How Do You Interpret? Essay, Research Paper
How Do You Interpret?
In 1956, Clive Staples Lewis wrote an intellectually deep book, which he titled “Till We have Faces.” It is considered one of his best works although it is not one of his better-known works. This particular novel provides one with many ways to interpret. There are so many symbols, metaphors and at times the mythic retelling can appear to be an allegory. Till We Have Faces is a wonderful retelling of the Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche. In this myth, Psyche is not allowed to see her husband, Cupid, at all. However, Psyche is coerced into stealing a look at her husband and in doing this, her world falls apart. C. S. Lewis takes a brilliant twist and tells the story from Psyche’s older sister’s point of view. The older sister’s name is Orual. It is Orual who convinces Psyche to cheat a look at her never-been-seen husband and therefore is the instigator of the pain that Psyche experiences for the rest of her life. Orual becomes the Queen after her father, the King, dies. She hides her pain until she dies.
It is interesting to hear different interpretations and then to remember where that particular interpreter is coming from. With this particular author, C. S. Lewis, the most obvious background to associate with this novel is that of the church. This association is made because C. S. Lewis was a brilliant Christian theologian. From this background (also mine) one might see issues of faith in God or salvation from death and inheritance of Heaven. Another person, perhaps an atheist, may see it as a desperate plea of a Christian to defend his faith. Yet another Atheist may see in this story, an extended metaphor for overcoming one’s undesirable qualities, as is the case in Orual becoming beautiful Psyche. A college student may glean out of it that we (Orual) are at war with methods of thinking. Orual is caught between the logical, realistic, “Occam’s Razor” type thinking of the Fox, the religious beliefs in Ungit reinforced by the Priest, and the simple, “hands off” thinking of Bardia the soldier. So one can see how different groups are influenced to see things that may or may not be there; that may or may not have been intended by Lewis when he wrote this particular novel.
The duration of my time reading this book I interpreted different things in different ways because of my biased ways of looking at the world: biased in that I have worldviews that influence my interpretations. My Christian influence is the first worldview to be considered. Because I am a Christian, I will look at different aspects of the story, such as what it is that the character of Orual represents within the contexts of Christendom. I may ask why is there a contrast in appearance in Orual and Psyche, Orual being very ugly and Psyche not having any ugly in her at all. However, Christianity is not my only worldview. I am also a play director and connoisseur of any art form. Because of my theatrical interest and knowledge, I look at the play in another way. I ask what is the character of this person and why is it that way. Common questions of characterization are, “Where is that person coming from and where are they going?” and the other big question is “What is their motivation?” As a director and actor, I am interested in the motives of the character, who they are and why they are that way. Also, as an artist, I am interested in the beauty, balance and message of the artist or author creating the work.
As a Christian, I saw an unfolding retelling of God’s plan of salvation and also saw how much God loves us as humans. Orual represented humankind and how ugly people are where Psyche, in contrast to the latter, represented Christ. However, you can’t read the book as if it is an allegory as I was tempted to do quite often. One reason that you can’t do this is because “Till We Have Faces” is a myth-based story. You really can’t read too much of an allegory into a myth because they are two different types of literature. An allegory is a story that has a much deeper meaning than what appears on the surface of the story, whereas a myth is a story that explains how something came to be or why it came to be that way. I kept on looking for some type of deep story-form representation of God, humans, Jesus, the cross, his disciples and anything else that goes along with the story of Christ. The meanings that I assigned to the characters and events constantly changed. So, I quickly learned in what ways to look at the book. For instance, at first I saw Psyche as a whole representation of Christ. This