Over a year ago, I read Shirley Jackson’s delightfully creepy The Haunting of Hill House. Being a reader in the year of the deity of your choice 2017, I interpreted Jackson’s references to a character’s roommate as hints that the character might be a lesbian with a partner—even though the book was originally published in 1959. Since I’m not a very big believer in analyzing literature solely in terms of what the author intended, this interpretation wasn’t really a problem for me. I haven’t been a follower of authorial intent for a long time. Not since I learned that Ray Bradbury declared that everyone was misinterpreting Fahrenheit 451.
All that said, sometimes I will read something that makes me wonder if my circa 2019 eyes make me see things that don’t exist. Two days ago, as I worked my way through John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, one of the episodes in the book made me sit up sharply and shout a short expletive. Was it possible that Steinbeck had written a transgender character in Chapter 23? Here I am, on page 277 of my edition*, and a young child asks their uncle, “Uncle Tom, how do you get to be a boy?” Then, they continue, “I don’t want to be a girl, Uncle Tom. I want to be a boy.” A little later in the chapter, this character’s story is closed with the brief line, “she never really trusted [Uncle Tom] until after she was glad she was a girl” (p. 297). This line would seem to put paid to my theory. My response is a) the other characters are very dismissive of this child, b) the narrator is too busy relating two massive family sagas to pay much attention to his sibling’s psychology, and c) this book is about whether nature or nurture is more important, so why not include a character who doesn’t feel right with their body?
But how could Steinbeck have written a transgender character in 1952? It’s only recently that the term transgender has become the preferred term for individuals who identify with a gender other than the one they were assigned at birth. Also, judging by the frequent, casual misogyny in East of Eden (so many women’ descriptions include the size of their breasts) and the repressive attitudes of the 1950s, I doubt that Steinbeck intended the scene with the young child and their uncle as anything other than a comic interlude.
Even though my knowledge of the time and of Steinbeck argues against this reading, I can’t help but read the scene as a brief and very unexpected appearance of a child who may be transgender. Social attitudes notwithstanding, there were transgender people in the 1950s. Christine Jorgensen began her gender confirmation surgeries in 1951. Common sense argues that there have always been transgender people, whether they were out or not.
It’s also absolutely possible for an author to put something in a book that is interpreted differently by readers than they planned. Ask Ray Bradbury. To use Fahrenheit 451 as a case in point, it’s entirely possible for readers to come up with an interpretation that is more useful and feels more “correct” than what the author intended. I much prefer to give this young character the dignity of listening to their question, instead of brushing it aside and making a joke as their relatives do in the scene. I prefer to think of this character as another example of how change can be a matter of will, that we are not stuck with how we are born if we feel the need to change.
Readers, what do you think about chucking out authorial intent? Have you run across “anachronisms” like this in your reading?
Paperback centennial edition from Penguin Books.