We’ve all been there: sitting through a high school English class as the teacher goes on about the symbolism of the yellow car and Doctor T. J. Eckleburg’s ever-watching eyes in The Great Gatsby, wondering whether or not F. Scott Fitzgerald really intended for us to dissect every move of his pen. Is it possible to read too much into a text? It feels as though this question has plagued readers, English majors, and literary scholars alike for ages without ever having come to an agreed upon conclusion. Up until recently, I was mostly of the opinion that it was not possible to read too much into a text. I thought that since books are largely for the readers, it was up to us to take away what we could and wanted to from a text. However, I began to second guess this perspective when I started reading Watership Down by Richard Adams and came across this statement in the author’s introduction:
“I wanted to emphasize that Watership Down was never intended to be some sort of allegory or parable. It is simply the story about rabbits made up and told in the car.”
What was I to do with this? Somehow it felt strange to look for allegories, symbolism, and allusions in a text after reading that the author didn’t intend for any of that to exist in the story. If the author didn’t want it to be there, then surely that meant that it wasn’t there at all? Yet wasn’t that the whole point of reading? To look for deeper meaning? Isn’t that why I loved it so much?
Stumped, I nevertheless continued on into the story of Watership Down, captivated by these rabbits with their lingo and customs and the intricacies of their warrens. I tried viewing the story just as a story, Adams’ earlier statement lingering in the back of my mind. Yet doing so filled me with a strange sense of missing something. Surely there was more to it? Surely there could be more to it? Surely Richard Adams hadn’t written a 474 page novel about rabbits just for the heck of it?
The more I read, the more this idea bothered me. And the more it bothered me, the more I asked myself why it bothered me. By the time I had finished the novel, I had the closest thing to a conclusion that I could muster.
I think stories are inherently purposeful.
Now, I don’t just mean a purpose to entertain, which is what Richard Adams seems to be suggesting here; rather, I think that stories are inherently built on archetypes, allegories, parables, and symbolism because we as humans are metaphorical beings. We like comparing things, referencing other things, and basing new things on old things. It’s how we make sense of the world, how we categorize things around us. We are always communicating something, even if we don’t intend to. And here is where I would like to point something out about Adams’ statement
Just because the author didn’t intend for meaning to be there doesn’t mean that you can’t find it.
Don’t get me wrong: there’s a huge difference between twisting an author’s words to make them say something they didn’t mean and finding meaning for yourself in their work. But I can’t see the harm in finding lessons of loyalty, trust, and bravery in Watership Down, regardless of whether or not the author intended any lessons to be taught. Can you read too much into a book? Maybe. Yet part of me also thinks that we could do a little more reading into books sometimes, too.
What are your thoughts on this topic? Do you think you can read too much into a book? Let me know in the comments section below!