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Literary Theory 101: Umberto Eco's Influence on Reader Response Criticism


This series examines literary criticism from all angles, examining numerous analytical frameworks, modes of interpretation, and constraints. It belongs to the degree in English Studies offered by the Complutense University of Madrid. Once the series comes to completion, the reader may be able to analyze the components that contribute to a text's literary character, such as coherence and literality, and will develop a critical approach toward contemporary literary theory. The reader of these articles might grasp the shifting paradigms of fiction analysis within this theoretical framework, establishing a link between the philosophy of language and the evolution of analytical methods in literary criticism. This series aims to offer an insight into the complex relationship between style and the cultural environment, historical factors that have shaped the idea of style as well as the changing literary canon. By examining the complex ways in which literature, language, and culture interact with one another, this series aims to help the readers develop their capacity for critical thinking and interpretation.

This Literary Theory 101 is divided into the following chapters:

  1. Literary Theory 101: Unveiling the Collective Subconscious in Myth Criticism

  2. Literary Theory 101: Challenging Gender Dynamics in Literature

  3. Literary Theory 101: Power Structures and Cultural Studies in Literary Analysis

  4. Literary Theory 101: Umberto Eco's Influence on Reader Response Criticism

  5. Literary Theory 101: Power Dynamics and Postcolonial Perspectives

  6. Literary Theory 101: Contemporary Ecocriticism

Literary Theory 101: Umberto Eco's Influence on Reader Response Criticism

Eco's contributions to reader response criticism have the potential to alter the perspective on how readers and texts interact. This article intends to open a new view on the reader´s role. Instead of viewing readers as passive recipients, Eco empowers them to participate actively in the meaning-making process. This dynamic interaction emphasizes the nuanced and multidimensional nature of interpretation, highlighting the fact that each reader contributes their own experiences, cultural heritage, and perspectives of the literary text. Moreover, Eco's theory of the "open work" emphasizes that a text is not a static, unchanging entity, but rather a dynamic, evolving entity that acquires new meaning with each encounter. This concept challenges conventional notions of fixed meaning and encourages readers or literary critics to approach texts with an exploratory spirit. Examining the transformative impact of Eco's insights on a variety of academic disciplines could imply that his theories have far-reaching implications. They could encourage a departure from rigorous interpretations in literary criticism and may advocate for the celebration of a work's diverse range of possible meanings. Eco encourages a shift in art theory from a single, authoritative narrative to an appreciation of the multiplicity of voices that contribute to a work's significance.

1. Eco's Vision: Readers as Co-Creators of Meaning

Eco's innovative contributions to reader response criticism could transform our understanding of how we engage with art and literature. Together with the concept of the "open work," his emphasis on the active role of the reader has the potential to reshape the approach towards literary interpretation. This transformative perspective may entice the reader to embark on a deeper and more engaging journey into the world of creative expression, celebrating the diversity of voices that enrich artistic experiences. He places a strong emphasis on the author's central role in the process of constructing a book that is open to several readings while still effectively communicating its thoughts. Eco recognizes the impact that the writer's cultural and historical environment has had on their work and emphasizes the significance that these factors play in sculpting a piece that is indicative of the writer's vision. He also places an emphasis on the role of the creator or writer to procure that the material is understandable to a wide audience. When it comes down to it, Eco views the reader and the author as co-creators of meaning, which highlights the dynamic interaction that exists between the writer's aim and the reader's interpretation in literary analysis (Eco, 1990, pp. 44-45).

In his study on the topic, Eco emphasizes how important it is to grasp the author's goal in the context of literary analysis. He contends that the success of an author is directly proportional to the degree to which that author can demonstrate a firm command of the ideas and principles that they want to communicate. This ability extends to the considerate and purposeful use of visual cues and abstractions that are interwoven throughout the language. According to Eco, one of the most important factors in determining the level of competence possessed by the author is how deliberately they use language features. Eco gives significant weight to both the text itself and the fact that it may be interpreted in several different ways. He proposes that the metaphors and images that appear throughout a literary work are the fundamental components of its meaning. These are the elements necessary to comprehend the underlying concepts and themes of the work. Eco argues that these meanings do not conform to a predetermined or fixed condition but rather emerge from the dynamic interaction that takes place between the text and the reader, who is discriminating to find a personal interpretation. In Eco's view, a communication engagement with the reader is enhanced by meticulously constructing these symbols or signs, which results in a work with an abundance of diverse methods of interpreting what is being communicated (Eco, 1990, p. 50).

Figure 1: Woman In Black Shirt Reading Book (Rodio, 2020).

