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Who Controls the Meaning, the Reader or the Author?

When Danny’s kids were small, one of their favorite videos was the old movie The Wizard of Oz. This movie is based on the book by L. Frank Baum. To Danny’s young children this delightful tale was about a young girl named Dorothy and her cute dog, Toto, who overcame the odds and defeated the powerful and scary “bad guys” (the wicked witches) with some help from Dorothy’s nice new friends. To the young children the story had this simple meaning.

If we observe the story closely, however, and if we start to poke around into the historical background of the time Baum wrote the book, a different meaning surfaces. One of the hottest political debates going on in America when Baum wrote this story was over the issue of whether America should continue to use the gold standard as the basis for the U.S. dollar or whether she should switch to silver. This historical context suggests that the main line of the book (“Follow the yellow brick road!”) may be a reference to the central political issue of the day. Remember that although the yellow brick road led to the great wizard of Oz, once Dorothy arrived there, she discovered he was a fraud. Dorothy’s real hope lay in her shoes. In Baum’s book the shoes are silver. Hollywood changed them to ruby so they would show up better in color for the movie. So, perhaps the book falls into the classification of political satire.

According to this line of interpretation, the characters in the story then probably represent different segments of American society. The Scarecrow represents the farmers (supposedly, no brains). Who would the Tin Woodsman represent? The factory workers (no heart). And the cowardly lion perhaps represents the political leadership of the country. We also meet the Wicked Witch of the East (the East Coast establishment?) and the Wicked Witch of the West (the West Coast establishment?). And who is the heroine? Middle America—Dorothy from Kansas.

So, who is right? Are Danny’s kids wrong to interpret the story as a simple tale of good triumphing over evil? Did not the author intend it to be read as political satire? Are we wrong if we understand it otherwise? What is the meaning of the story? And whodetermines that meaning?

This question has prompted a lively and sometimes heated debate, not only in secular literary circles, but also among students and scholars of the Bible. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, the traditional approach to interpreting any literature, biblical or secular, was to assume that the author determines the meaning and the reader’s job is to find that meaning. Within the world of secular literary criticism, however, this approach came under attack throughout the latter half of the twentieth century, and many literary critics today argue that it is the reader, and not the author, who determines what a text means.

This view has drifted over from secular literary criticism into the field of biblical interpretation. Many biblical scholars began probing into the question, What is meaning? They concluded that the term meaning only applies as a reader interacts with a text—that it takes both reader and text to produce meaning. The author, they argue, is no longer involved.

Of course, there remain those who maintain that the original author still controls the meaning. As an author writes, they argue, he or she intends to convey a certain meaning in the text. This intended meaning of the author’s is the true meaning of the text.

The position that stresses the author in the determination of meaning is called authorial intention. The opposing view, which focuses on the reader as the main character in the determination of meaning, is called reader response. Both positions have strong arguments. Which approach should we take?

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