Individuality in Readers of the Work of Art: The Reader of Literature

Undergraduate Academic Essay

See more academic essays. Buy a book.

In his explanation of the importance of the reader, Wolfgang Iser defines a work of literature as the imaginative cooperation between reader and text (The Act of Reading). The imagination of each reader cooperates with the parameters set up by text in order to bring an otherwise static text to life. Using techniques of anticipation and retrospection, the reader makes the fiction, filling in gaps left by what the author omitted; a piece of fiction that tells too much is boring. Moreover, the gap-filling process is not merely a fulfillment of expectations, but is a weaving of both the familiar and the unfamiliar. Fiction may elicit the expectations and illusions of the reader but it may also change gear by surprising the reader or modifying those expectations. The repertoire is the part of a work of art that is familiar -- the allusions, the historical elements, and the norms which, though introducing an aspect of familiarity and the past into the work, must be presented in a somewhat altered or novel fashion (70).

In view of the ways in which a reader's involvement in the creative process may be encouraged, I have chosen works of literature in which the performance aspect of the work both invokes the reader's presence and allows individuality of interpretation. In Browning's "My Last Duchess," for example, the dramatic monologue given by the Duke leaves undescribed spaces in which the reader can write the story. In the face of uncertain motives, the recording of spoken words, and the direct address of narrator to listener, I enter into a labyrinth of representation and re-representation, character assessment and judgement.

W. J. T. Mitchell's article "Representation" makes Browning's poem the focus in a discussion of representation in literature. As a starting point, Mitchell diagrams the dynamic movement between beholder, representation, and maker. Across this axis of communication lies another axis, in which the signifier (be it the words on the page or the "dab of paint" in Mitchell's analysis) meets the signified, the object of the work of art. Mitchell diagrams this structure using the most simple case, in which one dab of paint represents one object:

Fig. 1. "Representation," Mitchell, 12.

We can, however, complicate Mitchell's model. I immediately take the title of the poem, "My Last Duchess," as an indicator of what might be the "represented object" of Browning's poem. Yet, a coherent image of the duchess eludes me. The duchess is not presented in the words of an omniscient narrator, but in a monologue of a fictional persona, the Duke. The Duke is also representing the painting of his late wife, in which case the poem becomes a representation of a representation. Furthermore, I am stalled by the "purposes" of the Duke, who may have a motive in choosing memories; that is, the Duke's claim that "his fair daughter's self, as I avowed/At starting, is my object" (52-53) suggests the corrupt nature of representation for which there are ulterior motives. I am introduced to the Duke in a similarly indirect way, through his speech to a second party, who never speaks except through what is echoed by the Duke. In the network of representing and represented, I can isolate no single "object" represented, but a multitude of signs.

My Last Duchess
That's my last duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now: Frà Pandolf's hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will't please you sit and look at her? I said
"Frà Pandolf" by design, for never read
Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
How such a glance came there; so, not the first
Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, 'twas not
Her husband's presence only, called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess' cheek: perhaps
Frà Pandolf chanced to say "her mantle laps
"Over my lady's wrist too much," or "Paint
"Must never hope to reproduce the faint
"Half-flush that dies along her throat": such stuff
Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough
For calling up that spot of joy. She had
A heart - how shall I say? - too soon made glad,
Too easily impressed; she liked whate'er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
Sir, 'twas all one! My favor at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West,
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace - all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
Or blush, at least. She thanked men - good! but thanked
Somehow - I know not how - as if she ranked
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
With anybody's gift. Who'd stoop to blame
This sort of trifling? Even had you skill
In speech - which I have not - to make your will
Quite clear to such an one, and say, "Just this
"Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,
"Or there exceed the mark" - and if she let
Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set
Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse,
- E'en then would be some stooping; and I choose
Never to stoop. Oh sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene'er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive. Will't please you rise? We'll meet
The company below, then. I repeat,
The Count your master's known munificence
Is ample warrant that no just pretense
Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;
Though his fair daughter's self, as I avowed
At starting, is my object. Nay, we'll go
Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!
(Mitchell, 17-18).

