Authorial Intent

The sky was a dark shade of gray. The woman stepped outside into the hazy night and looked up. She knew the days ahead would be long and grim. She could feel it.

Authorial Intent Authorial Intent

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Table of contents

    What does the gray sky represent?

    The answer to this question might vary based on the reader's interpretation. For example, readers might claim that it represents the serious situation the character is in. Others might think that because it is gray and not pitch black, there is still room for light and therefore hope. But what did the author intend it to represent? Is there a right or wrong answer?

    When readers ask these questions, they are reflecting on authorial intent, the intention that the author had for the meaning of the text.

    Authorial Intent Definition

    When reading or analyzing a text, it can be useful to reflect on the authorial intent. Authorial intent is the intention behind the text. In other words, it is the meaning the author wants the reader to get out of the work. Reflecting on authorial intent can help readers interpret a text.

    Authorial intent is the way an author desires readers to understand their work.

    Authorial Intent Examples

    Authorial intent looks different with every text. However, readers can use several strategies to try to identify authorial intent and assess if it's accurate or relevant. They can reflect on elements of the text like the following:

    Intended Audience

    Recognizing an author’s intended audience is a useful first step in analyzing an author’s intent. The intended audience of a text is the primary group of readers that will read it. For example, consider J.K Rowling’s book Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (1997). The book is about an eleven-year-old boy who finds out he is a wizard and goes on a year of adventure at a school for magic. Although people of all ages and backgrounds read this text, the content and the simplicity of the writing suggest that Rowling aimed the text at a youthful audience. Knowing this allows readers to narrow down what Rowling’s intent could have been, such as entertaining young people and teaching them moral lessons.

    To identify the intended audience of a text, readers can ask themselves the following questions:

    • Where was this text published? Who typically reads publications from this place?
    • Who tends to be interested in this topic?
    • Does the author use words that only experts would know? Or is this text accessible to all levels of readers?

    Reflecting on the answers to these questions can help readers pinpoint who the author is directing a text toward. For instance, if a text seems directed at experts in the field, the author probably intends to influence these experts only, not people outside the field. While this does not always help readers discover the author’s specific intention, it can set them on the right track.


    An author’s tone can also be a key to understanding their intent. In writing, the tone is the mood or attitude that a writer's words convey. For example, writers can use a serious tone or a joyful tone. An author’s word choice, sentence structure, and subject matter all contribute to tone.

    Noting the tone of writing can help readers understand what a writer wants a reader to get out of a text. For instance, if a writer uses a solemn tone when writing about a recent event, this suggests that they want the reader to take it seriously.

    Authorial Intent, Emotions, StudySmarterThe tone of a text can help readers assess authorial intent.

    For example, consider the tone of the following excerpt from Jonathan Swift’s essay "A Modest Proposal" (1729). In the essay, he explains the problem of poverty in Ireland and proposes a response:

    I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassée or a ragout/

    By mentioning his research on the topic and speaking of eating children as practical, Swift creates a matter-of-fact tone. The casual way in which he discusses such an outrageous topic creates sarcasm. Writers use sarcasm as a device to ridicule. Swift’s use of sarcasm suggests that his intention is to make fun of the existing responses to poverty.

    Point of View

    Sometimes, an author’s point of view on a topic in the text can inform the reader about the intent of the work. An author's point of view can be trickier to determine in fiction writing, but it is critical for determining authorial intent.

    For instance, consider the final lines from chapter nine of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925).

    Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther… And one fine morning ——

    So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

    In these lines, Fitzgerald suggests that idealists who dream like Gatsby constantly reach for futures that are out of their grasp. This point suggests that Fitzgerald was skeptical of the American Dream. Understanding this point of view can enhance the reader’s understanding of Fitzgerald's intention, which was to critique the concept of the American Dream and wealthy American society in the 1920s.

    Readers should highlight or circle keywords that indicate an author’s position on a topic. For instance, words in the above passage like "receded," "eluded," and "past" all indicate Fitzgerald's skeptical view of idealists. Annotating like this makes it easy to come back to when analyzing authorial intent.

    Authorial Intent Verbs

    Writers can use the following verbs to describe authorial intent. They can also prompt readers to consider what authors are doing. For instance, the word explain can encourage a reader to consider what an author is explaining in a text.

    • Explain

    • Celebrate

    • Contrast

    • Defend

    • Highlight

    • Prove

    • Teach

    • Question

    • Warn

    For instance, a writer analyzing authorial intent might write something like this:

    In this essay, the author questions the importance of considering authorial intent in literary analysis.

    Fallacy of Authorial Intent

    There is a lot of debate in literary criticism about the relevance of authorial intent. In 1946, literary critics William Kurtz Wimsatt and Monroe Curtis Beardsley wrote an article called “The Intentional Fallacy” claiming that it is a mistake to try to understand an author’s intention when analyzing a text. This idea prompted a lot of debate among literary critics.

    In the essay, Wimsatt and Beardsley outline three types of evidence that readers use to find meaning in a text.

    Type 1: Internal Evidence

    As the name suggests, internal evidence comes from within the text itself. It consists of elements of language in the poem, such as syntax, tone, and structure. For example, a reader might point to a writer's use of sarcasm to claim that the writer is mocking the topic.

