What does it mean when people warn others not to "over-interpret" a situation? This usually means that too much thinking can paralyze action, and then things don't get done. This makes sense from a practical standpoint: the more time I spend analyzing a menu at a restaurant, the longer I defer my actual meal. And after too long, I might just be asked to leave.
We sometimes use this language to advise friends about relationships, for instance when we say things like: "Don't over-interpret the fact that she did not call you last night; just go see her and talk to her!" By this sort of phrasing we mean that direct communication and articulated questions are healthier for a relationship than are solipsistic hypotheses and speculative flights of the imagination.
However, when it comes to literary criticism, I do not think that it is possible to "over-interpret." In fact, I would go as far to say that every act of interpretation is inescapably an over-interpretation. When interpreting, one does not simply read a novel and then put it back on the bookshelf (or file it in the e-reading device's archive). Instead, what one does is linger over particular passages, research a peculiar historical material reference, or develop a theory that explains certain aspects of the narrative. In short, any act of interpretation over-does the literary work, and this is precisely the point. (Tangentially, I am very curious about this habit of attaching "over" as a prefix to words that already imply extra action: over-dramatize, over-analyze, even, strangely, over-think. Does this possibly come from a cultural sense of food, from how we say that something cooked too much is overdone? Or is this just another case in point?)
Interpretation is supposed to be enriching, and to add appreciation to art. On the other hand, interpretation can be seen as derivative, and completely external to the work of art. I am aware as I write this that it may seem as though I am relying on and even reinforcing a set of binaries here: life/thought, art/interpretation. These sets of categories are of course fluid and not mutually exclusive. Yet if we can never "over-interpret" art, it seems to make sense that we should also hesitate before telling people not to "over-interpret" situations in everyday life. Rather, to over-interpret might be nothing more and nothing less than to interpret, and given space and time, interpretation might be understood not as a derivative form of life, but as a way of life in which choices must be made, but must equally always be left open to ponder, and in some cases, to redress.
The impetus for this post was that I am in the middle of revising an article on F. Scott Fitzgerald's unfinished novel The Last Tycoon, and it was recently suggested to me that I "over-interpret" passages from the text. This is probably true on a certain level: I like to spend a lot of time on a little bit of text. However, I also want to defend "over-interpretation" as interpretation. I suppose the trick is to make thoughtful interpretation look more like art, and feel more like life.