Having discovered the absence of a central represented something, I take pleasure in noticing the complexity of unspoken social rules, gender interaction, and status-related power. As Mitchell notes, one may be fascinated by the display of culture no longer ours; the Duke is already "old power" to the rising middle class who first heard this poem (20). His pride in a "nine-hundred-years-old-name" (33) and a bronze statue of Neptune, "thought a rarity," (55) speak of upper-class snobbishness. This materialism seems to extend to his wife, as aspects of his possessiveness and need for (but lack of) control emerge in the monologue. A picture of male jealousy emerges in the Duke's criticism that "she liked whate'er/ She looked on, and her looks went everywhere" (24-23). At the same time, the inability to communicate revealed in lines 35-37 are compounded by the arrogance of lines 41-42: "E'en then would be some stooping; and I choose/Never to stoop." The Duke is an object of ridicule, a mean figure who substitutes brute force -- "I gave commands;/then all smiles stopped together" (45-46) -- for the power that his name does not give him. In this world of status and wealth, the painting is the ultimate metaphor for the possessed and objectified wife.

Without lessening my interest in the power struggles between Duke and (dead) duchess, I continue to find meaning in what I think of as the "representation theme." Neither reading erases the other, but both are guided by my particular activity of noticing. I make links between concealments: in the concealment of the duchess, of the details of her death, and of the future of the new wife, I read a play on representation. The painted image and the Count's representative give the Duke what he cannot get directly. The painting stands for the duchess; yet, it also stands for other things -- power, control, pleasure, denial. In the same way, my interaction with the poem allows it to present much more than it represents. Continuing to muse over the complexities of the poem, I find myself, a "spectator," becoming implicated in the very meanings I unravel. As Mitchell notes, the poem actively invokes the presence of the readers by representing an audience of the Duke. The Count's representative, is, like us, implied but mute. Consequently, at the moment that I read the poem, it is as if the Duke speaks directly to me. I become audience to his power-hungry motives, with no intermediary of second-hand description. The character of the Duke is revealed to me just as he displays his own wares; the revelation of the duchess is the revelation of the Duke.

In other words, individual readers make the work of the poem by becoming involved in a performance. I am inextricably bound in the meanings created by the poem's theatricality, in which Browning combines "two kinds of literary representation -- the brief, sufficient lyric utterance of the poet, and the dramatic speech that would conventionally belong in a more extended representation -- in order to create a new hybrid genre, the dramatic monologue" (19). By collapsing the narrator and the speaker to one voice, Browning's poem complicates my perception of authorial intention. Given not the "truths" of the poetic genius, but rather the utterances of a fictitious character, I feel as though I were watching a performance by Browning himself. In the words of Mitchell, Browning may be "playing a role like that of the duke, showing off his own power by displaying his mastery over representation" (21).

The implications of these formal characteristics are enormous for the reader. The invocation of dramatic genres drastically alters the tools that I use in reading the poem. In recognizing the scene laid out before me, I note that the Duke's monologue is spoken, not written, in the fiction of the story. I recall differences between written and oral speech; the character's dialogue in "My Last Duchess," is very different from the omniscient third-person narration of other poems. Presented with a character who speaks, I use my own experiences and memories of similar contexts in order to decipher the subtleties of the spoken word. Where does his voice drop? Where does his tone become a snarl? The ambiguity of these questions, however subtle, invite different answers from each reader and make for a multitude of understandings of the poem. The individual decisions involved in one's interaction with written dramatic monologue make readers a pivotal part in the labyrinth of character assessment, asour separate efforts to comprehend the Duke's evil may take different forms.

At the same time, hatred for the cruel Duke is only one possible response. I am embarrassed at both the duchess' looseness -- hers was "A heart - how shall I say? - too soon made glad," (22) -- as well as for the very tactlessness of the Duke's critiques. When the Duke recounts, "'Just this/"Or that in you disgusts me; her you miss,/ "Or there exceed the mark'" (37-39), I cannot help but cringe at his condescension. As Mitchell notes, Browning might have wanted to "place his reader in a position of weakness and servitude, forced to hear a repugnant, menacing speech but deprived of any voice or power to counteract it" (19-20). Moreover, I am uncomfortable in the voyeurism suggested by the "none puts by/The curtain I have drawn for you, but I" (9-10). I learn of the secrecy, the discretion, the obsession surrounding the picture. The "virginity" of the painting is defiled by the Duke's uncovering of it. I am implicated in the duchess' defilement, since it is my act of reading that leads to her exposure.

In conclusion, the particulars of narration and the ambiguities in the story itself move me to make my own version of the poem. First-person narration, addressing readers directly, allows me to insert myself into the performance as a listener/peeping tom/judge. The deciphering of speech invokes a fluid set of codes and experiences that are further conditioned by my own understanding of the Duke's character. In this way there are as many poems as there are readers, since the audience -- placed in the poem -- is an infinite variable.

