Very closely related: How much weight is given to authors' intentions in literary analysis?

Related (as an example of what I'm talking about): Is there any textual evidence to support that Dumbledore was gay?

Loosely related: Should Go Set a Watchman change our view of Atticus defending Tom Robinson?

Also related: Discussion in the comments on this answer.

One more example: Ray Bradbury says Fahrenheit 451 isn't about censorship. Is he right?

Certain authors, such as J. K. Rowling, are notorious for making declarations about the meaning of their text after the fact. One notable example is Rowling's claims that Dumbledore was gay. From what I've read, most people's reaction to that claim fell into one of three camps: that's great, that's terrible, and "no, she's wrong." I'm particularly interested in the "no, she's wrong" camp.

To the extent that authorial intent is relevant to meaning (and I do realize that that's a controversial point), how much weight should we give to authors' later declarations on meaning? Does there have to be some evidence that they intended that at the time that they actually wrote the book and/or some kind of indication in the text that that their claim is actually true?

To give a concrete example, does it even matter that J. K. Rowling claims that Dumbledore's gay? How much weight (if any) should we give that claim?

Another concrete example: J. K. Rowling has released additional background material (allegedly used as part of her research for the books) - e.g. character sketches, etc. Is there validity to using those for interpretation (or do we just say "no, not part of the text")?

Have there been any cases where an author's later claims about the text were clearly refuted?

Important note: I'm not asking about how authorial intent in general is related to meaning (that was already addressed in a linked post) - just how much weight later declarations that aren't clearly settled by the text should be given (like J. K. Rowling's claim).

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  • Piece worth reading on this: nytimes.com/2007/10/29/arts/29conn.html?_r=1
    – VicAche
    Commented Mar 11, 2017 at 22:54
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    I like this question but it seems like the sort of thing where I could imagine 10 essay-length answers reaching different conclusions but each equally valid. Trying to think how this could in any way be settled with facts: maybe something like "Has any author's after-the-fact declarations of their intentions ever been proven to be untrue?" or something like that? Commented Mar 14, 2017 at 11:24
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    (1) Who is "we" in the question title? General readers? Literary critics? (2) This seems to be a function of the literary theory you espouse. (And general readers are typically unaware of the literary theory they apply to their reading because they've never been forced to make it explicit.)
    – Tsundoku
    Commented Jun 1, 2018 at 9:50
  • How much weight should we give authors' before-the-fact declarations of intent? “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot. BY ORDER OF THE AUTHOR." — Mark Twain.
    – Peter Shor
    Commented Jun 22, 2018 at 12:58

2 Answers 2


The way that this question is worded implies a particular theory about how literature is interpreted (that is, it's a theory-laden question). The implicit theory seems to be that we interpret literature by treating it as if it were documentary evidence for a fictional universe. In this theory, there is a single fictional universe, and our task as readers is to determine facts about that universe by interpreting the texts we are given.

The question asks about how to resolve the difficulty that arises when there are multiple texts apparently describing the same fictional universe: in this situation we have to decide which texts are canonical and which are not. The theoretical picture thus looks like this:

(I am not suggesting that you necessarily believe this theory. But the question as asked only makes sense within a picture like this.)

This theory resembles the situation in history, where what actually happened is a matter of fact, but our knowledge about what happened is based on a collection of unreliable and incomplete texts (combined with physical evidence like archaeology and genetics). In history, when we ask a question like, "did Richard III order the murder of Edward V?", we know there is a fact of the matter even if our texts don't give us any confidence in what it is.

But is this really the best theory about literature? When we ask a question like, "Did Heathcliff murder Hindley Earnshaw in Wuthering Heights?", there is no fact of the matter independent of the texts. We are free to imagine a fictional universe in which Heathcliff murdered Hindley, and also to imagine a fictional universe in which Hindley died accidentally. The theoretical situation is more like this:

In this picture I've drawn the interpretations in different shapes to suggest that "imagining a fictional universe" is not the only kind of way in which we might interpret a text: we might have a formalist interpretation looking at syntactic features of the text like vocabulary and metre, or a psychoanalytic interpretation relating the text to theories of mind, or a political interpretation relating the text to political and social movements, or many other kinds of approaches.

  • You write, "The question asks about how to resolve the difficulty that arises when there are multiple texts apparently describing the same fictional universe: (...)". I disagree. Each of the examples listed in the question (the Harry Potter series, Fahrenheit 451, Go Set a Watchman) is about a different fictional universe.
    – Tsundoku
    Commented Jun 1, 2018 at 13:54
  • Each of the examples is about how to handle the situation of multiple texts apparently referring to the same fictional universe. So in the Rowling case, we have the "Harry Potter" novels and the 2007 Harvard Commencement speech. In the Lee case, we have To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman. In the Bradbury case we have Fahrenheit 451 and an interview with the author. Commented Jun 1, 2018 at 13:59

How much weight you should give to an author's declaration about intended meaning or interpretation depends on the theory of literature you espouse. In a related question, I briefly discussed E. D. Hirsch's brand of intentionalism.

However, most literary theories simply ignore authorial intent. In How to Read Literature (Yale University Press, 2014), Terry Eagleton discusses several reasons why authorial intent does not settle the question of a literary work's meaning.

  1. Authors may propose interpretations that don't make sense. For example, T. S. Eliot famously provided footnotes to his poem The Waste Land but later also claimed that the poem was nothing more than a piece of rhythmical grousing. (Page 134)
  2. Authors may forget what they meant. Eagleton cites the example of one of Robert Browning's more obscure poems, about which the author said, "When I wrote this poem, God and Robert Browning knew what it meant. Now, God knows." (Page 135)
  3. Most importantly, "works of literature do not mean just one thing" (page 135).

One can use authorial intent to guide one towards an interpretation, but most of the time, such statements are not available. Literary theory typically ignores it.

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