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  • Belief and Context Determinacy in Interpreting Fiction
  • Christine Richards (bio)


Context Determinacy and the Interpretation of Fiction

The Pragmatics of Reading

The basic pragmatic structure of the reading of fiction has been described as a communicative context which has a speaker who performs the speech acts represented by the text and a hearer (addressee) to whom the speech acts are directed [Adams 12]. This model is based on the assumption that the reader and the writer share not only a common language but a common context, which clearly presents problems for readers of fiction, where generic conventions as well as other cultural conventions of writing, such as satire and irony, or the separation of writers and readers by time, have to be contended with. The code model, which assumes that the writer and the reader share a common context, can be represented as shown in figure 1.

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Figure 1.

W = writer, S = speaker, H = hearer, R = reader.

However, it has also been argued [Eco, Role of the Reader 40; Eco, Semiotics 69; Richards 262] that no theory of a text is possible without a theory of contexts, since texts are processed and given meaning by a synthesis of propositions in them with those which originate in readers’ supplied contexts; and since the contexts of readers consist, first and foremost, of their background knowledge, beliefs, and culture, which are fundamentally interrelated, interpretation is inevitably determined by extralinguistic as well as linguistic factors. The context model might be represented as shown in figure 2.

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Figure 2.

W = writer, N = narrator, R = reader.

[End Page 81]

The Extralinguistic Context

A good example of the role played by extralinguistic contexts in the interpretation of a text is to be found in the multiple interpretations of the sentence “The red sun was pasted in the sky like a wafer,” from Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage [64]. Susan Horton, in her discussion of accounts of this sentence [10–14], shows both how R. W. Stallman interprets Crane’s antiwar fiction as a Christian allegory where the word “wafer” functions as a symbol of the Eucharist [130], and how Marston La France rejects Stallman’s interpretation on the basis that Crane is not a Christian, and certainly not a Catholic [99–100]. La France’s rejection of Stallman’s Christian context for atheism is rooted in his interpretation of the sun as a repeated image in the co-text, which he believes signifies nature’s indifference to death, war and heroism. Here the lexemes “pasted” and “wafer” become images of a seal at the end of a legal document, implying the finality of death in war. Milne Holton interprets the image of the sun as a characteristic of the symbolic imagination of the character Henry Fleming rather than of the writer (Crane) [90–91].

Horton documents but does not theorize the determining features of these contexts, but this problem can be tackled by applying Marcello Pagnini’s theory of “the introjection of the referent” [9] to explain how the contextual semes of readers, determined by different cultural systems, are introjected into texts. Following Jurij M. Lotman’s typology of cultural systems [Lotman and Uspenskij], Pagnini cites as relevant systems ethics, ideology, history, philosophy, myth, the law, anthropology, politics, ethnicity, literature, aesthetics, psychology, rhetoric and symbolism [34], which represent fundamentally interrelated complexes of systems that make up societies. If Pagnini’s model is taken with that of Richards [267], which conceives of interpretation as a synthesis of propositional inferences in texts with those drawn from readers’ contexts, these two models provide a methodological basis for explaining how the contexts of Stallman’s and La France’s conflicting interpretations derive from philosophically opposed belief systems within culture—Christianity and atheism. These models also help to explain Holton’s interpretation as one located within a different philosophical context, that of the convention of character analysis in fiction, which during the last few decades has developed into the more theoretically sophisticated field of narratology. It should be stressed, however, that interpretations themselves always take place within historical and interactive frameworks, which are influenced...

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pp. 81-93
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