This suggestive book on the nature of interpretation, based on Frank Kermode’s recent Norton lectures, draws on his reading of works by Kafka, Henry Green, Thomas Pynchon, and James Joyce, as well as the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. From his examination of these and other texts Kermode learnedly and gracefully discusses a variety of abstract questions including the theory of interpretation (hermeneutics), New Testament exegesis, structuralism, and the theory of narrative. But what succeeds as a lecture does not always work in a book. Despite Kermode’s disarming concession that his approach is unsystematic, and despite the sharpness of his isolated apercus, I find his book to be inadequately thought out, particularly in its theoretical arguments. I am especially troubled by Kermode’s uncritical modernism (i.e., his view that the latest ideas are the most interesting), and his certainty that it is naïve to seek the correct, or definitive, interpretation of any text. But before I expand on my criticisms I should describe the intellectual background to Kermode’s book.

Theoretical interest in interpretation has recently enjoyed a revival under the label “hermeneutics,” a word associated with Hermes, the divine messenger between the gods and men. Like any other interpreter of sacred texts, Hermes conveys God’s hidden message in terms that ordinary people can understand. In fact, even the word “interpreter” comes from interpres, which was the usual epithet for Mercury, the Roman Hermes. Until the 1960s, the word “hermeneutics” was associated with biblical exegesis in Britain and America. But as early as the 1950s hermeneutics was reintroduced in the secular sphere of German literary theory, where it had lain dormant since the late nineteenth century.

The author of this secular revival was Heidegger. In Sein und Zeit (1927), Heidegger appropriated from hermeneutics the concept of Vorverständnis (pre-understanding) in order to demonstrate the impossibility of unprejudiced, objective knowledge. Traditional hermeneutic theory had taught scholars that a preliminary understanding of what a text meant in general was indispensable to understanding what any of its parts meant. Heidegger argued that all knowledge is like this. No act of knowing can be free of a “pre-knowing” that is determined by our historical, social, and personal background. In short, Heidegger appropriated a concept from biblical hermeneutics to show that all knowledge is relative; then literary theorists reappropriated Heidegger’s more general version of hermeneutics for use in textual interpretation. Kermode’s book stands in the tradition of this relativistic, Heideggerian hermeneutics.

Central to this tradition is the doctrine of “pre-understanding.” The concept arose when philosophers of interpretation, particularly Dilthey (1833-1911), developed the idea that understanding a text is necessarily a circular process. First, we encounter words and clauses which have no distinct meaning until we know how they function in the text as a whole. But since we can only know the whole meaning through the various parts of the text, and since we cannot know what the parts mean or how they work together before we know the whole text, we find ourselves in a logical puzzle, a circularity. This is the famous “hermeneutic circle.” It can be broken only by resolving the question of which came first the chicken or the egg, the whole or the part. By general agreement, from which there has been virtually no dissent, the question of priority is decided in favor of the whole. The whole must be known in some fashion before we know the part. For how can I know that I am seeing a nose unless I first know that I am seeing a face? And from the doctrine of the priority of the whole came the doctrine of pre-understanding. Since we must know the whole before the part, we must assume some kind of pre-understanding in all interpretation.

This history, as Blake said in another context, has been adopted by both parties. It was used by Dilthey in his campaign against “the constant outbreak of romantic arbitrariness and skeptical subjectivity” in interpretation. And it is now being used by the literary followers of Heidegger to defend skeptical subjectivity as a necessary virtue. But in fact the doctrine of pre-understanding is a widely accepted structural principle in a variety of fields. In the theory of science, for instance, it corresponds to the doctrine that you cannot make sense of data without a hypothesis, and you must have a hypothesis before you can have meaningful data. The same idea is widely accepted by psychologists who suggest that you can make sense of an experience only if you can fit it into some previously existent schema in your mind. These are different versions of a single idea which has gained acceptance by objectivists and relativists alike. While pre-understanding is an interesting and illuminating idea in its own right it is also a universal feature of all hermeneutic theories, and cannot be used as the distinctive principle of any hermeneutical school. What is worrying and questionable is that relativists like Kermode sometimes use the terms “pre-understanding” and “prejudice” as interchangeable terms.


