We currently have several questions about , for example,

Some of these questions assume that statements by the author about his or her intentions are available. However, for most of the history of literature, I think such statements are not available. (The examples in the other questions are about 20th- or 21st-century literature, though older examples can probably be found elsewhere.)

When all an author has left behind are his literary works, and we have no letters, diaries or other sources of contemporary statements about his or her own works, how can a reader ascertain that he or she has identified the author's intent?

  • 2
    I think you may be putting the cart before the horse here. AFAIK, even authorial-intentists don't see "what did the author say they meant" as an end in its own right: they too are asking "what does this text mean", but they think authorial intent yields the most/only appropriate answer to that latter question. So if there's no clear way of determining authorial intent, they'll fall back on other ways of divining the meaning of the text.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Jun 21, 2018 at 15:27
  • @Randal'Thor I see what you mean. Perhaps the question should have been, "How do intentionalists establish the meaning of a text when there are no sources about the author's intended meaning?" I'd prefer to post that as a separate question rather than changing the current one, since there is already one answer here.
    – Tsundoku
    Jun 21, 2018 at 16:50
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    Personally, I find artists, whether literary or otherwise, often resist being "pinned down" about intent. There is also the idea that if a work is too "spot on", it's not likely to be considered all that great, lacking the ineffable quality that allows a work to be continually re-interpreted by successive generations of readers.
    – DukeZhou
    Jun 26, 2018 at 19:52

1 Answer 1


In many cases, we can infer the author's intent from the way the work is presented. The author may present numerous scenes that show character A in an unflattering light, from which we deduce that she considers A to be a villain. Looking at the way a book was received in its time also gives us a good sense of how the author may have seen it.

When modern scholars talk about interpreting a book differently from the author's intent, it is often because we have a particular analysis that sheds a light on the book from an angle unlikely to have been considered by the author - say, a Marxist or a psychoanalytic reading. Or it maybe because we consider each reader's response subtly different, and see no reason to privilege the author's specific interpretation over those ones.

  • The trouble is that the narrator and the author are two different concepts. How do you know you are dealing with the author's intent and not simply with the narrator's intent?
    – Tsundoku
    Jun 25, 2018 at 16:40

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