Really great writing often produces truly sublime lines that stick with us for a long time. Some passages even transcend the particular context of the work in which they first appeared – they become timeless quotes, to be used again and again.
But what really must be making those authors turn in their graves is when someone grossly misinterprets a canonical line from their writing. And you might think that it isn’t all that common.
How could we really mess up that many quotes? Just wait until you see the 10 most misinterpreted quotes in literature. You’ll thank me for setting it straight.
9. Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carrol
There are thousands of interpretations of this book. No one truly knows what this story is about, although there are lots of ideas. But the real issue of this story is the quote, “Oh, ‘tis love, ‘tis love that makes the world go ‘round.” Wow, sounds like Carrol was a romantic. Well, you’d be very wrong to think that. The character that utters these words is The Duchess, and she’s probably a child murderer. No longer sounds so sweet, huh? This quote was most likely meant to be an ultimate form of irony and sarcasm.
8. Mending Wall – Robert Frost
Almost everyone is familiar with Robert Frost. Some of us had to read his work in school, and others have probably read him on their own time, and maybe both. Being that he’s a famous poet, it’s not surprising that quite a few of his works have been gravely misinterpreted. But this one in particular is startling. The quote reads, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
Sounds harmless enough, right? Well, one of the United States’ Supreme Court Justices used this line to help promote a law, but he really didn’t understand that line at all. There are two men in the poem who must continually rebuild a wall that continues to fall apart in the winter, and every year they become more upset with each other. And yet, the Justice uses this line to describe America’s separation of powers. It seems maybe he was never required to read Frost in school.
7. Romeo & Juliet – William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare’s name is known by almost everyone. And Romeo and Juliet is probably his most famous play. The line that really gets messed up is, “Wherefore art thou, Romeo?” I guess because “wherefore” sounds a like “where” it really trips people up. But do we all have to be reminded that Shakespeare’s work was not written in modern English? Wherefore actually means why, not where. So Juliet is really asking, “Why you, Romeo?” Moreover, “Why did you have to be a Montague?” (Which in case you forgot, is the last name of her family’s enemy.) If she was talking to Romeo, why would she need to know where he is?
6. Treatise on Tolerance – Voltaire
Voltaire wrote this calling for tolerance between religions. Sounds harmless enough, right? But the quote in question never actually appeared in Voltaire’s work. “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” was actually written by Evelyn Beatrice Hall, who was born two hundred years after Voltaire. It was paraphrased from the Treatise on Tolerance, but was never actually in it. For all of us who have read it, how did we mess this up?