Nathan (vovat) wrote,

See You Later, Allegory

As I mentioned to rockinlibrarian a little while ago, one thing I like about fantasy is that it can deal with real-world issues without quite addressing them directly. I suppose there are occasions where this could be a cop-out, but in many cases it works quite well. Fantasy can, for instance, make comments on politics or religion without actually mentioning any specific people. This differs from allegory, in which everything stands for something else, and any criticisms or compliments offered really ARE to specific real-world people or things. While some stories are specifically written as allegories, it seems to be popular among literary interpreters to want to give allegorical meaning to others as well. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is a prime example. In 1964, Henry Littlefield came up with the idea that the book could be read as sort of an allegory on the 1896 presidential election and the battle between gold and silver standards. Even though Littlefield admitted that he didn't think L. Frank Baum actually intended this meaning, variations on the Parable on Populism theme appear quite frequently, often without even crediting Littlefield, and it's pretty common for people to think that's what the story is actually about. I guess that, in the world of supposedly scholarly literary interpretation, a popular turn-of-the-twentieth-century children's book isn't worth discussing in and of itself, but a popular turn-of-the-twentieth-century children's book that's secretly about politics (even though critics somehow missed this for upwards of sixty years) is worthwhile. I've seen more or less allegorical interpretations of other such books as well, but I notice that annotators like Martin Gardner and Michael Patrick Hearn tend to disregard them. In a way, allegorical interpretation is kind of lazy, because it simply requires a critic to come up with one overarching idea for the whole story, rather than examining its parts separately.

Also pretty much inevitable for any popular literary work is the Freudian interpretation, which is basically that everything is actually about parent issues and sex. (Yeah, I know there's actually more to it than that, but that's the common view on Freudian takes.) While this kind of interpretation definitely holds water in some cases (traditional fairy tales were big on having step-parents who want to kill or humiliate their new step-children, for instance), I have to say that it's probably a bit overextended (heh heh, I said "extended") in many situations. For instance, I can't quite buy the popular argument that beheading represents castration anxiety, if only because I think the idea of decapitation is scary enough without working crotches into it. (You know, if seemingly innocuous images in dreams and writing are symbolic of sex, does that mean dreams and writings that are flat-out about sex are actually symbolic of something else? I'm sure I'm not the first person to have asked this question.)

I guess I've never been too much of a fan of symbolic interpretation of literature. Sure, I'll look for themes and allusions, but I think the idea that everything is actually representative of something else ruins a lot of the fun. When I do scholarly takes on fictional works, I prefer to think of the fiction as if it's describing actual events, as is probably obvious from my Oz posts. And that's one reason why, despite my bibliophilia, I probably never would have made it as an English major.
Tags: books, interpretation, oz

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