I enjoyed very much reading Alan Jacobs on “fanciful biographies” of fictional characters, and I agree completely with where he ends up. After a discussion of one of these – the question of whether Albus Dumbledore “was” gay – Jacobs turns to the ultimate source, J. K. Rowling, who says that indeed, she “always thought of Dumbledore as gay.” Apropos of which, Jacobs points out:
There’s a pleasant humility in this: Rowling seems to me saying that, since she never wrote anything in the books that directly addressed Dumbledore’s sexuality, she’s in more-or-less the same position as her readers, speculating about something that’s not in the “canon.” Now, no doubt, her speculations carry more weight than others’ — which is why she didn’t hesitate to tell the filmmakers of the series flatly that “Dumbledore is gay” — but she clearly makes the distinction between what she wrote (which has a clear authority) and what she didn’t write but thinks (which has somewhat less).
That’s right: in matters of interpretation, the author doesn’t have any kind of definitive authority. Rather, the author’s interpretation is presumptively a strong one (because who knows the work better?), but subject to being rejected by any given reader in favor of an interpretation that, from that reader’s perspective, is stronger.
The strength of the interpretation – the degree to which it opens up the work, makes it fuller, richer, more powerful – is what ultimately matters, though. And that’s my answer to Jacobs’s initial question of what people mean when they posit facts about fictional characters that can’t really be answered with reference to the text. What they mean – or what they should mean – is: this text becomes stronger if I posit that this fact (which isn’t in the text) is true about this character. Incidents or language that seemed obscure take on significance, without thereby sacrificing other moments or language that clearly ought to be more central.
Let me illustrate with an example from an actor I know. He’s an accomplished stage actor who had little classical experience when he was thrown into the pool in, if not quite the deep end, certainly well away from the shallows: he was cast to play Orlando in As You Like It. I was talking to him at one point during the run about how he understands his brother Oliver’s animus towards him. That animus, from the text, seems to be motivated by simple jealousy – Oliver hates Orlando for Orlando’s virtues and for the love of the common people that was won by those virtues. This hatred first motivated Oliver to cruelly oppress his brother, and then proceeds to (attempted) murder.
Notwithstanding all of this history, when Oliver is in peril of his life, Orlando saves him – and, in saving him, is wounded himself. And this selfless act to save a man who would have killed him changes Oliver profoundly, so profoundly that he completely reverses himself, and loves his brother Orlando as much as he previously hated him – and is happy to defer to him as much as he previously oppressed him.
So, my question to the actor playing Orlando was: how do you understand that move on Orlando’s part? Not merely to save his brother, but to accept that his transformation is real, and embrace him as a brother – which, to my mind, is far more implausible than that he saved his life.
His answer was interesting. He said, you know, we hear a lot about the boys’ father (their lineage has plot consequences), but nothing about their mother. And we know that Orlando had a fond relationship with his father. What was Oliver’s relationship with his father like? Maybe he was more attached to the mother. So what happened to her? Well, Orlando is the youngest son of Sir Roland de Boys. Perhaps his mother died bearing him? If so, then Oliver was deprived as a child of the parent he felt closest to. And he – Orlando – killed her. That’s a powerful motivation for hatred, isn’t it?
It is – but the actor inventing this “fanciful biography” wasn’t playing Oliver; he was playing Orlando. If it was helpful to him, it’s because it helped him understand his brother – to empathize with him. The first him in that sentence is the actor playing Orlando, but the second him is the character, Orlando. That is to say, the biographical hypothesis – Oliver’s mother died giving birth to his brother, Orlando – was invented out of the actor’s fancy. But Orlando himself, reflecting on this biographical “fact” (not a hypothesis, from his perspective inside the play), had a basis for feeling pity along with resentment towards his brother. And thus the actor playing Orlando could make the reconciliation scene work, from his end.
It’s no different for us as readers. When we read a work of narrative fiction, we’re playing all the parts in our own heads. If we are to play them well, we need to know who they are. That may – or may not – lead us to speculate about their lives outside of the frame of the text in ways that can infuriate a critic for whom only the text has authority.
But it’s not a question of authority. It’s a question of building a fairer house than prose.