In their list of the 500 greatest songs of all time, Rolling Stone deemed Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” the 31st greatest. Undeniably, it’s a great song with what is generally agreed to be the best (and probably most recognizable) guitar solo ever. What is in question, though, is what exactly this song means. Do an Internet search, and you will find Christian interpretations, Satanic interpretations, and everything in between.
Other songs on the Rolling Stone list that easily lend themselves to different interpretations are the Eagles’ “Hotel California” (#49), Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” (#163), R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion” (#169), and Jeff Buckley’s version of the oft-covered Leonard Cohen song “Hallelujah” (#259), to name a few.
One of the beautiful things about literature is that it can be interpreted in different ways because interpretation depends on how the audience receives the writer’s message, and the audience can change. The audience brings to the table all their beliefs, experiences, values, memories, prejudices, etc. that affect the way they take the message. How closely the audience’s interpretation aligns with the writer’s intention depends on how well the writer conveys his message and/or how similar the writer’s and audience’s beliefs, experiences, values, memories, prejudices, etc. are.
Think about your favorite stories, books, movies, and songs. Probably the reason they are your favorites is that you somehow connect to them. Cinderella is your favorite fictional character or Superman is your favorite superhero because you want to be them. Old Yeller reminds you of your own special relationship with a pet. Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May” reminds you of times that you listened to it with your late mother as the two of you cruised the beach in her Mustang convertible.
But for every person who loves these examples, there is another who hates them.
And that’s another part of what makes literature and the study of it in any form so interesting–the fact that not everyone agrees about how good a certain piece or a certain writer is. One person likes Bon Jovi; another prefers Bruce Springsteen. You may gag at the thought of Justin Bieber; some of your students love him and are eager to see him live and in person when he comes to North Little Rock’s Verizon Arena later this month.
As a teacher, be willing to allow your students to interpret literature in all forms for themselves, and as long as they’re supporting those interpretations with the text, consider that as members of a different generation than you, they may be seeing it as accurately or as validly as your generation does albeit from a different perspective.