is due mainly to the appearance contrast between Orual and Psyche, in that Orual is ugly and Psyche is beautiful. Because Psyche is beautiful, she must represent Jesus, God’s beautiful gift to us. A gift to us would be a gift to Orual if Orual represents humankind. The people of the village saw Psyche as a gift and were always coming up to her and asking her to bless them as if she were a god. All of Glome (the name of the kingdom where they live), every single person whether servant or Lord, was convinced that she was a goddess. In one part the villagers call to her,” A goddess, A goddess!” (pg. 32) and further on they say that she, “is Ungit herself, in mortal shape.” All of this had me convinced that she was an allusion to Christ. When they sacrifice Psyche to the God Ungit, my views were reinforced when the sacrifice worked and all of their troubles were on the decline immediately after “the Accursed One ” was sacrificed. I got confused after they found her alive (which convinced me of a resurrection) she was banished from the “Mountain Castle” which I thought to be Heaven. So what was she? My final interpretation was to make her a representation of love from there on out. She was Christ and now she was love and perfection in the end of the book. She was the beautiful person that we all will be when we get to Heaven. Not only that, but Orual when she met with Psyche again, was made beautiful. She was transformed into the beauty that comes from having the knowledge of self-truth and love. Orual was shown the truth or her devouring love and was therefore made beautiful for she knew the truth. With the worldview of a director and actor, I looked at motivation of character mostly. The biggest question and most intricate to plot was, “Why is Orual doing that? What is her motivation to act in this way?” When starting the book, Orual appears to be a caring individual, however, her character goes through a change (as do all lead characters in a book, if the plot is a good one). Orual begins to look at the world and people though a self-centered view of everything, especially Psyche. She refers to Psyche as her daughter at one point proving that she feels ownership of Psyche. She is so jealous of the Mountain God that marries her sister that she goes out to kill Psyche if she doesn’t betray her current faith and loyalty to her husband. Why does Orual do all of this? It is because she feels insufficient in her homely appearance and needs Psyche there, with her and her alone, to be a boost to her self-esteem. She says at one point in the book that “She [Psyche] made beauty all round her. When she trod on mud, the mud was beautiful”(p.22). She obviously feels that Psyche does the same for her. She lives her life in beauty vicariously through Psyche which is evident in the assumption of the veil after Psyche’s exile. It is also that because of a jealousy for anyone else to have her beautiful love shared with them that Orual ends up threatening both of their lives. She does not feel that it is right for her, the one who raised her, to have her project ripped away from her. In the same way that the Fox is a slave to her so is Psyche to be property, a slave for her own pleasure and now that slave is being stolen from her.
Different people will have different interpretations of any book. It always depends on the worldview and their background. For instance, Professor Scott Daniels took a look at faith in his interpretation. Prof. Daniels is a philosophy and religion professor and his views were obviously influenced in this way. His take on the book was that it was made largely to show faith in a non-believing world, a pluralistic society, if you will. He used the image given in the book of the mountain castle that only Psyche can see. He also alluded to the Husband that no one else can see. Orual asked atheistic questions relating to her husband such as, “How can you know if you have never seen him?” and other questions. Prof. Scott Daniels said that the castle was faith and that when Psyche can see it, she is walking in faith and when Orual can’t, she is not walking in faith, but rather is denying God’s existence. Another writer by the name of William Luther White, wrote on a myriad amount of ways to interpret the book. One way that he suggests is that of human nature clashing with that of the gods. He says that Orual comes to say that the gods are more than just, “What would become of us if they were?” She realizes that they are needed and that they are not there simply to chastise us. She comes to say that, basically, we are all parts of one whole body.