Why have secular literary theorists come so tardily to the theory of interpretation, a subject that has preoccupied the textual scholars of every religion with traditional sacred writings? Certainly, interpretation has not figured significantly in the intellectual history of literary theory. Ever since Plato, literary theory has concerned itself almost exclusively with the problem of value, e.g., “Are the ancients better than the moderns?” “Are standards of judgment universal?” You can read through virtually all the major works of the important literary critics before the twentieth century without finding an extended discussion of the problem of interpretation. In Britain, writers like Sidney, Pope, Hume, Johnson, Coleridge, and Arnold simply did not question their interpretations of the texts they read. They asked of a piece of writing, “Is it good?” or “Why is it good?” rather than “What does it mean?”

By contrast, ever since the revolution begun by the New Critics during the 1940s, and the enormous increase in the numbers of academic interpreters over the past forty years, the question of value has fallen into the background and the question of interpretation has come to the fore. Kermode is right to say that nowadays the value of a literary text within the canon of studied works is simply taken for granted. In this new situation, the value of the literary text is no more open to dispute than the value of a sacred text. You would no more call into question the value of Ulysses than you would call into question the value of Genesis. So the only important questions left for literary theorists to answer seem to be those of hermeneutic theory. Practical and theoretical energies are devoted to the task of Hermes, which in Kermode’s view is an endless, even heroically Sisyphean task.

Like the notion of the hermeneutic circle this idea that the task of interpretation is endless is also agreed upon by all hermeneutic theorists. But in this case the idea is very differently conceived by the two chief schools of hermeneutics. One, the “reader-based theory,” represented by Kermode, holds that interpretation must be endless because textual meaning is ever different for different readers. On the other side, the more traditional “author-based theory” holds that the task of interpretation is endless because the meaning of a text must ever be explained differently to different readers.

Kermode’s idea of endlessness arises as follows. He argues that after a text has been around a long time it is impossible for a modern reader to have all of the cultural and linguistic knowledge that the original author assumed his original readers would have. Just as a secular reader cannot hope to recover the sacred meaning of the gospel narratives, so a modern reader cannot possibly understand accurately what a long dead author such as Shakespeare intended to convey. The only truly descriptive theory of interpretation is therefore one which takes account of the ways many different interpreters have conferred many different meanings on the same text. Interpretation is never definitive, so each new generation of interpreters has something to do.

The author-based theory of interpretation sees the interpretative moment as the starting point of a very different process. It assumes that the recovery of original meaning is not inherently impossible, and may have been achieved by some of those who read the text before. It attributes interpretative disagreements to lack of decisive evidence about the author’s intention, and it attributes agreements to the persuasiveness of the evidence about that intention. All historical scholarship in the domain of textual interpretation, including the scholarship devoted to establishing a text, has followed this model. Reader-based theories overlook the inconvenient truth that the older texts being interpreted were invariably established by scholars who believed that the authors’ intentions could be known and agreed upon. In fact without the norm of authorial intention we could not establish definitive texts.

These two norms, the reader norm and the author norm, can be shown to exhaust the possibilities of workable norms for interpretation. Any attempt to make a compromise between them will logically reduce to one or the other of these two principles. By definition, the reader norm allows us to accept as valid an indefinite number of interpretations, whereas the author norm inherently gives authority to a single kind of reading. Theorists such as Kermode, who attempt to limit the number of acceptable reader-interpretations, are inviting logical embarrassments; while those who suggest that it is possible to combine a number of authorial interpretations take a logically indefensible position. For example, that Blake changed his mind about the meaning of “The Tyger,” as he undoubtedly did, doesn’t authorize two different interpretations of Blake’s meaning; it simply presents two separate interpretative problems, each with a single solution.


