A lot of people don’t seem to realize there is one. Or at least that it’s important. But it is. All those interminable hours in English class, whether high school or college, discussing themes and what the author meant, and what the piece was about. Half the problem I had with those classes was the teacher or professor talking about what the author meant, when they were reallly explaining the context of the story and not its meaning. Misty Massey over at Magical World wrote a post that brought me to this realization. She describes it as broad themes and narrow themes, but I think context and meaning makes a more useful distinction.
The example she uses is a poem called The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner:
From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.
The poem is literally about a man who dies while working as a gunner on a bomber aircraft during WWII. Massey’s professor claims the poem is metaphorically about humanity’s tendency to war and violence. She herself believed it was about the man’s lonely death which was considered no more than a mess to be cleaned up when the plane returned to base.
I side with Massey. That’s exactly what the poem was about. But consider when it was written. The poem was published in 1945, and likely written even earlier–during WWII. Which could indeed have been described as a “never-ending spiral towards war and violence.” Certainly no one could argue that that is the context of the poem. But that doesn’t make it the meaning.
As writers, we may or may not be aware of the explicit context of our work. We may or may not be using our work to intentionally highlight that context. But even if we are, it’s incorrect and arrogant to assume this is the case. The professor in Massey’s story was in fact wrong. Not in his facts perhaps, but in his presentation of them. Human language is far more reliant on presentation to convey its meaning than many people seem to realize, and a failure to consider the implications of that presentation is at the root of much of the disagreement and conflict we encounter in our society.