The perspective of Eco could modify the function of the reader in the literary process. No longer a passive recipient, the reader emerges as an indispensable co-creator of meaning. Eco contends that readers are dynamic interpreters who actively engage with the text by deciphering its signs and symbols within the context of their own comprehension. He contends that readers might incorporate their personal experiences, knowledge, and cultural heritage into their interpretation of the work, creating many possibilities for these elements. This active engagement empowers the reader to shape and contribute to the multifaceted layers of meaning within a literary piece. According to Eco, the reader's role transcends that of a passive consumer; they become a crucial agency in co-creating the narrative's significance (Eco, 1990, pp. 49-50).

2. Reader-Work Interaction

Eco emphasizes the importance of suggestions in interpreting creative works. His insights elucidate the intricate interaction between the author, the audience, and the encompassing context in the interpretation of a work's meaning. These perspectives collectively highlight the complex and dynamic nature of artistic reception. In the chapter headed "The Poetics of the Open Work," Umberto Eco sheds light on a revolutionary viewpoint on the function of the reader in the reception of a work of literature. Eco argues that the notion of experiencing art as the culmination of an author's meticulously orchestrated communication effects that is open to individual reinterpretation has persisted. This viewpoint challenges the inert consumption of art and urges readers to actively engage with the text and become integral contributors to the formulation of its meaning. In this context, Eco explains that it has long been believed that an author presents a completed work with the intention that it be admired and received in the same form in which it was conceived. This interactive process necessitates that the reader engage in a dynamic interplay between stimulus and response, which is dependent on the reader's unique sensitivity to receptivity. As they respond to the interplay of stimuli and their own reactions, the individual reader invariably imbues their own existential context—a distinct cultural heritage, a spectrum of preferences, personal inclinations, and biases. As a result, their comprehension of the original work is consistently influenced by their specific and individual perspective (Eco, 1979, p. 49). Subsequently, Eco argues that the recipient should be viewed as an active participant who is required to engage in a dynamic stimulus-response interaction. He then discusses the ability of the reader to cultivate a distinct and sensitive reception of the piece. He renders a fundamental principle of aesthetic theory, emphasizing that the aesthetic value of a work of art is determined by its capacity for multiple interpretations while retaining its essence.

Therefore, he discusses the capacity of the reader to cultivate a distinct and sensitive reception of the piece. (Eco, 1979, p. 49). It could be argued that Eco seems to be implying that the number of different ways in which a literary work can be understood contributes to the overall quality of the work, in his own words: “In fact, the form of the work of art gains its aesthetic validity precisely in proportion to the number of different perspectives from which it can be viewed and understood” (Eco, 1979, p. 49). With these tenets in mind, he outlines different types of reader. To dwell on this analysis, he distinguishes between distinct categories of readers by referring to them as a "intentional readers" and the others as a "open readers." He also mentions the “purposeful reader”, who reads with the aim of discovering the author's true meaning and the message they were trying to convey. This reader dives headfirst into an in-depth investigation of the author's intended mode of communication, armed with a set of precise expectations and assumptions. Eco focuses a large amount of stress on the notion of the "model reader," which is a fictitious portrayal of the ideal receiver that the author has in mind while writing. This model reader is meant to represent the expected interpretation of the text, one who is thought to comprehend it in a certain way. Nevertheless, Eco accepts the underlying variation that exists within real reading, knowing that the model reader is but one of many possible interpretations of the text. On the other hand, and in contrast with the model one, the open reader uses an approach to interpretation that is more malleable and flexible, according to Eco's paradigm. This reader recognizes that understanding results from their own personal interaction with the subject matter, which they are aware of despite the fact that the meaning of a book is neither fixed nor predefined. The responsive reader embraces ambiguity and uncertainty, welcoming a spectrum of varied interpretations and opinions. This may imbue the work with a dynamic life that changes with each reader's encounter with the text (Eco, 1990, pp. 50-51).

Figure 2: Open Book upon a Tree´s root (Ameboshi, 2019).

In lieu of adhering to a conventional viewpoint, he contends that, as the reader responds to the contact of stimuli and their own reaction to their framework, the individual recipient must provide their own existential credentials, a personalized approach to interpretation shaped by their specific cultural background, array of preferences, proclivities, and predilections. Eco contends that as a result, the reader's particular viewpoint invariably influences how they understand the original artifact. He contrasts starkly with the singular, predetermined meaning of a traffic sign, he declares that: “on the other hand, can only be viewed in one sense, and, if it is transfigured into some fantastic meaning by an imaginative driver, it merely ceases to be that particular traffic sign with that particular meaning” (Eco, 1979, p. 49). He explains that 'completeness' and 'openness' are frequently employed in aesthetic theory when analyzing a particular work of art. In his analysis, a work of art has a dual nature, it can be both; open and closed and it is still a self-contained entity and an open-ended structure that allows for multiple interpretations without compromising its uniqueness:

A work of art, therefore, is a complete and closed form in its uniqueness as a balanced organic whole, while at the same time constituting an open product on account of its susceptibility to countless different interpretations which do not impinge on its unalterable specificity (Eco, 1979, p. 49).

