Literary Analysis: Metaphysics?

Science is limited by what scientists are capable of measuring. Our understanding of reality can only reach as far as our best experiments. If you were to ask any physicist, they’d tell you that physics stops at what we can measure: beyond that, we reach metaphysics, the land of unfounded speculation about why physics works. It is literally impossible to ever test a hypothesis in metaphysics because, by definition, no experiment can enter the world of metaphysics.

Someone go tell that to an English professor.

The field of English literature, as far as I can make out, has a lot to do with the “deeper meaning” of literary works. Read a book carefully, look at the techniques the author uses as part of his or her literary style, and you can make out the true purpose of the book. (Update: Perhaps I should make it clear that I am attacking is the “let’s find what the author intended” sort of analysis. Just analyzing the text, or seeing how the reader responds to it, makes sense. But you can’t extend that to find out what the author’s subtle purpose was.)

Sounds like metaphysics to me.

I may be corrupted by my science education, but seriously, I have several problems with literary analysis.

The first is, of course, simple: what if the author just wanted to tell a #($*ing story? The central axiom of literary analysis seems to be “it has a meaning — just find it!” Well, maybe it doesn’t. I know I’ve written pieces of poetry and then gone back and found all sorts of literary devices pointing at some central meaning, and I only found the meaning after I had written the stupid thing. It’s pretty easy to do.

The second problem is that literary analysis smells like metaphysics to me. Rather than looking at the testable — what happened in the book — we’re looking at the unverifiable: what the author was thinking when he wrote the book. We, of course, have absolutely no way of knowing (unless the government’s been doing things I haven’t heard about yet), but that never stops anybody. The literary analysis just keeps going, regardless of the fact that the author is probably dead already.

A scientist must always prove that his experimental findings are outside of the possibilities of random chance. He or she might run the experiment several times and then do a statistical test to see if the results could just be a fluke. Only when results are almost certainly not a random fluke are they reported.

Not so in literary analysis. Spotted an interesting use of parallelism and diction in the second paragraph? The author’s probably commenting on the unequal social status of women in the time period. Notice repetition of a few key words? They’re probably being emphasized to bring the emotional point home and highlight the cruelty of society. Never mind the fact that the author might just have decided those words sounded kinda cool there.

Let’s not forget the chance that the reader is picking out meaning where there is none due to predispositions and the human ability to find patterns everywhere. If people think there’s a face on Mars, they’ll think there’s a deeper meaning in a book, regardless of whether the author meant it.

So I think my problem with literary analysis is threefold: we have no way of knowing that the author actually meant what we think he meant, we don’t know if what we find is a coincidence, and it’s likely we’re finding patterns where there are none. And it’s boring to do, anyways.


  1. I’ve brought up similar issues with english professors, their response (which I find respectable) is that we’re not interested in deeper literary analysis in terms of what the author was thinking. Unless the author has explicitly stated, this is obviously impossible. But, deeper literary analysis in terms of how you personally feel, or what a literary work means to you.

    Last year, I wrote a paper paralleling and comparing Frankenstein and his monster with the greek God Prometheus. This has been done before, many times, but I think I found some parallels other analyzers haven’t seen before (at least not to my knowledge). I would up getting an A in the class, so I think I did something right. Anyway, I never talked about what Shelley thought the characters represented, only what I thought they represented.

    And, if an author doesn’t like how other people interpret his characters? That’s tough… It’s what happens all the time in art.

    btw… I’ll give you a hug if you add me to your blogroll.

  2. so just think of it in terms of my way… and if your assignment is about what the author was thinking, just say what you think, and write “the author thought…” They really want your thoughts, anyway.

  3. Perhaps.

    But then we reach the deeper question: what exactly do I gain from writing about my thoughts when I read the book, if not a deeper understanding of the author’s thoughts?

  4. Amen to that. “Pin the tail on the author’s deeper message” always bugged me about English class. I find that people do it with cartoons, too — they’ve erroneously told me how clever or stupid I am, based on their interpretation of what I must have meant. I even had an English professor do it, and get it wrong, for a political cartoon I did in grad school. (the irony was delicious, btw)

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