I was drawn to a similarly disturbing monologue in the short story by Doris Lessing, "Room Nineteen." Susan Rawlings, the heroine, introduces us to her "intelligent" marriage and family. "To Room Nineteen" is told with plodding realism -- modern "everyday" language, verisimilitude, psychological depth. In emphasizing the idyllic progression of her life, Susan proves the old cliché it's too good to be true. Slowly, Susan reveals the depth of her horror and depression, and an increasingly greater desire to be left alone. She finds several means to accomplish this: setting aside a room in the house to be alone, hiring out a dingy hotel room, hiring an au pair to take care of the children. These attempts failing, and feeling her insanity overtake her, she commits suicide.

In reading "To Room Nineteen," as with many of the works I have chosen to analyze, I was intrigued by the awkwardness of my position as reader/spectator. Though the story is set in second-person point of view, the effect is that of first-person narration. The story is virtually, if not factually, told in Susan's voice. In hearing Susan's spoken and unspoken thoughts, I at first imagined myself in a privileged position. I hear thoughts only the heroine would have access to; I hear her most private sarcasm, I witness her self-directed horror. However, my role as witness to the shame and desperation of a woman going insane becomes stifling and heavy. The relation of the reader to the story raises difficult questions involving my direct judgement. How do I react to the fact that I cannot stop her? Do I have a desire to "tell" the family? Does the state of the story as fiction undermine the story's effect on me?

Throughout the story, I am conscious of receiving a more intimate view of Susan's disintegration than any members of her family. As in "My Last Duchess," the process of revelation evokes a sense of claustrophobia. Susan repeatedly gives the reader the honest emotion that she denies the other characters in the story; again and again, Lessing's character blurts out the shameful truth to us (to herself, that is), but censors herself around others. In ordering a hotel room in which to do nothing but be alone, for example, Susan muses over what she would sound like if she told the truth: "'Miss Townsend, I'm besieged by seven devils, Miss Townsend, Miss Townsend, let me stay here in your hotel where the devils can't get me. . . .' Instead of saying all this, she described her anaemia . . ." (2348). Each time Susan reveals a discrepancy between internal and external expression, I find myself rooting for a complete truth-telling. Part of my anxiety as a reader of Susan's feelings is knowledge of the ways in which Susan avoids seemingly imminent relief. As privileged reader, I become a sort of uncomfortable diary, recording the self-consciousness of a woman who does not like what she is becoming; Susan's sarcasm and exasperation is presented to me in full view while others are spared the sight of her decay. My experience of the heroine, whom I sometimes identify with and other times watch with pity and frustration, is a necessarily individual view, since each reader's understanding of Susan's life is nuanced according to a different set of experiences.

Furthermore, the closing in of Susan's life emphasizes the one freedom unavailable to readers: the freedom of not seeing. Not only do I share Susan's embarrassment at her own "unreasonableness," but I am constrained to look at it, point-blank. I am not even given the freedom of hopefulness, since her downfall seems inevitable; the too perfect happiness of "everything right, appropriate, and what everyone would wish for, if they could choose" (2336) prepares me for bad news. I read clues that Susan's disintegration is getting worse -- " Yes, that is just so,' said Susan, a bit dry, despite herself, thinking in secret fear how easy it was, how much nearer to the end she was than she thought'" (2351) -- but am denied the fantasy of recovery.

Ostensibly, then, I find only one task set before me: to imagine Susan's feelings. Yet, the potential for generation of meaning through reader-text involvement remains enormous. Questions posed toward the reader - "An absolute solitude, where no one knew her or cared about her. But how?" or "But she would have to tell him a lie too, and which lie?" (2348) -- invoke my presence in the same way that the Duke's direct monologue does. Lessing's story, like Browning's poem, becomes for me a process of awkward watchfulness. I am constrained to look at (or hear about) a woman whom I cannot put together again; I see her "dirty laundry." My emotional involvement with the story in the face of such revelations thus becomes a source of multiplicity for the story. Momentarily immersed in a world most of us will not truly experience, I imagine the darkest of depressions. Whether I reject Susan's plight outright or find some way of identifying with her is completely up to me. The story's possible forms thus become highly personal. Each reader becomes Susan, and each story is different.