The previous quote by Eco asserts that every encounter with a work involves both interpretation and active participation, thereby shaping how it is comprehended. This means that each reception offers a distinct viewpoint, influenced by the individual's heritage and experiences, as has been suggested in the second section of this article. The work acquires new significance with each exchange, highlighting its dynamic nature. This insight emphasizes the significance of audience perspective in literary and artistic analysis: “Hence every reception of a work is both an interpretation and a performance of it, because in every reception the work takes on a fresh perspective for itself” (Eco, 1979, p. 49). The performative side of reading will be suggested in the third section of this article. To enlighten this point further and render how the interpretation of a piece of art has been an everlasting debate, Eco sheds light on the fact that Plato and Vitruvius were among the first thinkers to acknowledge the subjectivity of creative interpretation, particularly in the figurative arts. They did this by putting an emphasis on the role that the observer plays in defining proportions and symmetry:

“The force of the subjective element in the interpretation of a work of art (any interpretation implies an interplay between the addressee and the work as an objective fact) was noticed by classical writers, especially when they set themselves to consider the figurative arts” (Eco, 1979, p. 50).

Regarding the previous assortment on the evolution of perspective techniques, he reflects the need to rise when analyzing awareness of interpretative subjectivity and how each perspective is unique. He portrays that these techniques were intended to precisely direct the viewer's gaze in accordance with the artist's intended visual narrative and that they also tended to limit the work's accessibility. These passages illuminate the nuanced strategies employed within the field of visual aesthetics by spotlighting the interface between the interpretive agency of the observer and the artwork's receptivity:

In the Sophist Plato observes that painters suggest proportions, not by following some objective canon, but by judging them in relation to the angle from which they are seen by the observer. Vitruvius makes a distinction between 'symmetry' and 'eurhythmy', meaning by this latter term an adjustment of objective proportions to the requirements of a subjective vision (Eco, 1979, p. 50).

Figure 3: Pile of Books (Pixabay, 2017).

Eco argues that the use of perspective in art indicates a greater recognition of subjective interpretation. Reflecting a growing awareness of interpretive subjectivity, this technique was employed to direct viewers to the intended focal point. Nevertheless, Eco observes a concurrent trend toward limiting the open-ended nature of artworks. By utilizing perspective techniques, artists attempted to highlight focal points, demonstrating a conscious effort to influence the viewer's perception (Eco, 1979, pp. 51-52). This suggests a tension between artistic intention and viewer interpretation freedom. A confined interpretation of a text overlooks the reception's dynamic nature. When someone engages with a work, they do so in a context that is unique to them, revealing that the work's meaning is not fixed but subject to change based on the individual and circumstances involved:

The various devices of perspective were just so many different concessions to the actual location of the observer in order to ensure that he looked at the figure in the only possible right way, that is, the way the author of the work had devised visual devices to oblige the observer´s attention to converge on (Eco, 1979, pp. 50-51).

This article intends to emphasize the dynamic collaboration between an artwork and its audience. This "fresh perspective" implies that the work acquires new meaning or significance with each reception. This emphasizes the significance of recognizing that a work of art or literature is not a fixed, immutable entity. Its significance is determined not only by the author who gave birth to the work of art, but also by the audience and the context in which it is received. He believes that this perspective has significant implications for other study disciplines as it encourages a recognition of the multiplicity of interpretations and the fluidity of aesthetic experiences. In contrast, not only the creator but also the audience and context of reception form meaning. This has far-reaching implications for disciplines such as literary criticism, art theory, and cultural studies, fostering an appreciation for the diverse interpretations and dynamic character of artistic experiences. This section has highlighted Eco's groundbreaking approach to art and literature, which places an emphasis on active reader engagement and varied points of view. He proposes the idea of 'openness' within the context of not just following predetermined interpretative routes.

