Craig White's Literature Courses

Terms / Themes

the Biographical Fallacy

& how to think your way out of it

Inexperienced students of literature, perplexed about what literary criticism is expected to discuss, often resort to the "biographical fallacy" as a means of generating material.

A "fallacy" is a logical flaw based on a mistaken assumption.

The Biographical Fallacy is the belief that a work of fiction or poetry must directly reflect events and people in the author's actual experience, and that relating the literary work to that supposed reality is a meaningful form of criticism.

Instead of producing productive insights, however, the biographical fallacy usually results in reductive findings. The idea that the only meaning of a literary work is its reproduction of the author's life fails to explain why readers who are not the author find meaning in the author's text. (That is, if the text has meaning only in relation to the author's life and not ours, why would anyone besides the writer ever want to read it?)

Another version of the biographical fallacy is speculation on "the author's intention" or "what the author was trying to say" or "meaning to say" (instead of what the text actually does say). This approach is especially disempowering and discouraging to readers because it suggests that the reason the text works for us is not because of what we do with it but because of some "hidden meaning." Students are instead encouraged to think what it means for them and to develop the descriptive and analytic skills to extend that meaning to the understanding of other readers.


  • Research on author's lives and careers remains an important specialized aspect of literary research, but most recent biographers and critics acknowledge the limits of such data in explaining a text's significance.

  • Organizing the study of literature in terms of "great authors" has become habitual and can focus studies of style and genre on the authors' careers and development, plus how an author's life and writing play out against a cultural-historical background.

If the author becomes less important, what takes its place?

  • the text

  • language and how it works

  • cultural contexts in which text was written or read

  • text's reception by readers (then or now) and the cultural context in which it was or is received,


Why is the biographical fallacy so popular?

1. It's easy!—especially when much literary criticism can appear overly subtle, esoteric, or ambiguous. The facts of an author's life appear solid and reliable by comparison.

2. The intellectual or imaginary figure of an author can seem more definite and historical than whatever's happening in a fictional text.

Techniques or theories for avoiding the Biographical Fallacy:

1. Emphasize that the narrator of a poem or story is not the author but a speaker or persona.

2. Cultivate the liberating post-structural theory of "the death of the author":

Roland Barthes, "The Death of the Author"

Michel Foucault, "What is an Author?"

Additional definitions:  

Biographical fallacy: the belief that one can explicate the meaning of a work of literature by asserting that it is really about events in its author's life.  Biographical critics retreat from the work of literature into the author's biography to try to find events or persons or places which appear similar to features of the work, and then claim the work "represents those events, persons, or places," an over-simplified guess about Neo-formalist "mimesis."  New Criticism considers it "fallacious" (illogical) because it does not allow for the fact that poets use their imaginations when composing, and can create things that never were or even things that never could be. (

7) "The biographical fallacy" is an evidentiary fallacy. While intention can cause us logical problems either because of the intentional fallacy (which concerns intrinsic data and is a variety of circular reasoning) or because of an evidentiary fallacy (which concerns the limits to the application of extrinsic data in interpretation), the biographical fallacy is simply a variety of evidentiary fallacy.  It is common for people to say, for example, that Poe had to write about failed romantic relationships because his very young wife died very early in their marriage and he never remarried.  Well, if having only one important romantic relationship in one's life required that one write the almost hallucinatory story "Ligeia," large numbers of people would be doing just that.  But, one might add, Poe was also an alcoholic.  Perhaps, but by some estimates so are ten percent of the adults in America.  Where are their publications?  Biography, in other words, like extrinsic evidence of intention, can be very suggestive, often quite usefully so, but it can never definitively settle a logical argument about interpretation.

(from "Logic and Literary Argument"

BIOGRAPHICAL FALLACY: The error of believing, as George Kane phrases it in Chaucer studies, that "speculative lives" of narrators and characters "have some historical necessity" (17), i.e., characters and events in the author's historical life must have inspired, influenced, or been the source for any fictional events or characters in the work, or that the narrative speaker in a literary work must be synonymous with the author or poet's own voice and viewpoints. It was very common in nineteenth-century scholarship, for instance, to assume that Shakespeare's political or religious beliefs manifest in Prospero's words or Hamlet's soliloquies. The truth is often more complex; several of Shakespeare's characters in different plays express diametrically opposed viewpoints from each other, so which ones (if any) can we safely declare represent the playwright's personal perspectives? Even in cases where the narrator speaks in the first person, or when a character in a poem has the exact same name as the author, it proves impossible to prove that voice is identical with the author's personal beliefs. For example, the voice of "Geoffrey" in The Canterbury Tales appears to be ignorant of details that the historical author Geoffrey Chaucer knew intimately, so his fictional character cannot be equated safely with the historical author Geoffrey Chaucer who wrote the work. Likewise, the voice speaking in the poem, "Daddy," by Sylvia Plath, refers to multiple suicide attempts and a father's early death, and these two details lure readers into equating that voice with the suicide attempts and abusive father in the poet Sylvia Plath's own life--even though the age of the father's death and the number of suicide attempts do not match Plath's age when she attempted suicide or her total number of suicide attempts. Trying to make a direct connection here results in the biographical fallacy.

(Literary Terms & Definitions


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