Unlike Lessing's story, Sylvia Plath's poem about her own suicide attempts, "Lady Lazarus," is explicitly directed towards audiences, both imagined and real. Furthermore, unlike in Browning's poem, there are no obvious guides to the nature of Lady Lazarus's character. Unlike the unsavory Duke, Lady Lazarus employs many masks and many voices in her self-explication. Yet, in this work as in the above, an analysis of audience enlivens and enlarges the possible meanings provided by the text. "Lady Lazarus" provides a framework for a multitude of individual readings in its display of emotions and informal speech; these already-vague aspects of communication become even more fluid when delivered in writing rather than face-to-face interaction. Unabashed theatricality and the theme of performance actively invoke the reader's role.

Lady Lazarus

I have done it again.
One year in every ten
I manage it --

A sort of walking miracle, my skin
Bright as a Nazi lampshade,
My right foot

A paperweight,
My face a featureless, fine
Jew linen.

Peel off the napkin
O my enemy.
Do I terrify? --

The nose, the eye pits, the full set of teeth?
The sour breath
Will vanish in a day.

Soon, soon the flesh
The grave cave ate will be
At home on me

And I am a smiling woman.
I am only thirty.
And like the cat I have nine times to die.

This is Number Three.
What a trash
To annihilate each decade.

What a million filaments.
The peanut-crunching crowd
Shoves in to see

Them unwrap me hand and foot -
The big strip tease.
Gentleman, ladies,
These are my hands,
My knees. I may be skin and bone,

Nevertheless, I am
the same, identical woman.
The first time it happened I was ten.
It was an accident.

The second time I meant
To last it out and not come back at all.
I rocked shut

As a seashell.
They had to call and call
And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls.

Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.

I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I've a call.

It's easy enough to do it in a cell.
It's easy enough to do it and stay put.
It's the theatrical

Comeback in broad day
To the same place, the same face, the same brute
Amused shout:

"A miracle!"
That knocks me out.
There is a charge

For the eyeing of my scars, there is a charge
For the hearing of my heart -
It really goes.

And there is a charge, a very large charge,
For a word or a touch
Or a bit of blood

Or a piece of my hair or my clothes.
So, so, Herr Doktor.
So, Herr Enemy.

I am your opus,
I am your valuable,
The pure gold baby

That melts to a shriek.
I turn and burn.
Do not think I underestimate your great concern.

Ash, ash --
You poke and stir.
Flesh, bone, there is nothing there --

A cake of soap,
A wedding ring,
A gold filling.

Herr God, Herr Lucifer,

Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.

My first impression on reading this work is a feeling of emotional bombardment. By twisting back and forth between calm self-reflection and directed vituperance, "Lady Lazarus" is a kaleidoscope of fury. In what Helen Vendler notes is a "tantrum of style," "Lady Lazarus" replaces "the steady centripetal effect of thought" with "a wild dispersal, a centrifugal spin out to further and further reaches of outrage"(282). Maintaining a certain steadiness in consistent first-person narration, the "spin" of this poem comes out of the changing voices enacted by the alternately horrific or disturbingly sarcastic "I." A prosaic voice notes that "The first time it happened I was ten" (32) while a mythic voice warns "Herr God, Herr Lucifer/Beware/ Beware" (79-81).

A concept of audience participation is crucial in the assessment of something as vague as "emotion." Again, oral speech is a critical lever in the power of the audience over the meaning of the text. Each reader may endow meaning to lines like "I do it so it feels like hell/ I do it so it feels real," (46-47) by finding that it sounds like something said in a specific context. In this case, the use of modern, "spoken" language (or what reads like spoken language) provides another entrance for the greater interpretive power of the reader. I cooperate with the text to generate meaning through remembrance and comparison of previous encounters with like language. In the repetition of the two lines, and juxtaposition of "hell" and "real," I recall the sing-song of ballads and folk songs. Remembering other characters utter similar lines, I hear a tinge of bitterness in "I guess you could say I've got a call" (48). In other words, individual experiences with spoken expressions allow us to inscribe our own emotions into the text. Moreover, rather than dissolving into an infinite jungle of meanings depending on individual experiences, the poem remains intact by virtue of the very nature of communication, which conflates diverse experiences into a shared set of words. As Vendler notes, "[Plath] did possess - and it gives her a claim on us - a genius for the transcription in words of those wild states of feeling which in the rest of us remain so inchoate that we quail under them, speechless" (283).