3. Performativity in Interpretation

Eco illuminates the multidimensional approach utilizing the medieval theory of allegory to trace the origins of this “openness”. He argues that a route towards the interpretation of the Bible, poetry, and figurative arts in the Middle Ages. This theory, which originated in Saint Paul's writings and was refined by eminent figures such as Saint Jerome and Aquinas, played a pivotal role in the development of medieval poetry. It encompasses moral, allegorical, and anagogical meanings in addition to literal interpretations. Within this framework, a work possesses an inherent degree of 'openness,' compelling readers to disclose the multiple layers of meaning within each sentence and trope: “A work in this sense is undoubtedly endowed with a measure of 'openness'. The reader of the text knows that every sentence and every trope is 'open' to a multiplicity of meanings which he must hunt for and find” (Eco, 1979, p. 51).

Figure 4: An Open Book (Alejandra, 2019).

Furthermore, Eco emphasizes the centrality of the author's goal in the process that leads to the creation of a literary work. His argument is that the author must have a clear understanding of the ideas and concepts that they are trying to communicate, and they must use the textual fabric present in the manuscript with intention and accuracy. Eco places a tremendous amount of importance on the text itself as well as the many of meanings that may be derived from it. In his opinion, signs and symbols are the fundamental components of the meaning of a piece of literary work, providing the foundation for understanding the topics that lie under the surface of the text. These meanings, on the other hand, are neither fixed or predefined; rather, they result from the interactive process that takes place between the text and the perceiver. Thus, the reception of a work may refer to how an audience receives an artistic or literary work. It is the audience's interpretation of the work of art. Eco believes that when a person engages with a work, they bring their own history, experiences, and perspectives to the table. This affects their comprehension and interpretation of the work. In other terms, each person interprets a work differently. This gives the act of reading a level of performance, it indicates that interacting with a piece of art is an active process.

When a person reads a book or observes a work of art, they are not passive receivers of oil. They actively engage with the material, which may entail emotional responses, cognitive processing, and even physical actions (such as turning pages or walking through an art gallery) (Eco, 1990, pp 57-58). Depending on the reader's disposition, he or she may choose an interpretive key that resonates with their current spiritual state, infusing the work with new vitality and a fresh significance distinct from previous readings. The reader's function in engaging with art and literature is fundamentally altered by Eco's examination of performativity in reading fundamentally alters the reader's role in engaging with art and literature. It is essential to bring to light that this 'openness' does not imply limitless or arbitrary interpretations; rather, it offers a range of meticulously predefined and sanctioned interpretative solutions that are firmly anchored in the author's intent, in this performative reading:

He will use the work according to the desired meaning (causing it to come alive again, somehow different from the way he viewed it at an earlier reading). However, in this type of operation, 'openness' is far removed from meaning 'indefiniteness' of communication, 'infinite' possibilities of form, and complete freedom of reception. This structure ensures the reader operates under the author's deliberate control, nurturing a personalized and perceptive engagement with the work (Eco, 1979, p. 51).

Figure 5: Woman Lying On The Stool (Yamaguchi, 2019).

4. A Paradigm Shift: Reader Participation and Interpretive Fluidity in Art and Literature

The ideas presented by Eco fundamentally could bring about change in the way in which we interact with works of art and literature, placing an increased emphasis on the reader's position as a participant. He questions predetermined definitions while praising a variety of points of view. This effortless exchange between the artist and the audience brings to light the intricate nature of interpretation, which in turn shapes the importance of the work. For Eco it is essential to remark, however, that this 'openness' is not synonymous with limitless, indefinite interpretations; rather, it entails a variety of predefined interpretive avenues that are firmly rooted within the author's intended framework (Eco, 1979, p. 51). Eco remarks Mallarme´s emphasis on the enjoyment of divination reading through the suggestion of discouraging an initial dominant interpretation. To elaborate on this point, he brings to light that Mallarme considers elements such as white space, typography, and spatial arrangement to endow the text with considerable evocative capacity (Eco, 1979, p. 53). Elements such as negative space, typography, and spatial composition enhance the narrative potential of the text (Eco, 1979, p. 53). According to Umberto Eco, this purposeful endeavor to 'open up' the work and enable a free reaction from the reader is what constitutes the pursuit of suggestiveness in a piece of writing: “An artistic work which 'suggests' is also one which can be performed with the full emotional and imaginative resources of the interpreter” (Eco, 1979, p. 53).

In the realm of poetry, Umberto Eco identifies a complex process in which we attempt to harmonize our personal experiential domain with the emotional terrain outlined by the text. He insinuates that delving into poetry involves a multidimensional process of aligning our personal experiences with the emotional landscape depicted in the text. This effort is essential for a deep and meaningful engagement with poetry. In his view, this interaction could become even more pronounced in the case of deliberately suggestive poetic compositions. Such texts could aim to elicit a deeper response within the reader's intimate domain, compelling them to discover a resonance with the text's subtler nuances. He states that: “This is all the more true of poetic works that are deliberately based on suggestiveness, since the text sets out to stimulate the private world of the addressee in order that he can draw from inside himself some deeper response that mirrors the subtler resonances underlying the text” (Eco, 1979, p. 53).

