The Mystery of Subtext: An Appreciation

From CrimeReads:

During my high school years, when I was at my most rebellious, my eyes glazed over and rolled with impatience whenever our beloved English teacher, the indomitable Mrs. McFadden would talk about the role of the forest in the Last of the Mohicans. Who cared about such trivia when there were more important things to be concerned with—like that cute boy in my fifth period math class or the next Saturday night’s dance.

Undeterred by our lack of interest, she would continue unabated, telling us about the literary devices authors often employ to bring a simple story up to the level of art. She would describe the metaphors and similes that enrich the narrative and give the characters depth and substance. She explained that the form and structure an author uses to create a story tells the reader as much about the plot and the themes as do the words on the page. And it is the subtext, she said, lurking just beneath the surface—what the author chooses not to say, or say obliquely—that often speaks the loudest. If we could find this buried treasure, if we could recognize these hidden gems, and unravel the mystery behind the words and images, only then would we grasp the true meaning of the story, the real intent of the author.

Despite my respect for Mrs. McFadden and her passion for literary fiction, I preferred mysteries to the heavier, more obscure texts that were assigned to us. I would open a good mystery—Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, for instance or Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None and know full well that whatever was presented at the outset, might not be what it appeared to be. As a reader, I was willing to second guess everything, to look beneath every word and description for the clues I knew the author had left for me. I eagerly traversed the path she laid out and followed her like a devoted acolyte to the end where I knew everything would make sense and the mystery would be solved. Along the way, I examined every event and deed, trying to discern what was true and what was false. There was something thrilling about analyzing what was really happening or who someone really was before any of it became apparent. The habitual problem solving, the act of turning over every possible scenario in my mind made me feel as if I were one with the author, that she had written this story solely for me and together we were solving this great mystery before us.

After college, when my initial rebellion against literary fiction ebbed, I decided that I wanted to learn more about the genre. It was Kafka’s Metamorphosis that made me realize I could approach literary fiction in the same way I approached all those mysteries I loved because truly, this novella had to be about something more than a bug. But what was it about? What was Kafka trying to tell me? The more I read, the more I wanted to know.

. . . .

Suddenly, as I read on, picking up the clues that Kafka offered, the story spoke to me in a very personal way. I too was an alienated young artist—a writer whose many rejections made me feel akin to this man turned insect who now spoke in a voice that no one around him could understand or was willing to listen to. As I plumbed the depths of this narrative following word by word, image by image the path he mapped, I discovered a connection with him and with the character that I had not felt anywhere else. And though we were separated by years and death, culture and gender, I was able to say to this author: Yes, I see what you see, I know what you know, I feel what you feel.

Readers instinctively know how to approach mysteries. They don’t instinctively know how to approach literary fiction. So many times, I read the reviews in this genre that run something like this: “Maybe I missed the point of this story …” or “I’m not sure what the theme is”, or “What…did I just read?!” They don’t understand that they need to look for the clues the author has left behind in the images and in the subtext, the same way they would do if they were reading a mystery. If they follow the path the author has cleared for them, if they look beneath the surface of the symbols and ponder the words, the setting, and the characters, they will understand that nothing is as it appears to be. Readers will then readily solve literary fiction’s mystery hidden in the subtext, and arriving at the end, despite time and cultural differences, they too will say: Yes, I see what you see, I know what you know, I feel what you feel.

And isn’t this why we write and read literature? 

Link to the rest at CrimeReads

From Literary Terms:

What is Subtext?

The subtext is the unspoken or less obvious meaning or message in a literary composition, drama, speech, or conversation. The subtext comes to be known by the reader or audience over time, as it is not immediately or purposefully revealed by the story itself.

Examples of Subtext

Example 1

She smiled when she heard someone else had won, but knowing what she was thinking, the smile was a façade which covered her true disappointment at having lost the election.

The subtext in the situation is the reality that what is below the surface—disappointment—does not match the surface—happiness and congratulations.

. . . .

Example 3

This mint is really delicious. It’s got a very unique flavor. Do you want one?

The enthusiasm expressed by this person is an example of subtext. As beneath this message is the clue that someone else has bad breath and should take the mint.

. . . .

Types of Subtext

Subtext can work in a variety of ways, depending on how information appears in a narrative. Here are a few key types of subtext:

Privilege Subtext

Privilege subtext is subtext in which the audience has certain privileges over the characters in a narrative. In other words, the audience is aware of something the characters are not aware of. For example, imagine a character who has three missed calls from her mother. We as readers cringe as we know she is about to find out her sister has been in a car crash which we have seen but she is not yet aware of.

Revelation Subtext

Revelation subtext is subtext that reveals a certain truth over time throughout a story, leading up to a revelation. For example, imagine a boy who has been trying to figure out what he wants to do when he grows up. He considers firefighting, being a policeman, or even being an actor. Throughout his childhood, though, he enjoys drawing, painting, and sculpting for fun. The revelation subtext here is that his hobby has been his calling all along: he will become an artist.

Link to the rest at Literary Terms

1 thought on “The Mystery of Subtext: An Appreciation”

  1. When I would read about subtext, the writers typically gave examples such as 1 and 3 in the OP, which are no help at all. Example 1 seems like you spelled it out for me, there’s no subtext. Example 3 is a problem, because by itself, I just think the person loves mint and is a supertaster. Mint all tastes the same to me, unless you specifically meant peppermint vs. spearmint vs. wintergreen (wintergreen is best of a meh bunch). In isolation the example does not suggest the speaker is trying to address bad breath; there’s no reason to assume that at all.

    The best way I saw subtext defined is when the story establishes two points of specificity to begin with, and the subtext are the lines in between. As quoted, “subtext only works when it arises from the context.” The examples in the OP have no context.

    I found this clip hilarious because of the subtext. If you know the Jedi are warrior monks, then you’re intrigued by the Duchess Satine’s interactions with Obi Wan Kenobi, since they clearly hint of a romantic backstory. If you know the duchess is a pacifist, you get what she’s driving at in her snark at the warrior Kenobi.

    The person who made the video points out the subtext in the captions. It’s funny to fans of the series who have context; they get the dichotomy between the two characters and their situations. They know the captions are highlighting what’s not being said, and they can read meaning into the actions of Kenobi and Satine rather than rely on dialogue spelling things out for them. But the point is that context is the key to writing subtext. Give some to the audience, if you intend for them to enjoy your subtext as much as the fans of the video at the link.

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