decisions are made, but how the act of making them shapes the reader’s experience of a given text. As Fish explains, ‘once these decisions have been made… I am immediately predisposed to perform certain acts’. He suggests that ‘to perform these acts… constitutes a set of interpretive strategies, which, when they are put into execution, become the large act of reading’[2]. To break this down, what Fish is saying is that when the reader has made ‘interpretive decisions’ or assumptions about the text, this will then influence how they interpret the text. By deciding certain things about a text before reading it, the reader will then look for these elements within the text. Through reading the text in this active way and employing a set of interpretive strategies predetermined by decisions made about the text, the reader ‘give texts their shape’[3].  To summarise: the reader makes ‘interpretive decisions’ about the text; these decisions lead the reader to look for certain elements in the text; the reader employs interpretive strategies to find these elements; this process leads to the reader writing the text as they shape their own version of it. Fish effectively explains that interpretations make the text ‘rather than, as it is assumed, arising from them’[4]. The text is being constantly written by the reader as they read it.

To apply these ideas to Nineteen Eighty-Four, Fish is implying that the text that Orwell wrote is not the same as that read by the reader as their interpretive decisions will shape their experience. The reader’s assumptions and expectations of the text will supersede any of Orwell’s authorial intentions.

Fish also details four points regarding interpretive decisions[5]:

  1. A reader can make different interpretive decisions and therefore read the same text differently.
  2. A reader can make the same interpretive decisions about two different texts, leading to the reader experiencing both texts in the same way.
  3. Two readers could read the same text with the same interpretive decisions and would therefore agree on how to write the text and share a similar experience of reading.
  4. Two readers could read the same text but with different interpretive strategies and would therefore disagree on how they would write the text. They would not share a similar experience of reading.

The main conclusion that Fish makes is that if two different texts are read differently it is because the reader has decided to, rather than because of differences in the form of the texts. He argues that different texts do not have to lead to different sequences of interpretive acts and that the writing of the text is completely down to the interpretive decisions made by the reader.

Consider these ideas when reading Nineteen Eighty-Four and think about how your interpretive decisions have shaped your experience of the text. Consider whether current global situations have impacted the decisions you have made about the text and how this has altered your interpretation of Orwell’s work. But most importantly, take Fish’s ideas as a way of saying that no interpretation is wrong simply for not aligning with the author’s intention. Allow your own decisions to shape Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Drink: Haig Club, on the rocks

Song: Illusions, Sundara Karma

[1] Stanley Fish, “Interpreting the Variorum”, in Literature in the Modern World: Critical Essays and Documents, ed. Dennis Walder, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), p.58

[2] Stanley Fish, “Interpreting the Variorum”, in Literature in the Modern World: Critical Essays and Documents, ed. Dennis Walder, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), p.58

[3] Stanley Fish, “Interpreting the Variorum”, in Literature in the Modern World: Critical Essays and Documents, ed. Dennis Walder, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), p.58

[4] Stanley Fish, “Interpreting the Variorum”, in Literature in the Modern World: Critical Essays and Documents, ed. Dennis Walder, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), p.58

[5] Stanley Fish, “Interpreting the Variorum”, in Literature in the Modern World: Critical Essays and Documents, ed. Dennis Walder, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), p.58-59