2.20. Concretization and intepretation


A reader does not read an action: s/he reads a narrative text, and constructs or concretizes the action on the basis of the linguistic and schematic structures coded in the text.  The action is not wholly  coded: any text consists largely of gaps which are left to be filled by the reader's co-operation.  The reader's contribution includes such common coherence-building maneuvers as inferencing and spreading activation of related concepts, working out implicatures and presuppositions.[1]  These maneuvers are required of any reader of any text, but they assume specific features in different kinds of text.  We have already remarked that  coherence-building in narrative is heavily influenced by plot construction.  A comic action and a tragic action, once identified as such, trigger out different expectations of development and coherence.  Different narrative genres also make different collaborative demands on readers ‹the difference between film, theatre and written narrative being and obvious one.  Space and figure are obviously constructed in a different way in each of these genres.  That is why some people dislike illustrated novels: they feel somehow cheated of their right to flesh out the characters and situations on the sole basis of the text.  Of course, this right is forfeited in advance in genres like theatre or cinema.  But even within one and the same narrative sub-genre, any difference in narrative technique implies a difference in the constructive maneuvers required of the reader. 

            Moreover, concretization is never fully controlled by the author or by the text structure.  Being the reader's share, it may vary from reader to reader.  This is clearly the case in "open" works which deliberately make such demands, asking the reader to provide a conclusion to the plot or leaving open to inference significant events in the action.  But any narrative is "open" to some extent: there are always details left to the reader's imaginative collaboration.   Unimportant events of the action, such as transitions, are often left unmentioned and can often be explained in a variety of different ways.  Minor incoherences in the course of events (e. g. Sancho Panza riding his donkey some chapters after it had been stolen) may be used as a challenge to the reader's ingenuity.  Generally speaking, the action is read out in two different ways: on one hand, those elements which are explicitly mentioned in the text are given a fuller, more concrete appearance by the reader; on the other hand, those aspects of the action which are left fully to inference are created ex nihilo  on the sole basis of inferential cues. 

            The issue of fictionality is also relevant to the process of concretization.  We might establish a polarity: from the ideally self-contained, purely fictional text, to the non-fictional narrative (which does not necessarily mean non-literary  narrative).  Fantasy and science-fiction often approach the first pole, while the non-fiction novel (Mailer, Capote) or the historical novel occupy a middle ground, and such genres as autobiography, history or travel books approach the pole of minimum fictionality within literature (of course, instrumental narrative is quite another matter).  The difference to the reader may not be so clear-cut, since it has to do mainly with the intersections between the narrative he is reading and the demands of previous narratives or world-knowledge in order to construct the action.  An action taking place on an imaginary planet or an alternative universe may pick and choose among the demands of coherence and frames of reference of our  world; an historical narrative often tries to be consistent with available knowledge about the past.

            We have already commented on the reader's construction of a possible world on the basis of the textual cues.  Here we meet a phenomenon common to all structures of signs.  Such structures do not exist apart from their reception, which is always an implicitly interpretive act.  Insofar as they are not being produced or received, activated in a communicative act, signs cease to be signs, they are only potential signifiers existing in a purely material state.  We can therefore establish a conceptual difference between the narrated world as it is schematically signified in the text and the narrated world as it is actualized in a specific reading.[2]

            In studying the construction of the action, we are studying an idealized process, one which we assumed to be sharable by a variety of informed readers.  Of course, determining the specific features of such an idealization is always an interpretive act, with specific aims and assumptions.  Each individual reader will probably concretize the schematic signifieds of the world in a way of his/her own.  If the differences between two readings lead to relevant conflicts in the understanding and interpretation of the text, we will say that the readers belong to different interpretive communities.[3]  Classical narrative does not usually cause many conflicting readings at the relatively shallow level of interpretation we are dealing with here, and different interpretations of the artistic or ideological significance of a narrative can very well agree on every point as to the structure of its narrated world and action.

            Nevertheless, it is not uncommon to find interpretive disagreements at the relatively superficial level of the construction of the action.  We shall concentrate on a specific case: the reading of the action in Stephen Crane's story "The Monster" by a number of critics, as reflected in their interpretations.  These critical commentaries often take for granted the level of reading we are concerned with now, and focus mainly on wider aesthetic or ideological questions. 

