Death Throes of the Author

02 Nov 2020

The last paragraph of O Henry’s The Gift of the Magi makes me like it a lot less. Had the story just ended with the reveal of Jim having sold his watch, the reader could’ve read the story as an everyday tragedy, as a snapshot of bitter ironies in life, or just a sardonic take of human nature. The author, though, chooses to moralize, saying “…two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house”, and imposing upon the reader his own interpretation.

Roland Barthes in his iconic essay Death of the Author argues against incorporating the author’s intentions and biographical context into literary analysis, and instead suggests analysing solely the text. Does the author wish to give up their text, though? I wonder if paragraphs like this one are the death throes of the author, a last attempt to exert control over their creation before it leaves them.

Take Sahir Ludhianvi’s Laaga Chunari mein Daag, immortalized by Manna Dey in raag bhairavi. The चुनरी, ससुराल, and दाग could probably have a dozen interpretations. The last antara before the tarana begins, however, goes:

कोरी चुनरिया आत्मा मोरी, मैल है माया जाल
वो दुनिया मोरे बाबुल का घर, ये दुनिया ससुराल

and just like that, the poet snatches away the dozen interpretations from the listener, by explaining their own interpretation of the metaphor within the text.

Mind you, the temptation to editorialize your own work is very real, and I’ve experienced it myself — perhaps most often when posting an Instagram story, and feeling the need to put a caption on it. My main reason, I think, is that people viewing my story won’t “get it”, because I’m not a good enough storyteller. Do the Ludhianvis and Henrys of the world feel this too? Perhaps more apt than death throes, then, might be to call this Insecurity of the Author.