I'd like to follow up a bit on our discussion in class today regarding the limits of interepretation. One question in particular that came out of that discussion has perennially dogged theorists of criticism. Can we find any meaning we please in a literary work?
At one extreme is the view that a work means whatever it means to me. No limits on meaning are imposed by the author's intentions or the actual words on the page, which can be understood in an unlimited number of ways.
At the othe extreme is the view that a work has a particular and limited meaning, even if the limitations are very expansive. Different versions of this view look to different sources for the boundaries of this meaning: for example, the author's intended meaning, the common understanding of the author's words, or the range of possible meanings held by the author's words at the time the author wrote.
My own view is that this historically burning and divisive issue in literary criticism is in fact a non-issue. The reason is that in the course of ordinary critical discussion about a literary work, there are always boundaries to where our discussion of the work's meaning will be allowed to go.
No energy need be lost "correcting" the one person in the conversation who believes that Carroll's Alice books are about Martians by patiently explaining to him that there must be boundaries on a work's meaning and his interpretation lies outside them.
Why? Because in practice, the conversation simply won't follow this contribution up. Until the person in question has something to say that lies within the boundaries that gradually emerge from the conversation itself, his view will be ignored.
There is no point in finding a principled answer to the question, "What sets the limits of interpretation?" Interpretation sets the limits (and revises them) through its own activity. There is always a definite (if wide) range within which you can say something that other readers will find illuminating about a work, and a much wider range beyond it where, if you venture to go, others will stop listening or at least stop responding.