            The proportion of critical agreement can be measured to some extent by taking a standard summary of "The Monster" and comparing it to the interpretive assumptions of other critics:

Henry Johnson, the black servant in "The Monster," is physically deformed and made imbecillic as a result of his heroic rescue of Jimmie Trescott from fire.  But it is the townspeople who become the real monsters through their unreasoning fear of the disfigured but harmless Johnson and their ostracism of the town doctor, Jimmie's father, who has helped him.  (Weatherford 1973, 21)

            Some facts are present in all concretizations of the work, and are assumed to be indisputable.  At least, they have not been disputed by the critics, and indeed any discussion of a fictional work must accept some portion of the story as given, as a portion of world which it would be nonsense to contest.  For instance, nobody to my knowledge has disputed the fact that Dr. Trescott is a white man, or that Henry becomes disfigured.  The undisputed core of the story would read like this:

Henry Johnson, the black servant in "The Monster," is physically deformed as a result of his heroic rescue of a white boy, Jimmie Trescott, from fire.  The townspeople (blacks and whites alike) ostracise Johnson and the town doctor, Jimmie's father, who insists on taking care of him.

Such an outline leaves all the moral issues of the story unresoved: it does not specify the authorial attitude to the story.  As we shall discuss in another section, all interpretations of the level of the textual author seem to involve a moral or ideological choice on the part of the reader.  Indeed, this seems to be also true of some "bare facts" at story level.

            We need to draw a working distinction between unacceptable readings and misreadings.  One critic's reading may be unacceptable to another critic because of their different assumptions about the nature of interpretation, criticism, or literature.   But a misreading is not perceived as the result of such a divergence, but rather as the result of carelessness.  We assume that if we pointed his mistake to the critic he would recognize it.  The reviewer of The Monster and Other Stories  in The Spectator, for instance, misread the action of this tale.  He provides a summary of the story according to which Henry Johnson "saved the life of his master's little boy from a fire caused by his own carelessness" (1901, 244).  The reviewer has been misled by one of the townspeople's unreliable comments ("The Monster" 38), and has failed to match it to the text's description of Henry Johnson running to the house on fire after his visit to the Farraguts.  When I interpret this reading, that is, I do not assume that the reader's concretization accomodates these textual data and supplements them with other facts which are deducted from them or assumed to be hidden in the text in some way.  I do not believe that this reader thought that Henry Johnson caused the fire in Trescott's house after his evening walk, then went out for a second walk and ran back.  The simpler explanation is that one reader's attention has skipped some facts whose level of sharability is otherwise undisputed.  However, if several readers make the same deviant reading, the explanation through an accidental misreading ceases to be the simplest one.  This is the case with a few significant issues in the story of "The Monster," such as Henry Johnson's madness or Trescott's attitude at the end of the narrative.

            Most critics agree that Henry Johnson has become an idiot or a madman.[4]  We can assume, moreover, that most of the readers who do not comment on this fact take for granted that we do not have to read between the lines.  The average or "uncontroversial" reading of the story does not cast doubt into this issue.

            However, some critics hold that Henry's idiocy is a figment of the townspeople's imagination.  He is sane and harmless, and they believe him to be crazy and dangerous.  Indeed, the reliable narrative voice of the story never passes judgement on Henry's sanity; only witnesses whose reliability is dubious do so.  Judge Hagenthorpe does so for the first time before Henry is recovered: "As near as I can understand, he will hereafter be a monster, a perfect monster, and probably with an affected brain" (TM 45).  The next minute, as the judge grows incensed, this has become: "he will be a monster, and with no mind" (TM 45).  Alek Williams, who is trying to emphasize the burden Henry represents to his family, says that "he's crazier 'n er loon" (TM 56).   