In my own opinion, I see “Till We Have Faces” to have many different psychological elements to it. The largest element is that of truth: truth to others, truth to God and truth to yourself. The character of Orual stands out to be a representation of human kind and our quest to find ourselves; a trek for the answers to the questions we all ask, “Who am I and Why am I that way?” To help explain his views, C. S. Lewis devises the symbol of the veil. Orual never wore a veil until she wanted to hide who she was when going to find Psyche. After she ruined Psyche’s life with the “God of the mountain” she decided to always wear the veil, everywhere she went. The reasoning behind this is that, in some ways, Orual knows the full extent of her actions against Psyche (she demonstrates this when she talks about knowing that she might possibly be making a mistake about Psyche’s God-husband) and by wearing the veil, hides the truth from herself and others. To hide the fact that she, indeed, is extremely ugly and insufficient, not only physically ugly and insufficient to fight (being a woman and not a man) but spiritually repulsive and insufficient to love, like Ungit, she puts herself in a dark place and veils the truth from the world and herself (in doing this, she loses her face) the entire time she reigns over the kingdom. By donning another appearance and suppressing her self-authenticity she became a good ruler. Again, like Ungit, she has many faces: not only one. She was no longer a female in battle, but an enigmatic figure to be reckoned with; she was not a homely lady, but a potential beauty. She was no longer an incapable girl, but a valiant and mysterious ruler of a kingdom in which all of the subjects are in love with her. By hiding her face, she was able to be a strong queen, which gave her work, and this gave her an acceptable distraction from her pain. At one time Orual said, “work and weakness are comforters. But sweat is the kindest creature of the three–far better than philosophy as a cure for ill thoughts.” Everything she does after the destruction of Psyche’s mountain castle and her exile thereof, is an attempt to hide from the pain and truth of her life. She denies her pain and accordingly, lives a confusing life. It isn’t until she finds a small temple in the woods, far from her kingdom, that she starts to explore the actual truth of her love for Psyche and her other friends. The Priest tells a version of Psyche’s story where Orual is jealous of Psyche; where it is her jealousy and selfishness that exiles Psyche from her Mountain castle. This inadvertently forces Orual to think about her life, and is the exact cause of her book-writing.
Upon writing, the truth is slowly and agonizingly revealed to her. Orual says, in reference to her book, “[it] was only a beginning-only to prepare me for the god’s surgery. They used my own pen to probe my wound.” She is shown her true nature by a couple of people. First Tarin tells her how her sister Redival really did love her but that Orual started to ignore her after the birth of Psyche. This tells Orual of her selfish love. The next revelation is even worse in that it tells how she killed the man she loved by overworking him. It is Bardia’s wife who tells her of how tired her husband always is and that it is because, as Orual figures out for herself, she wanted Bardia all to herself. So to bring this about, she selfishly kept him after hours working on stuff for her. She later realized that she did this sometimes with thoughts of jealousy and hatred toward Bardia for not loving her over his wife. Now that the veil is coming off, the gods dig even deeper. They bring her to a courtroom of the gods. In the court, she is unveiled and told to read her book. What she reads is a complaint against the gods accusing them of thievery, of stealing Psyche. She accuses them of lying about a “shadowbrute” that would devour her. When she is done, she realizes that the answer to all of her questions is the actual complaint. All of these years that she complained about the gods taking Psyche away from her, it was actually she who did the taking. She was so selfish in her love. She was the “Shadowbrute.” She was the one doing all of the devouring, again, just like Ungit. Orual figures it all out when she asks, “How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?” (pg. 294). How can the gods talk to us if we don’t have a way to listen to them? If we cover our faces, then how can they find us to talk to us?
Psyche and Orual have borne much together and now Psyche is forced, on behalf of Orual, to bear one more torment. She succeeds and because of the accomplishment of her final task of getting a casket from the queen of the dead, Orual is made beautiful, inside and out. The god’s prophecy of, “you will be Psyche,” has come to pass. Orual ends her book with a summation of the book’s theme, “I know now why you utter no answer Lord. You are yourself the answer. Before your face questions die away.”
Reading this book has helped me to see different answers that I have always asked. Questions such as “Why did God do this?” are easier to answer now. God is the answer. It also taught me that my motives might be different then what I say they are. I may do something out of a selfish motive and I need to be aware of that. This book has taught me that. The fact that I belong to the art loving, theatre-loving part of society has been revealed to me. I now realize why I analyze things the way I do sometimes: Because I am a thespian. Now, I interpret everything. I look at life and wonder about it.