    Wismatt and Beardsley explained that internal evidence is public, meaning that anyone reading a text can access it. They argued that using only internal evidence in analysis ensures that readers avoid the intentional fallacy. This is because internal evidence is concerned only with meaning in the text itself, not with readers' speculations about what the author may have intended based on outside context.

    Type 2: External Evidence

    In contrast to internal evidence, external evidence comes from outside the text. It consists of contextual elements, such as where the author wrote the text and what was going on during that time. The main point of using external evidence is to determine what the author intended to do in a text.

    Wistmatt and Beardsley explain that using external evidence in analysis is a problem. It is easy for readers to incorrectly apply external evidence to the meaning of a work. For instance, imagine a reader knows that a poet wrote a poem at the time of their mother’s death. The reader might assume that some words in the poem represent this sad time for the poet when it may not be the case. Wismatt and Beadsely also warned against the use of external evidence because it is private and relies on what each individual reader knows.

    Type 3: Intermediate Evidence

    Intermediate evidence is a bit internal and a bit external. For example, a reader might claim that a poet uses a flower as a symbol for fertility in a poem. They might claim this because the poet used it like that in other poems and because it functions that way in the text itself. The use of other poems as evidence is external evidence; the mention of how the symbol functions in the poem is internal evidence.

    Wismatt and Beardsley supported the use of intermediate evidence more than external evidence because it still relies on the text itself, but they remained wary of the elements of external evidence within it.1

    Death of the Author

    Then in 1967, Roland Barthes wrote the essay "The Death of the Author." He posited that the intentions of an author should not be a part of literary analysis. He suggested that readers have to figuratively kill the author when reading a text and only focus on what it means to them. According to Barthes, if a reader can use evidence to support an interpretation of a text, that interpretation can be valid.

    Barthes’ perspective has become increasingly popular in literary criticism. It is difficult to pinpoint what an author's intentions were, especially in an old text. Writing off a reader’s interpretation of a text because the author did not deliberately think of it also restricts readers' critical thinking. As long as a writer can support their interpretation with evidence from the text, their ideas have the potential to expand literary insights.2

    The word fallacy refers to a false idea or belief. The phrase “fallacy of authorial intent” thus refers to authorial intent as a false idea.

    Authorial Intent vs. Reader Response

    The debate regarding the importance of authorial intent centers around two concepts: authorial intent and reader response. In contrast to authorial intent, reader response refers to the way a reader interprets the work based on their experience with it, regardless of what the author intended the work to be about.

    For instance, for many years, scholars have taught that Shakespeare intended his tragic play Macbeth (1606) to be a warning about the dangers of ambition. But imagine a reader reads the play and thinks that it is a testament to the power and the importance of going after one wants, no matter what the obstacles or the cost. They could use evidence from the play to support this claim, such as the way Macbeth goes as far as murder to achieve his goals. Some might say that this is not the meaning that Shakespeare intended. However, critics of authorial intent would say that the reader's interpretation is just as valid because they used evidence from the text to back it up.

    Authorial Intent, Reader, StudySmarterSome scholars argue that reader responses should be the focus of literary analysis, not authorial intent.

    Problems with Authorial Intent

    Regardless of one’s side of the authorial intent debate, there are several problems with authorial intent, including the following:

    • It restricts possible interpretations of a text.

    • It suggests that authors have the power to limit the meaning of a text.

    • It reduces the possibilities for new analyses.

    • It is difficult to identify.

    Despite these problems, understanding authorial intent can sometimes be useful when interpreting a text. Recognizing authorial intent when studying a text in an English class is also sometimes a necessity, even if a student supports Barthes' point of view.

    Authorial Intent - Key Takeaways

    • Authorial intent is what an author intends a reader to get out of a text.
    • Readers can analyze authorial intent by analyzing an author’s tone, point of view, and intended audience.
    • The importance of authorial intent is controversial, and scholars like Roland Barthes argue that readers should only focus on supporting their own interpretations.
    • Authorial intent has several problems, like how it restricts interpretations and is difficult to assess.
    • Regardless of the debate, authorial intent can be useful for understanding a text and is sometimes a necessity when studying a text.

    1 William K. Wismatt and Monroe C. Beardsley, “The Intentional Fallacy,” The Verbal Icon, 1946.

    2 Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author,” Aspen, 1967.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Authorial Intent

    What is the definition of authorial intent?

    Authorial intent is the way an author intends readers to understand their work.  

    What is authorial intent and what is reader response?

    Authorial intent is the way an author intends readers to understand their work. In contrast, reader response is how a reader interprets a text.

    What is an example of authorial intent?

    An example of an author’s intent is the use of a sarcastic tone indicating that the author is criticizing a topic. 

    Why is authorial intent important?

    Authorial intent can be important because it can enhance a reader’s understanding of a text. 

    How do you analyze authorial intent?

    Readers can analyze authorial intent by analyzing elements of a text such as tone, point of view, and intended audience. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What is authorial intent?

    What did Roland Barthes Write?

    True or False. Wimsatt and Beardsley wrote “The Intentional Fallacy” in which they argued that authorial intent is important to understanding a text. 

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