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Wherefore Art Thou: Misunderstood Literary Quotes

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By Edited May 2, 2016 0 0

AP English Language

It's hard to explain exactly why human beings love quotes so much, but they do. Whether they choose to express their love for their favorite quotes on bumper stickers, magnets, t-shirts or their Facebook pages, people seem to get incredibly attached to a particular line from film, literature, or music and want to use it to represent themselves to the world. But what if they don't actually understand the quote?

People love to quote Robert Frost's The Road Not Taken as a poem that champions choosing "the road less traveled," or the more challenging life path, and will often cite the poem's final line "I took the road less traveled by/and that has made all the difference." It's common for people to use the poem in support of not taking the easy way, but if they paid attention to all the lines of the poem, they would notice that Frost actually decides that both roads are "about the same" and he chooses his road not because it looks more difficult, but because he has to choose one of them. The poem is meant to be ironic, not inspiring, but it is frequently misinterpreted.

Another frequently misinterpreted literary quote is "Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?" It's slightly ironic that one of the most frequently repeated Romeo and Juliet quotes is also one of the most misunderstood, but it's true. It's often used to mean "where are you, Romeo?" However "wherefore" is actually a synonym for "why" and not "where" and Juliet is, in reality, asking, "why must your name be Romeo (Montague)?"

Sometimes a quote isn't necessarily misunderstood so much as it is up to interpretation. One of the more compelling Great Gatsby quotes comes not from Gatsby himself, but from the story's narrator, Nick Carraway, "Everyone suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known." From the novel's beginning, Nick presents himself as a humble Midwesterner with good, solid values, and while the events of the novel offer little to contradict that, an astute reader should ask herself if Nick is actually a reliable narrator. When a novel is narrated by a 3rd person omniscient narrator, the reader often takes for granted that she is getting the unbiased facts, but when the narrator is 1st person, recounting events that have occurred in his life, it's virtually impossible that he's 100% objective.

Mark Twain took the concept of the unreliable narrator and extended to the concept of an unreliable author. It's hard to take any of the Huckleberry Finn quotes at face value after the disclaimer that Twain included at the beginning of his book, "YOU don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain't no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth." This disclaimer is told in the voice of Huck, but is, of course, from the clever mind of Twain.

A beautiful quote can express a thought or emotion that the reader didn't even know she had, and it's a great thing when a reader is so moved by something in literature that she wants it to represent her. She just needs to be sure she truly understands it.

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