The chief virtue of reader-based interpretation is said to be its power to keep the old texts alive and valuable. (In just this way Kermode revives the Gospel narratives as secular texts about how to read and make sense of a story.) In the more traditional, author-based hermeneutics, it was the task of what was called applicatio to carry out such an aim. Interpretatio implied an understanding of the author’s meaning, while applicatio implied making that meaning significant and valuable for a particular audience. Thus it was said that the interpreter should be an expert both in the ars intelligendi and the ars explicandi, the art of understanding and the art of presentation. The endlessness of interpretation lay in this ever-changing task of presentation. Reader-based theories like Kermode’s collapse the double task, making interpretation and application one. Each reader finds his own significance without asking whether it bears any relation to the author’s intended meaning.

So much by way of theoretical background. The novelty of Kermode’s exposition lies less in his theories than in the way he draws on both secular and scriptural examples, comparing, for instance, the different ways that Kafka and St. Mark include what they both call “parables” within their larger narratives. Sometimes Kermode’s cross references between the literary and the scriptural can be extraordinarily illuminating, as in the following remark on how moments in the New Testament were prefigured in the Old:

One might well suppose such an arrangement to be without parallel; but it is not altogether unlike the relation obtaining between the early pages of a long novel and its later pages. The earlier ones contain virtualities or germs, not all of which grow; there is a mass of narrative detail, existing in its own right and, like the Old Testament, viable without later “fulfillment,” though it may be fulfilled. A special kind of novel, the classic detective story, actually depends on our ability to distinguish, like the witches in Macbeth, which seeds will grow and which will not, sometimes puzzling us by making one kind look like the other.

That is Kermode at his practical best. He has very suggestive remarks on the similarities between the stories in the New Testament and literary stories, whether or not one accepts his view that all stories are endlessly open to interpretation.

Kermode proposes that many stories should be interpreted as having what he calls a “latent or spiritual sense”—the hidden meaning accessible only to those “insiders” who know to look beyond the manifest, or “carnal” sense. He finds, for instance, that both the parable of the sower in Mark and also certain parts of Henry Green’s novel Party Going direct us to a hidden mystery that is not apparent to those who read the text literally. It is this level of meaning that can be different for each reader. Kermode proposes by way of example (and with a pun on hermeneutics) a mythological interpretation of Green’s seemingly realistic novel; he places “a Hermes figure in the very center of Party Going” which, he suggests, can be read as a parable about the passage from one world to another. He admits that

Any one such focus is, of course, chosen at the expense of others, and is bound to ignore much of the information offered by the text.

But he concludes that “to be blessedly fallible, to have the capacity to subvert manifest senses, is the mark of good enough readers and good enough texts.”

To find the “divinatory” and “oracular,” spiritual sense of a text, Kermode writes, we must look to its “varying focus, fractured surface, over-determinations and displacements.” He argues that the Gospels and Joyce’s Ulysses both include enigmatic characters who seem to play no part in the story—or oddly emphasized descriptive details with no apparent symbolic value—which defy coherent “carnal” and even allegorical interpretations. He expands upon this idea in an extremely suggestive chapter called “The Man in the Macintosh, the Boy in the Shirt,” where he traces two different scholarly interpretations of a young man in a linen shirt who appears in Mark but not in any of the other Gospels. Kermode is not without skepticism about these interpretations, but he is interested less in their substance than in the way the two scholars’ own purposes have led them to see different clues in the loose ends in the text. One has a historical interest in heterodox Christian beliefs, the other a more literary concern with the relation between figures in the Old and New Testaments. They make two very different kinds of sense of Mark’s story. And here, as in his other chapters, the general pattern of Kermode’s examples is to show that all stories, no matter what their provenance, will offer the same kinds of mysteries, joys, and disappointments—and the same opportunities for personal interpretation.