            The idea that Henry is sane has interesting implications, especially as it would imply that critics themselves are the victims of the text's strategies.  Such is Hafley's account (1959, 160); we have already met Walcutt's opinion that Henry is sane and that Trescott knows it (1956, 83).  Modlin and Byers (1973) need to ignore the fact that Henry has become an idiot in order to turn him into a Christ-figure.  Henry's own appearances have not been found to be conclusive proof of his lunacy by some critics.  Cooley , too, ignores Henry's idiocy: he wants to see in him a hero unjustly neglected by his author.  He nevertheless recognizes that in his last appearance, Henry seems to be submitting and relapsing into primitivism (1975, 13).  Foster notes that Henry's speech and actions after his accident seem surprisingly rational, and that he just seems to be suffering from amnesia.  He becomes mad only afterwards, by subsequent degradation and isolation (1976, 88).  Petry (1983) makes a similar point, too.  She considers that there is no evidence that Henry Johnson is mad, and arques that Trescott does not reveal his estimate of Henry's mind.[5]  Morace (1981, 72) considers that Henry's brain has been affected, but that he has become something like a child, and not a maniac, as Judge Hagenthorpe implies.  An anonymous reader of the Tales of Whilomville copy I have used marks with a question mark the margin of Levenson's introduction at the point where he affirms that Henry's mind has been destroyed. For most critics, as I have said, this is not an issue at all.   Some of them do stoop to consider the possibility that Henry Johnson is sane in the light of the scenes where he appears.  But Kahn finds him idiotically insistent in the "Miss Fa'gut" scene of chapter XVII (1963, 40), and for E. Solomon Henry's amnesia and his madness go together: "Henry cannot master the situation, for his mind's clock is permanently stopped at the hour before the fire, and he considers himself only as he was, a handsome figure and an experienced hostler" (1966, 193).  Trescott never denies that Henry's mind is affected; many readers would presumably claim that if we were supposed to think that Henry is sane, we ought to have been given clearer signs.

            Interestingly enough, no critic wishes to challenge the idea that Henry Johnson is harmless; most critics ignore or play down the fact that people do not seem able to control their reactions when they see him and that a girl, Sadie Winter, is almost scared to death (TM 70).  According to Foster, she may have seen nothing at all; it is just that people want to believe she has seen Henry (1976, 90).[6]   The interpretations of the story progress only in one direction: new interpretations suppose a more radical criticism on Crane's part and a greater ironical complexity, a greater complexity of the relationships between the action and the narrative discourse.  This circumstance seems to indicate that the value or the present-day relevance of a work are increased as its complexity increases.  We shall see further instances of this move at other levels of the textual structure.  For the moment, I will only note that the tendency to move towards the more complex interpretation is often a critical prejudice which leads to a neglect of the historical perspective on the work.

            The average reading of the story is challenged only in the sense of an increased complicity with the assumed authorial intention.  The ironical view on the beliefs of the Whilomville denizens favoured by the textual author provides some interpretations with an inertia which makes them defy the unmarked reading of the story at those points where this reading converges with and is supported by equivalent maneuvers which are requisite in constructing other moments of the story.  Irony seems to call for more irony, and the text as read by Cooley or Foster is certainly more complex than the average reading would grant.  Clearly enough, it is also more attractive to them.  However, I can imagine most readers recognizing the superior irony of this possible story and still not being able to enjoy it because in their opinion it would not the story Crane wrote.   Cooley's reading forsakes the pathetic advantage of having the hero of the story destroyed, as well as the powerful effect of Henry's idiocy as an intertextual deautomatization of the hero-figure.  Part of the force of "The Monster" derives, no doubt, from the fact that we are unable to identify with Henry after his accident.

            Agreement on the intepretation of the evaluative stance of the textual author and reader presupposes a more fundamental agreement at the story level.  Cooley points out the "irony" that it is Trescott's laboratory which destroys Henry, as "Trescott is the only character in 'The Monster' who might have wisdom, humanity and strength of character sufficient to maintain integrity and achieve understanding from the tragic experience" (1975, 12).  Cooley takes this irony as the proof that Crane wants to test Trescott's moral strength.  But there remains a problem.  Must we suppose that Trescott knows about his responsibility in the laboratory accident?  Even if he does know, is it (acknowledged to be) a responsibility at all?[7]  Monteiro (1972, 103) suggests that Trescott's attitude to Henry is partly due to his own responsibility in the latter's accident.  Morace (1981, 77), on the contrary, assumes that Trescott does not know about his own share of responsibility, and that his disinterestedness makes him appear the more admirable.  It is not difficult to piece out an explanation if we feel the need for one: Trescott, being a medical man, surely knows the difference between the burns of acid and fire.  It all depends on the kind of reading we want to deal with.  The question of Trescott feeling guilty because of his own doings does not seem to arise for most readers.[8]  Conclusions on such issues should be regarded as more peripheral than the consideration of the basic core of the interpretive discourse around the story,  which in turn may include both agreements and disagreements.  The core issues are those which are taken into consideration, albeit in an implicit way, by a significant number of readers.  Henry's madness is such an issue.  The ending of the story is another. 

