Writers Talk About Writing
Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here!
References made by authors sometimes don't age very well. If these references are lost to history, or fall on deaf ears, it can be very frustrating for the reader. This can be especially true when the reference is part of the title. Many schoolchildren know that the Emma Lazarus poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty is called "The New Colossus," but the reference to the statue of Helios at Rhodes is probably obscure, and the relationship between the two statues themselves is not entirely clear.
The word dubious today has mostly negative connotations, meaning "doubtful." Dubious comes from a Latin word which meant "of two minds, undecided between two things." John Steinbeck's In Dubious Battle gets its title from Paradise Lost by John Milton. Milton's usage of the word, and therefore Steinbeck's, is far removed from a simple definition or the word's Latin roots. It is likely that Steinbeck wanted to preserve Milton's specific sense of the word as used in the following passage from Book I of Paradise Lost:
His utmost power with
adverse power opposed
In dubious battle on the
plains of Heaven
and shook his throne. What
though the field be lost?
All is not lost—
The only thing dubious about the battle depicted here is that a positive outcome is doubtful—they will likely lose—the cause is just, not underhanded or suspect. Just as importantly, the warriors are not defeated-they will fight on. There is no indecision on their side of the battle, few of the warriors are "of two minds," contrary to what the word dubious might lead you to believe. It is the positive, Miltonian sense of dubious that Steinbeck calls upon when he titles his novel In Dubious Battle, a nuance a readers likely to miss if they rely solely on the dictionary definition of the words involved. Written in 1936, In Dubious Battle attempts to preserve a nuance of meaning present in Milton's poem written almost 270 years prior. The fact that Steinbeck can start such a discussion attests to the power of titles.
Steinbeck and Milton "agree" on the interpretation of the words that make up the title in question, but what happens when there is a disparity between what the cited author meant and how that author's words are being used by the modern author? For his massive-four volume saga Henry Roth chose the overall title Mercy of A Rude Stream. This is a reference to Shakespeare's Henry VIII :
My high-blown pride
At length broke under me, and now has left me,
Weary and old with service, to the mercy
Of a rude stream that must for ever hide me.
(Henry VIII, Act III, Scene 2)
As Roth himself notes, Shakespeare is being ironic about the stream. Rude had several meanings to Shakespeare. In regards to the natural world it meant "harsh","unforgiving," "stormy and turbulent," and this is the kind of treatment that lies ahead in that stream—there is no mercy to be found. Roth goes on to say that in his own case the mercy is "literal": "The rude stream did show me mercy." Roth may be playing with words here as well. Other Shakespearean definitions of rude include "uneducated, amateurish" and "of the flesh."
Roth's novel is a coming-of-age story, based on real world experiences, involving the education of a boy on many different levels, including some disturbing romantic encounters. The "mercy" shown the author may just be the fact that he survived the stream of events depicted in the novel and has lived to tell the tale. This new interpretation of the the title is a complete mystery, even to a reader who understands that the title is a reference to Shakespeare. The title of Roth's novel is a quote out of context, a humorous aside reinterpreted with a straight-faced seriousness. It is a title at odds with its source material.
Works of literature that challenge a reader with complex storytelling and intricate structure can be an absorbing reading experience. Allusions to other works of literature may be part of that reading experience, and a web of allusions can bind a network of readers together. There is always the chance, however, that a reference is too specific, and that the sense of a given reference is lost because the dominant sense of the word replaces the idiosyncratic use completely. That is a chance that the authors above are taking with their highly unusual interpretations of individual words, and it is up to their readers to keep their obscure allusions alive as one more avenue into the mind of the author.