All of this is probably true up to a point. All good stories are secret allegories with a different secret sense for each reader. Unless that were true, few of us would be interested enough in a story even to find out “what happens”; for we are only interested if we feel some kind of resonance between the characters and events of the story and our own lives. Often, no doubt, the secret sense is one we do not even know we are responding to, as Bruno Bettelheim suggests in his psychological analysis of fairy tales. Moreover, we learn to see the secret sense of apparently realistic stories by interpreting their strange “irrelevant” particularities in ways that mean something to our own lives. We transform the streaks of the tulip in our own ways, and we supply the dark secret intimations of meaning that they disclose.

But there is a serious limit to this insight. The secret sense of a story is but a manifestation of its infinite applicatio. And we do not come to applicatio until we have understood the literal sense. First interpretatio, then applicatio. Kermode seems to accept this very idea when he says that “Carnal readings are much the same. Spiritual readings are all different.” But I think he mistakes the issue when he fails to observe that the carnal sense taken broadly is precisely that which the author meant readers to understand before they begin to apply spiritual senses to their own lives. The literal sense is the primary object of interpretation, as St. Thomas stated with persuasive clarity:

Not the figure itself, but that which is figured is the literal sense. When Scripture speaks of God’s arm, the literal sense is not that God has such a member, but only what is signified by this member, namely operative power. [Summa Theologica I, Q1, Art. 10]

The literal sense of a text could only be the same for all readers if they decided to treat the literal sense as something meant by an author. For example, in order for Kermode to expect all readers to perceive at least the possibility of a Hermes figure in Green’s novel, he has to assume that we all perceive a character whose literal actions have a structure like those of Hermes. But the structure of these “literal” actions is problematical; what the structure is depends on its being perceived as a meant structure. For us to perceive a common literal pattern in the book therefore requires us to assume that someone imposed such a literal pattern—an author. In order for Kermode to hold on to his reader norm consistently, he would have to concede something that he evidently doesn’t want to concede: namely that both literal senses and spiritual senses are different for different readers.

Kermode does not want to go that far into relativism. He rejects the radical “Protestant tradition” of hermeneutics which allows each reader to go his own way entirely. He proposes in place of this unconstrained individualism an “institutional” norm for interpretation. This very British compromise between what Kermode calls “reactionary,” i.e., author-based, interpretation, and “radical,” i.e., reader-based, interpretation is Kermode’s most original theoretical contribution to the subject. As I construe it, his institutional theory goes something like this: all of the texts that we take to be traditional and unquestionable (whether sacred or secular) have been accepted into the canon by certain social institutions like the consensus ecclesiae, or the community of academic literary critics. These social institutions sanction certain kinds of readings—as, for example, Freudians sanction psychoanalytic readings—and they also limit the number and diversity of permissible interpretations of the canonical texts. While the reader is free to confer his own meanings without regard to the author’s intentions he must nonetheless respect the limits that are set by the institutions that “control” or constrain interpretation. In any culture, therefore, we will find an “institutional resemblance between interpretations.” We can enjoy the freedom vouchsafed by the reader norm without suffering from the rootlessness of a “too great receptivity.”

This notion of the institution is comforting, but illusory. That is not to say that there are no institutions that control interpretation. I can quickly think of two—the Supreme Court of the United States and the Istituto Biblico of Rome—both of which have “controlling force.” But Kermode writes as though the community of literary academics wielded the same kind of institutional coercion as the Supreme Court. He seems to imagine an invisible institution on the model of Matthew Arnold’s invisible English Academy. Yet Arnold’s imaginary conception has one advantage over Kermode’s: Arnold’s invisible academy bases itself on absolute principles that transcend the institution itself, whereas the only clear normative principle that guides the institution Kermode describes is the idea of the institution itself. The members of his invisible academy seem to have no common tenet, no intellectual point of reference, no doctrinal commitment. Apparently their only shared principle is an allegiance to the leaders of the institution.

