Ian McEwan and Intentional Fallacy

In their 1946 essay, ‘The Intentional Fallacy’, W. K. Wimsatt Jr. and M. C. Beardsley argue that a ‘poem is not the critic’s own and not the author’s (it is detached from the author at birth and goes about the world beyond his power to intend about it or control it). The poem belongs to the public. It is embodied in language, the peculiar possession of the public, and it is about the human being, an object of public knowledge.’ Their sentiments can too count for any work of art beyond the poem – in literature, music, film, photography, painting, etc. – any cultural artefact in fact; even for characters, who are the creations not only of writers and artists, but of myths and traditions in storytelling and popular imaginations.

Like so many reimaginings and re-presentations of the tales of Robin Hood or Odysseus, an author’s charactorial creation must remain open to interpretation, otherwise it will become enchained in, and enslaved to, the non-dialectically restrictive intentionality of the author, so Wimsatt and Beardsley argue; an ensnarement and enslavement in rather bad faith, as – if taken to its extreme – it can become an attempt to close off the process of reading itself, precisely as an interactive process. To Wimsatt and Beardsley – whilst of course conceding the necessary zero-level ground to authorial intention (a work is after all composed by a one and not an other) – it mustn’t matter what an author’s sole intention behind specifics in the text is; as they eloquently put it: ‘critical inquiries are not settled by consulting the oracle.’ This has of course been realised too by so many writers; James Joyce, for example, said of his own work: ‘though people may read more into Ulysses than I ever intended, who’s to say that they are wrong: do any of us know what we are creating?’

So, what might be the consequences of an authorial reassertion of intentionality? Ian McEwan has talked of the seemingly surreal experience of helping his son Greg with an A-level essay centred on his own novel Enduing Love, which was his son’s class’s set text. The essay was apparently returned with ‘a very low mark’ after McEwan had given his son some ‘key points’ to assist with it (though Greg himself has said he received a by no means failing ‘low B’). Whilst this makes for an amusing anecdote, which could nonetheless serve to highlight issues with the marking systems and criteria used in the assessment of Key Stages 4 and 5, which are based, as McEwan says, on ‘the presentation of ideas, not the ideas themselves’– i.e., ‘assessment objectives’, etc., which can serve as so many tick-boxes to pass or fail young thinkers by – it is into McEwan’s following statement that a further inquiry might be merited: ‘I think one of his tutors thought that the stalker in Enduring Love carried the authorial moral centre of the novel, whereas I thought he was a complete madman.’


Here McEwan makes an assertion on the character of Jed Parry that condemns him simply to ‘madness’, seemingly without allowing of any other interpretations. Whilst McEwan does implicitly critique the notion of authorial intention itself (the A-level tutor is made out to assert that their opinion on what is the ‘moral centre of the novel’ is the correct one), and offers his own intention/interpretation with a hesitating, and therefore only suggestive, ‘whereas I thought…’, we are nonetheless met with a certain prescription here that disallows to an extent not only the act of literary criticism itself, but of its opening-out into so many other areas of cultural study and psychological penetration.

From personal A-level experience of interacting with Enduring Love (in being the same age as McEwan’s son), much is made in lessons of Jed Parry’s relation to erotomania, or de Clerambault’s syndrome (as elucidated in McEwan’s phoney appendix to the book), which at least brings some perspective on madness, and mental health issues, into relief (in part, of course, on the part of the author himself). What the danger of such a dismissal of Parry as ‘complete madman’ risks, however, is crossing the line of the ‘fine shade between […] romantic [i.e., literary] expressions and a kind of earnest advice that authors often give’, as Wimsatt and Beardsley put it; that is, of entering into a type of moralism that has the potential to shut down the process of reading itself – the book through the world, and the world through its books.


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