By Arielle Seidman
Susan Sontag, in her rather dramatically phrased essay “Against Interpretation,” writes that “none of us can ever retrieve that innocence before all theory when art knew no need to justify itself, when one did not ask of a work of art what it said because one knew (or thought one knew) what it did (Sontag, section 2).” To paraphrase; one doesn’t need to agonize over the interpretation of what art means under the surface, when one has the ability to appreciate and enjoy the surface beauty of the work. I’ve been a devoted and enthusiastic literature lover since long before high school, and when I arrived at college I was certain that I wanted to be an English major. In the course of my collegiate studies, however, I often find myself disappointed and alarmed by the damage done to works of literature by the ruthless and sometimes senseless interpretation of literary critics. One particular element of fictional literature which I feel suffers the most from modern literary criticism is that of character. By character, I am referring to the personalities who fill the pages of the story (insert, as needed; novel, vignette, play, narrative poem).
This is a topic that undoubtedly would take volumes to cover successfully, and I have no more than four pages. For the sake of condensing my brilliant expostulations, therefore, I will demonstrate, as an example, how Henry James’ short story “The Beast in the Jungle” suffers from the analysis and critique of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick.
“The Beast in the Jungle” is a story, written by Henry James, about a man, John Marcher, who believes fervently that he is destined for some great tragedy. He convinces an acquaintance, May Bartram, that she must stand with him against the horrible thing in his future, and May agrees to be his confidant and comrade. All their lives, they live like this, maintaining a friendship that consists really of Marcher relying on May to buoy him and to support his idea that he is destined for greatness, while May, although she seems to be falling in love with him, doesn’t speak of it. Near the end of the story, she gets very sick and dies, leaving Marcher alone. That’s really all there is (plot wise, anyway) to the story. The reader is left to decide whether or not Marcher ever encountered his great tragedy.
Obviously this story, which has maybe two or three significant plot points throughout forty pages, revolves mostly around the thoughts, feelings, and considerations of the two main characters. Without well developed characters who are fleshed out enough psychologically to carry the story without making any significant movement backwards or forwards, the story would not have made its way into the canon.
Eve Sedgwick, author of an article entitled “The Beast in the Closet: James and the Writing of Homosexual Panic,” offers an interpretation of the aforementioned short story. She writes, “James’s ‘The Beast in the Jungle (1902)’ is one of the bachelor fictions of this period that seems to make a strong implicit claim of ‘universal’ applicability through heterosexual symmetries, but that is most movingly subject to a change of Gestalt and of visible saliencies as soon as an assumed heterosexual male norm is at all interrogated (Sedgwick, 161).” Sedgwick goes on to describe how Marcher’s obvious lack of interest in May, his feelings of confusion and loss and his discovery of his own emptiness when it comes to both emotion and understanding of the world around him all stem from the fact that he is, in fact, suffering a sort of “homosexual panic,” and is (in short) unable to come to terms with his own homosexuality.
I read the story over again after I had taken in Sedgwick’s interpretation, and I am forced to admit that it holds up relatively well. It is very possible to read “The Beast in the Jungle” and to see signs of homosexual panic…assuming you are looking for them. However, reading the story with an eye for the over arching social implications, such as those of deviant sexuality, seems to devalue or even eliminate the individual personalities of the characters. John and May are not stereotypical archetypes, placed in the story for the sake of representing a homosexual everyman and a frustrated heterosexual everywoman. They are, in fact, people with motivations, concerns, conversations, and emotions, all of which are established in the text. Reading the story as though as it is simply a discussion of homosexuality relegates them to props, put in place only to establish a greater point, when in fact they are well established, irreplaceable literary elements.
The trouble, therefore, with interpretation, is that interpretation separates the parts from the whole, eliminates some elements of the story in favor of maximizing emphasis on others. A feminist reader might search a text for indications of gender-related power struggle. If she interprets, however, the gutted hills of a mining town as exploited womanhood, she may miss the beautiful landscapes or the fact that the sky is a particularly startling color, etcetera. I hate to use clichés in academic papers, but interpretation really makes one miss the forest for the trees. 
James, Henry. The Beast in the Jungle and Other Stories. Dover Publications, April 23,
Sedgwick, Eve."The Beast in the Closet." Ed. Sayran, David. The Masculinity Studies Reader. Blackwell