Christina: People make mistakes all the time. This is never going to change, but when it comes to literature, it can lead to a lot of confusion. Sometimes misinterpretations are passed down and eventually accepted as facts, and this is when things get tricky.
Chris: Let’s start with a pair of famous titles that are often, shall we say, misremembered. When someone says “Frankenstein” what comes to mind?
But in the book itself the monster is never given a name. It is his creator who is Frankenstein, one Victor Frankenstein, often mistakenly called Dr. Frankenstein (or “Fronk-en-steen” in one memorable version.)
A monster whose name is well remembered is Dracula. And we all know the weaknesses of vampires, right? Perhaps the most notable one is a vulnerability to sunlight. We have all seen plenty of movies where vampires burst into flames when merely brushed by a stray sunbeam. But this doesn’t happen in Bram Stoker’s book. Indeed, Dracula merrily prances about London in full daylight. It is even noted that he gets stronger at noontime. The fear of sunlight in vampires didn’t come about until the wonderful (and blatant Dracula rip-off) film Nosferatu.
Christina: Sometimes books get saddled with an incorrect interpretation of theme. This happened to The Wizard of Oz, which has been linked to Populism, a philosophical and political movement which emphasizes the need for “the people” to work against the elite. The connection between the philosophy and the beloved children’s book began in 1964 and has been taken as gospel ever since.
In fact, there is no evidence that Baum intended his story to be a parable about Populism, but those who see allegories in the Tinman, the Scarecrow, and the Cowardly Lion remain convinced.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a different story, as the movie changed a key element in the book. The movie depicts a corrupt power system preying on the weak, whereas in the book, the memorable character Chief is, in fact, suffering from mental illness. This doesn’t diminish the villainous nature of Nurse Ratched, but it does put a spin on the whole “I’m not crazy, the world’s crazy” message of the film.
The book that is most popularly misinterpreted, however, is most likely Fahrenheit 451. It is seen as a book describing the horrors of censorship, but Ray Bradbury actually wrote it as a comment on how poisonous television can be.
Chris: Most of us understand that Romeo & Juliet is a tragedy. When you first think of it romance comes to mind, and then you remember that everyone dies at the end. Fair enough. But what some of us don’t realize is that some of the most famous lines from the play don’t mean what we think they mean.
“O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?” Here Juliet wonders where her love is at, right? Wrong. She is actually asking why are you Romeo, as in why out of all the boys in Verona did you have to be Romeo Montague?
“Star-crossed lovers” is another line from R&J, one that is often misunderstood as “being so in love” when it really means being doomed, that the stars are working against them. Literature is filled with many examples of “star-crossed lovers”, ranging from classics such as Catherine and Heathcliff and Guinevere and Lancelot to modern ones like Jack and Rose and Ennis and Jack.
And lastly I’ll mention the great sleuth Sherlock Holmes, and his famous line “Elementary, my dear Watson”. Everyone knows that one, right? You do if you have watched many of the Holmes movies and TV adaptations. You won’t know it if you’ve only read Arthur Conan Doyle’s works, because Sherlock never says that phrase in the books. He does say some similar things, but not that exact phrasing.
Christina: It can be daunting to know that there are misconceptions out there of some of our favorite books, but part of the fun of reading is to consider all sorts of interpretations. The best thing to do is to keep an open mind, and keep reading.
Here is a list of titles associated with this blog: https://fontana.nccardinal.org/eg/opac/results?fi%3Aitem_type=&query=&qtype=keyword&locg=160&bookbag=18824&sort=titlesort
(Edited 10/31/14 to fix/replace broken links and to correct typos.)