What determines the way we interpret the world around us, the meanings we ascribe to certain events or behaviors? What are the building blocks of a person’s “world view”? Can one person’s way of looking at the world be translated? Is it possible that we share an objective experience of the world or are we ultimately stuck inside our own minds, constrained to a subjective experience?
The subjectivity of human experience is mitigated by shared language, of course, but this area of inquiry remains fraught with complexity (and drama). Stream-of-consciousness novels like Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying address this subjectivity directly, crafting novels that are actually built as stylistic expressions of individualized, internal perspectives.
Other works approach the interesting problems of interpretation, giving us literary works that invite us to consider the notion that our methods of “reading” reality are probably just as imperfect as our methods of reading literature. We often end up selecting one meaning for a text out of potential dozens of meanings simply because we prefer that meaning or because it correlates with our own preconceptions. Gabriel Garcia Marquez is well-known for his style of narrative where fantasy and reality co-mingle in ways that defy easy explanation or quick, meaningful interpretation.
The problem of interpretation, mired as it is in subjectivity, ends up being one of the main points of stories like “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.”
There is also an important consideration to be made in this thematic area regarding judgment, both legal and personal. When we evaluate the intentions and actions of another, are we capable of truly understanding that person’s point of view? Or are we restricted to our own point of view and so forced to judge according to a limited and subjective sense of things? What does this do the ethics of judgment?
Works like The Stranger by Albert Camus and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee explore some of the issues that arise when empathy fails yet (social) judgment persists. In a different way, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men explores the theme of subjective reality in the character of Lenny, a man who is incapable of seeing the world as others do and who pays the ultimate price for that incapacity.
Texts & Authors Exploring Subjective Reality
- The Stranger – Albert Camus
- One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
- “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
- Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – Edward Albee
- The Sound and the Fury – William Faulkner
- As I lay Dying – William Faulkner
- Mrs. Dalloway – Virginia Woolf
- “Auroras of Autumn” – Wallace Stevens