Eco discerns a prominent contemporary literary trend where symbols function as purposeful conduits of communication, intentionally constructed to be inclusive and comprehensible to a wide audience. This deliberate strategy generates an atmosphere of ambiguity and adaptability, allowing for the continuous evolution of responses and interpretive perspectives (Eco, 1979, p. 53). This endows symbols with the capacity to elicit responses and foster interpretive orientations that are in a state of constant fluctuation. Such an approach views symbols as expansive communicative mediums, a preference that reverberates strongly within the contextual limitations of the examined literary environment (Eco, 1979, p. 53). In conclusion, Eco's observations represent a paradigm shift in our approach to art and literature, emphasizing the reader's active participation. By confronting established definitions and promoting diverse viewpoints, he highlights the dynamic interaction between artist and audience, thereby elucidating the complex nature of interpretation. Eco's concept of 'openness' is a deliberate framework, not an interpretation with no limits. In addition, he accentuates Mallarme's appeal for evocative reading and investigates poetry's multifaceted engagement. The contemporary trend he identifies, in which symbols serve as conduits for specific purposes, exemplifies the nature of interpretation as it evolves. Collectively, these insights transform our comprehension of artistic engagement and participation.

Figure 6: Eyeglasses At The-Top Of The Book (Fotios, 2018).

5. Final thoughts

This article had as its main aim to remark Eco´s contributions on the reader´s role. Hence, it might be concluded that through the deliberate construction of signals and symbols, the author engages in an ongoing dialogue with the reader, thereby enhancing the work with a variety of possible interpretations. Eco argues that the reception of a work is contingent on how the audience actively engages with and comprehends it, drawing on their individual backgrounds and perspectives. This intellectual, emotional, and physical interaction imbues the work with an evolving significance. These insights contradict a traditional notion that art or literature has a fixed, unchanging meaning. As we delve deeper into the paradigm-shifting insights of Eco, we discover a profound redefinition of how we interact with works of art and literature. It is not merely a passive reception but a multidimensional, active process. It invites us to thoroughly immerse ourselves in the experience by appealing to our intellect, emotions, and even physical senses. This dynamic interaction not only challenges the conventional concept of a fixed, immutable meaning but also redefines the essence of artistic creation. It recognizes that the artist's intent is only one aspect of the interpretation's intricate inner world. Throughout this article, it has been brought to attention that the audience, with their diverse cultural backgrounds and unique perspectives, also plays a crucial role in determining the meaning of the work.

This transformative viewpoint could have far-reaching implications across all academic fields. It necessitates a departure from rigorous interpretations in literary criticism and a celebration of the kaleidoscope of meanings that a work can embody. It encourages a shift in art theory from a single, authoritative narrative to an appreciation of the multiplicity of voices contributing to the significance of the work. In addition, cultural studies can explore how the intersection of societal contexts and individual experiences influences the interpretation of art and literature. Each encounter with a work is not only a reflection of the artist's vision, but also of the complexity of human experiences. In essence, Eco's discoveries encourage the reader to see works of art and literature as living beings, that can develop and accumulate new levels of meaning with each new interpretation. It requires an awareness of the fluctuating character of creative encounters as well as a celebration of the variety of artistic interpretations to be successful. Not only does this approach improve our grasp of the vibrant activity that exists between texts and readers, but it also extends an invitation to go on a journey that is both deeper and more engaging into the realm of creative expression.

Bibliographical References

Eco, U. The Open Work. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989; Obra abierta. Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1965.

- - - Tratado de Semiótica General. Barcelona: Lumen, 1977.

- - - Foucault’s Pendulum. Trans. William Weaver. NY: Harcourt Brace, 1988.

- - - La estructura ausente. Introducción a la semiótica. Barcelona: Lumen, 1989.

- - - The Limits of Interpretation. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990.

- - - Lector in fabula. La cooperación interpretativa en el texto narrativo. Barcelona: Lumen. 1993.

- - - The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1979.

Eco, U. & Rorty, R. (1992) Et al. Interpretation and Overinterpretation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,

Iser, W. (1972). The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach. New Literary History, 3(2), 279–299.

Fish, S. (1976). Interpreting the Variorum, Critical Inquiry.

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