What is the role of the reader on a text?

Alison Carter

Alison Carter interrogates the dynamic relationship between the reader and the text, highlighting the important role of social context in signification and the making of meaning. Carter also considers the expectations of genre, and the preconceptions these create in the reader.


What is the role of the reader on the text? In order to establish an answer to this question, we must first consider what defines us as ‘readers’ and to refine the broad term ‘text’. Reading is a term that can be applied to many things other than texts; equally, the term text is elusive in what we would classify to be a ‘text’. In revising the word ‘reader’, I was uninspired when I found little or no other definitions than ‘a person who reads.’ In this, I decided to research the act of reading itself and came across a better elucidation; 

“reading n. 1a act of reading (reading of will). b matter to be read (made exciting reading)...4 entertainment in which a play, poems etc, are read...6 interpretation or view taken (what is your reading of the facts?) 7 interpretation made (of drama, music, etc.)” 

Here, we can see that the term ‘reading’ is not only suggestive of understanding and processing the language in its written form, but the manifestation of meaning through cognitive analysis and understanding. The two different types of ‘reading’ must therefore, be subject to the text in which is being read. As with all language, the creator i.e. the speaker or writer will undoubtedly impose meaning onto the language; as of course, that is its initial purpose. However, it cannot be denied that in the transition from the ‘creator’ to the ‘reader’ a corruption occurs; which can change or flaw the text in its innate form (potentially creating meaning that was unintended by the creator.) Raman Selden observes the theory of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure; 

“He makes a fundamental distinction between langue and parole- between the language system, which pre-exists actual examples of language and individual utterance. Langue is the social aspect of language: it is the shared system in which we (unconsciously) draw upon as speakers. Parole is the individual realization of the system in actual instances of language.”

 In this, we can see that the relationship between the reader and the text is subject to the reader’s personal experience with language and is subject to the social aspects of language, thus creating an individual interpretation of text. Saussure has noted langue and parole as two key stages in which interpretation of texts is made possible. This illustrates that texts alone do not express any meaning, and it is the process of the language system and the social connotations of communication which in turn aid the formation of meaning through texts. 

With this observation being drawn, it now allows us to asses to what extent the ‘creator’ can manipulate this process with stylistic variations on language (such as; irony, sarcasm and figurative language) or how this process can become flawed due to grammatical inconsistencies.  Here is an example of how figurative language can alter traditional interpretations of text; “he wanted to swim in her, she was a pool of desire”. If we read this sentence literally, we would come to the conclusion that it does not make sense. One cannot ‘swim’ in another person, nor can they be a ‘pool’ of anything. Once this observation has been made and absorbed, the reader then has no option but to consider the other potential meanings surrounding the text. Thus drawing upon their own, assessment and experience. In this, not only has the ‘reader’ effectively drawn individual meaning from the text, but the ‘creator’ has relied upon the ‘reader’ in being able to do so. Umberto Eco states;

“The very existence of texts that can not only be freely interpreted but also cooperatively generated by the addressee (the ‘orginal’ text constituting a flexible type of which many tokens can be legitimately realized) posits the problem of a rather peculiar strategy of communication based upon a flexible system of signification.”

In variation to this, text can also be subject to grammatical flaws which can make the meaning questionable or have more than one meaning, for example; “The boy hit the man with the cane.” In this sentence, we can easily draw two different interpretations of meaning. The first being that the boy used a cane to hit the man and the second being that the man who was being hit required a cane to walk. Although the original sentence appears to be normal and coherent, it isn’t until you bring two possible meanings together that the flaw becomes highlighted. This is due to us questioning the connotations of the language used and how it directly affects the reader in their process of absorbing meaning. This interpretation is reliant on the individuals associations with the word ‘cane’, whether it is a weapon or a walking aid is related directly to the words connotations. These types of inconsistencies within language often cause the understanding to become staggered or ‘untrue’ to the ‘original’ text, and therefore the creator’s intentions maybe overlooked or misconstrued. Roland Barthes famously explores the relationship between readers and reading in his publication S/Z, in this extract he explores connotations further; 

“Then, what is a connotation? Definitionally, it is a determination, a relation, an anaphora, a feature which has the power to relate itself to anterior, ulterior, or exterior mentions, to other sites of the text (or of another text).” 
Barthes is supporting the notion that text is always subject to exterior nuances which relates to previous experience of language and text. Within these examples we have concluded that the personal interpretation of text is an essential part of reading, and that any text would be unable to provide meaning without the unconscious process in which this complex language system is utilized. As long as this process remains ‘unconscious’ to the reader, then, it could be said that the process of reading is never in its ‘truest’ form, and that the reader will receive erroneous interpretations of text.  Susan R. Suleiman comments on E.D. Hirsch’s theory; 

“Naturally, if we stipulate in advance that by ‘meaning’ we shall understand ‘authorial intention’, then it follows logically that readers don’t make meaning. Yet in these two definitions of meaning Hirsch has contradicted himself, affirming in the first that words mean something only in the context of an intending mind...and claiming in the second that they mean something apart from any ‘larger context’ (since their meaning in any larger context is not meaning but ‘significance’)”

With this lack of clarity in regards to where the interpretation and creation of meaning flows from, I conclude that one cannot exist without another. So, a text that is not being read holds no meaning until the text is being utilized for its primary function - equally, a reader cannot be regarded as such without reading, they cannot create an ‘interpretation’ free from the text, as this in turn would evolve them into the ‘creator’. 