At the same time that shifting tones of voice serve to suggest "real" emotion, they function in other ways. Readers may empathize or even take part in the therapeutic process of the poem. As in many of her other poems, Plath paints her Prussian father as the evil Nazi, herself as the Jewish victim. Anger at her father and ex-husband are compounded in an outrageously cruel male figure, against whom Lady Lazarus is granted vengeance of magnificent proportions: "Out of the ash/I rise with my red hair/ and I eat men like air" (79-81). Lady Lazarus rants, raves, and metamorphoses in a way that Sylvia Plath was not allowed to in her personal life. The value individuals derive from the poem's therapy varies according to a whole range of desires and experiences.

Again and again, the character of the story is a performer for an unseen audience. This audience is alternately encouraged ("Peel off my napkin"(10)), mocked, ("It's the theatrical/comeback in broad day/To the same place, the same face, the same brute/Amused shout" (51-54)), and despised (Ash, ash - /You poke and stir" (73-74)). At points the heroine is explicitly performing as a circus freak: "There is a charge/For the eyeing of my scars, there is a charge/For the hearing of my heart -- /It really goes" (57-60). Alternating images or masks act as pistons both formally and thematically in a strange, relentless, grinding engine. As new voices erupt out of old ones, Lady Lazarus speaks of decay and asks her enemy to "Peel off the napkin" (10); the "smiling woman" and the performer who charges for a glance embody wildly different facets of the resurrected suicide victim; metaphors for resurrection accrue in Chinese-box fashion. Again, however, I notice that the metamorphosis of Lady Lazarus requires my participation. It is in reading the poem that I witness the performance.

Plath's poem transforms a monologue into true performance with direct appeals to the fiction's readers. In all three works of literature discussed so far, the particular attention paid to the audience -- by either addressing readers directly or by placing the reader in an intimate relation with the main character's internal monologue -- invites the active arrangement of meanings by individual readers. Lady Lazarus says "Peel off the napkin /O my enemy" (10-11) to me. She asks me if her skeletal visage is terrifying (12), and mentions confidentially to me that resurrection is her talent (45). Thus, the poem itself is the unveiling and resurrection; as one mask emerges out of another, and I become the jeering, brute audience."The Peanut-crunching crowd shoves in to see" (26) what each of us sees in the printed text.

The above analyses suggest that an approach which thematizes the role of audience sheds light on aspects of literature that are excluded otherwise. Particularly, the role of the audience should not be ignored in a performance that clearly pays attention to audiences. Moreover, we can see that the involvement of the reader in the work is a process that varies from work to work, but is to some degree necessary. In Barthes' distinction between lisible and scriptible, the "writable" text is the one that most invites the reader's naming, arranging, and decoding of meanings (S/Z, 12). Without at least some qualities of the writable text, a work of literature fails. As Iser notes, we may as readers "reject [a] book out of boredom, or will resent the attempt to render us completely passive" (The Act of Reading, 69).

A second point that must be made is that some of the clues for how readers may respond are suggested by the text itself. This is part of the balance suggested by Eco's "merest order"; without a minimal amount of guidance from the text, the reader is faced with "undifferentiated field of utter potential" or, in other words, meaningless data (The Open Work, 98). Within each of the works analyzed, despite considerable complicity in forming the meaning of the work, I do not have complete freedom. Most of the parameters of my function as a reader are defined by what I cannot see or do. I am not allowed to admire Browning's Duke. In reading "To Room Nineteen," I am forced to experience the story through the limited narration of Susan Rawlings; the story appreciably prevents me from seeing Susan as silly, superficial, or mindlessly happy. The readers of "Lady Lazarus" are guided by the aggressiveness and directness with which they are addressed; as the recipients of her casual commentary as well as pointed rage, we are pulled toward and away from her as we ourselves uncover her masks. While we are allowed to create scenarios and contexts for "Lady Lazarus," we are not allowed to rest.

In this sense, there are universally shared observations that might be made about even the most ambiguous texts. Yet, despite the strictures placed upon the reader by the text, it is the reader who supplies most of the work's impetus. The surface of the Duke's character, the depth of Susan Rawling's self-fear, the unnameable emotions seething under the speech of Lady Lazarus, are all open for our input. Thus, an audience-oriented explanation of literature allows a multiplicity of interpretations to exist alongside a more basic, shared framework. The questions raised by taking into account the readers' responses opens rather than closes the work.

<< previous page | top | next page >>

© 2018 Kristen Ankiewicz