Kermode’s idea of the institution is a cloudy one at best. In the opening pages of the book the word is associated with the early Christians, the “insiders.” They alone could understand “the true sense” of Christ’s teachings, which were but riddles to the “outsiders” who are described by Mark as those who “may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand.” The institution is made up of the elect, who know how to look for a spiritual sense.

In some passages Kermode links the institution with specific doctrines such as psychoanalytic theory or Augustinian beliefs; and in other places in the book the term institution seems to be a synonym for tradition, in the loosest and most unwieldy sense of that word—meaning the heritage of all of Western culture and learning. Reality and logic alike defy Kermode’s illusory notion of the social institution. The most he could realistically claim would be that there are a number of conflicting literary sects, each of which could be called an “institution” if one liked. But this hardly solves the problem of the “Protestant tradition” in hermeneutics.

Although Kermode is uncritically wishful about the institutional constraints on interpretation, he is very toughminded indeed about the possibility of knowing anything at all. For instance, he suggests that historical narrative is no less fictional than made-up stories. He ascribes to the world of experience the same impenetrability as the parable of the sower. He concludes with the tragic view that the world eludes definitive interpretation.

This is the way we satisfy ourselves with explanations of the unfollowable world—as if it were a structured narrative, of which more might always be said by trained readers of it, by insiders. World and book, it may be, are hopelessly plural, endlessly disappointing; we stand alone before them, aware of their arbitrariness and impenetrability, knowing they may be narratives only because of our impudent intervention, and susceptible of interpretation only by our hermetic tricks.

To be blunt, I find this an unconvincing show of epistemological handwringing. It is not the way we interpret the world that we live in. It might have some plausibility if Kermode were saying that we can never solve the big mysteries such as “Is there a God?” “Is mind distinct from matter?” “How did the world begin?” or “What is the meaning of life?” If that is what Kermode means by “impenetrability,”* then of course we accept that he is right. But everything in Kermode’s book points to a much more radical skepticism. For him even the smallest mysteries remain mysteries; and only our fictions—which we know to be artificial and arbitrary—allow us respite from uncertainty and incoherence.

To be fair, this peroration of Kermode’s probably does a disservice to his own firm common sense. Yet his words do illustrate a tendency of post-Heideggerian hermeneutic theory to partition off the realm of literary speculation from the rest of life, and thus to trivialize literary speculation. Kermode does not ask himself each day, “Shall I part my hair behind?” “Do I dare to eat a peach?” “Am I still a professor of English?” “Is this the same toothbrush that I used last night?” Yet if Kermode carried his speculations to their logical conclusions, as he did in the passage just quoted, and occasionally elsewhere in his book, that would be the kind of question he would ask. Such epistemological uncertainty may offer a momentary frisson, but not even literary theorists inhabit such a consistently arbitrary and impenetrable world.

It’s even doubtful that many professors of literature are willing to tell their students that their interpretations are really arbitrary interpretations which do not pretend to reflect what the author meant. The simple common sense of students would discourage such hermeneutical skepticism even in the semireal world of academic life. Nor does it seem likely that many new academic reputations may be made on these Kermodish hermeneutical principles. Certainly Professor Kermode’s own scholarly reputation as an interpreter rests on his quite traditional author-based interpretations of Elizabethan and modern literature. The excitement of skeptical hermeneutics seems to lie more in the theorizing than in the application.

But here and there applications are beginning to appear. Perhaps one reason why literary academics have recently been attracted to this kind of theory is that the canonical texts of English and American literarature have been pretty thoroughly interpreted in the past four decades. It’s ever harder to come up with a reading of a text by Melville, say, that is new, significant, and right all at once. So, if one is pressed to publish interpretations, it’s convenient to work under a theory which considers all interpretations equally arbitrary or delusive. But a far better solution to the problem of academic publication would be to abandon the idea that has dominated scholarly writing during the past forty years: that interpretation is the only truly legitimate activity for a professor of literature. There are other things to do, to think about, and to write about.

This Issue

June 14, 1979