I wrote in a recent blog about the Quadriga methodology – the four interpretations of the Bible made by Early Church Fathers.
They used the image of the Quadriga or four-horse Roman chariot to remember these interpretations: the literal, the allegorical, the anagogical and the moral. These methods of interpretation struck them as the best for studying the Biblical text word for word; searching for hidden (allegorical) meanings; placing the Bible in the context of the ultimate eschatological destiny of humanity (between Genesis, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the Apocalypse), while seeking moral guidance in the Biblical text, for the cure of souls.
The metaphor of the Quadriga shows to what extent this was an idealized, compelling construction of the mind – a way of representing these four interpretations as a team, of equal and even symmetrical stature, all pulling strongly in the same direction.
The Quadriga methodology was adapted to interpreting sacred literature. Inevitably, it sought to demonstrate the truth of the Bible during the first centuries of the Church, at a time when the Christian faith was the subject of great controversy. In other words, the Quadriga methodology was part of apologetics, the branch of theology taking up the defence of the faith. It is indeed astonishing how much of the New Testament text responds directly to the spiritual and rational objections of non-Christians of that era.
The Quadriga methodology is not relevant to the modern novel, however.
I prefer a five-horse approach to the novel, and the horses are not all pulling in the same direction!
Actually this methodology can also be applied to creative non-fiction and other narrative works.
A literal reading = a word-for-word interpretation, at a surface level, summarizing the story;
A symbolic reading = an interpretation of the novel in terms of representation, myth and metaphor, exploring the conscious and unconscious emotions and motivations of the author and characters – this reading includes biographical and psychological analysis;
A thematic reading = an interpretation in terms of the overarching or central subject, i.e. what the novel is “about”, e.g. crime and punishment, a cholera epidemic, war and peace – this reading includes an exploration of the experiential, intellectual, ethical, cultural and creative sources of the novel;
A textual reading = an interpretation in terms of the fabric of the novel, the connections between language, content, structure and patterns (this includes interpreting the novel in line with the author’s craft and intentions, and by drawing comparisons with other novels); and
A rhetorical reading = an interpretation in terms of the underlying message of the novel, the techniques of persuasion the author uses to inform, move by argument and motivate the reader, and what the author does to drive this message home (this may include social and political analysis).