            Usually, the construction of the story and that of the authorial attitude reinforce each other (that is the sense of the vertical arrows in our diagram in page 99).  Vasil'evskaia and Foster's deviant interpretations of the authorial attitude sustain and are sustained by deviant interpretations of the story.

            Also, it is not surprising that the deviant interpretations all concern those elements of the story which do not belong to the narrative‹which are not pictured, or dramatized.  In Ruthrof's phrasing, when two interpretations differ "it is not the schematically signified, but the concretized worlds which are in conflict" (1981, 38).  We may assume that Henry's mind is in such or such a state, and we can adduce different kinds of textual evidence, but we cannot show a portion of the text which describes Henry's mind in an explicit and reliable way.  Vasil'evskaia and Foster speculate about that portion of the action which falls beyond the end of the narrative; this discussion cannot be expected to yield clear-cut results either.

            Is there any sense, then, in trying to interpret what actually happens in the action of "The Monster"?  This question cannot be answered here without additional specifications.  An interpreter who is trying to interpret the authorial attitude in the story will have to posit an interpretation of the action, because the authorial attitude must be an attitude towards something.  However, different interpretations of the action may be compatible with a general description of the authorial attitude, provide that they agree on some basic points. It is to be expected that the critics who want to reach agreement on the implied authorial attitude will agree on an action-scheme which is the basis for their intepretations.  If a critic's aim is to reinforce an existing interpretation with additional data, he may further specify the assumed contents of the action in a way which illuminates both other events and the authorial attitude.  This is the case, for instance, with the speculations on Trescott's responsibility in the articles by Monteiro and Morace.  The concretizations run against each other, but this does not prevent their agreement on the more basic issues of the story.  The critic who examines previous interpretations with the aim of validating one of them must also make a choice‹in this respect his position is not essentially different from that of the critic who is concerned solely with the story. 

            If a critic wishes to challenge an existing intepretation, the scope of his challenge will depend on the centrality of the issue about which he differs with other critics.  Therefore, the question is really one about which issues are important.  But this problem is not specific to the analysis of the action.  Indeed, the deviant interpretations of the action can be most usefully discussed in their relation to the question of the implied authorial attitude.  It is not surprising that the main divergences in the interpretation of the action are directly related to such controversial issues as the racial message of the story or Crane's judgement on the ultimate sense of personal ethics.




[1]          For a more detailed discussion of these terms, cf. de Beaugrande and Dressler; Petöfi and Franck.

[2]          See Ruthrof 37.

[3]          See Fish, "Interpreting the Variorum."

[4]    Cf. Hawthorne 1900, 260; rev. in  Critic 1900, 182; rev. in Spectator 1901, 244; rev. in Daily News 1901, 6; Beer 1923, 163; Van Doren 1924  (qtd. in M. Solomon 1956b, 38); Åhnebrink 1950, 378; Berryman 1951, 191; Geismar 1953, 116; M. Solomon 1956b, 41; Hoffman 1957, 173; Ellison 1960 (in Ellison 1964, 75); Gullason 1960, 663; Kahn 1963, 37; E Solomon 1966, 181; D. Gibson 1960; 230; 1968, 137; Stallman 1968, 332; Ives 1969, 25; Levenson 1969, xx; Cazemajou 1969b, 423; Westbrook 1972, 89; Monteiro 1972, 103; Mayer 1973, 34; M. Holton 1972, 207; Linder, 1974, 156; Gross 1975, 102, Colvert 1984, 124. 

[5]     Petry seems to be driven by the main point of her paper, the analogy between Henry Johnson and his alleged model John Merrick, the "Elephant man," who was perfectly sane in spite of his deformity.

[6]          Most critics would not deny that Henry does frighten the little girl. E.g. Gullason 1960, 666.

[7]    In Linder (1974, 145) there is a suggestion that Trescott's laboratory alludes to his being guilty of hybris; he is then  symbolically banished from Eden.

[8]          According to Westbrook, there is no hint in the story that Trescott is responsible in any way for Henry's accident (1972, 94).