Now we must consider to what extent the superficial associations surrounding a text can alter the reader’s interpretation (not just connotations, but the physical and social environments that surround any text). Such as where the text is being presented; a sign post, a label on the back of a plug, a mobile text message, an internet blog or of course – the book. 

“Text n. 1 main body of a book as distinct from notes etc. 2 original book or document, eps. as distinct from a paraphrase, etc...4 subject, theme. 5 (in pl.) books prescribed for study. 6 data in a textual form, esp. as stored, processed or displayed in a word processor, etc.”

 In this definition, we can see that the term ‘text’ is strictly relating to the collective body of text within a book or document. However, this makes me beg the question; why are certain types of written language classified as ‘text’ and others are not? Despite the creator’s intentions of meaning and then classification in which a text is sorted, I would argue that all written language should be grouped within the designation of ‘text’.  In this, all written language or ‘texts’ have been classified into further subcategories in some way or another; whether it be fiction or non-fiction or what genre it is classified as i.e. romance or thriller. This spectrum is vast, from classic Literature to the ingredients on a tin of beans. It is clear that there is a distinction to be made within the interpretation process between these two examples of text and it is quite likely that this is the reason for the original distinction to have been drawn.  

Obviously, these classifications are made due to the direct content of the text. So if a story specifically concerns love or romance, it will be classified as such. So, what would happen if we altered these associations? I believe that although in this respect, the text is very much subject to its classification; it is possible to vary the meaning if we alter the social forms in which it is accessed. For example, the ingredients from a tin of baked beans would usually be regarded as non-fiction, literal text used specifically to identify the contents of the tin and would rarely be misinterpreted for something else. If we took this text and placed it in an anthology for modern poetry, and the reader accessed it in this new classification would the reader look upon it differently, would they absorb the text in a different classification? Would it become artistic or poetic? Peter Barry considers the reader’s experience of texts; 

“In these cases, and many more, there is an almost universally felt anxiety that language will express things we hadn’t intended, or convey the wrong impression, or betray our ignorance, callousness or confusion.” 

It could be said that the social expectations of a text can flaw the interpretation process. Like in the previous example, if the ingredients of a tin of beans were listed in a poetry anthology, some readers may feel uncomfortable questioning its ‘right’ to be there, as poetry in itself is a classification of text in which has many indirect indicators and specifications. As with all language, the specifications in which we create classifications of bodies of speech or text are difficult to pinpoint effectively. An example of this in the spoken language would be the classification of what ‘speech’ is. Is this merely the process in which we create sounds in order to communicate? Or is this the direct reference to the implied meanings of speech? Even the word ‘speech’ itself can be applied to a form of the spoken language usually associated with weddings or special occasions in which the speaker makes a sentiment or statement about the event in question. How is this classification of speech distinguished from the conversational style of language used when communicating in our everyday lives?

Like in ‘texts’, the spoken language is also subject to subtle nuances like; figurative language or sarcasm, however, it cannot be denied that the spoken word has the advantage of sound and ‘tone’. Tone can create the atmosphere around the language, therefore allowing the addressee to interpret what is being said due to social circumstance. I believe that this is where the ambiguity within texts exist, and that the relation between the addresser and addressee is so unnatural and unfamiliar, that interpretations of language often get misconstrued or ‘lost in translation’. Raman Selden looks at Jakobson’s model of linguistic communication;       


“Jakobson believed that literary discourse is different from other kinds of discourse by having a ‘set to the message’; a poem is about iself (its form, its imagery, its literary meaning) before it is about the poet, the reader, or the world. However, if we reject formalism and adopt the perspective of the reader or audience, the whole orientation of Jakobson’s diagram changes.”   

From this diagram, it is clear to see that the vital tools necessary to convert text into meaning happens within the process of the text linking the reader and the creator. From this information I would conclude that all text is not only subject to the interpretation of its reader but that all texts maintain innate meaning that is changeable through time and perspective. The assessment to be made that in reading any ‘body of text’ the reader goes through a series of stages to compile and extract meaning. Here are those stages; The authors intention, reading, deciphering language, formation, tone and classification, unconscious use of connotation and then the interpretation is formed. Like language, ‘text’ can only mean something if there is a relationship between the two individuals which make the process of communication possible. I conclude that the role of the reader is simply to read, thus, allowing the processes of interpretation, expression and communication possible. 



• Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009.)

• Barthes, Roland (author) S/Z Translated by Richard Miller (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1992.)

• Bennett, Andrew . Royal, Nicholas. (authors), An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory: Fourth Edition (Harlow: Pearson Education Limited, 2009.)

• Duffy, Carol Ann (author), New Selected Poems 1984-2004 (Basingstoke and Oxford: Pan Macmillan Ltd.)

• Eco, Umberto (author) The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the semiotics of texts (London: Hutchinson & Co. Ltd, 1981.)

• Fowler, Roger (editor), A Dictionary of Modern Critical Terms (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973)

• Hadfield, Andrew (author), The English Renaissance 1500-1620 (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 2001)  

• Rosenblatt, Louise. M. (author), The Reader The Text The Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work (United States of America: Illinois University, 1994.)

• Selden, Raman. A Readers Guide To Contemporary Literary Theory: Fifth edition. (Harlow: Pearson Education Limited, 2005.)

• Shakespeare, William (author), The Selected Sonnets of William Shakespeare (London: Methuen Publishing Limited, 2005.)

• Suleiman, Susan R (editor) The Reader in the Text: Essays on audience and interpretation (Oxford: Princeton University Press, 1980)

• Thompson, Della (editor), The Pocket Oxford Dictionary: English (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996)



Alison Carter


brightONLINE student literary journal

10 Aug 2012