Definition of Subtext

Subtext is a primary and discrete theme indirectly conveyed by speaker/author understood by listener/reader. The device, subtext, has entered the English language from Latin that means “to work below or weave under.” It is mostly used as a noun with plural dehyphenated subtexts or hyphenated sub-texts. In the English language, it means an underlying thematic strand that lies beneath the lines.

Interestingly, although there are several subtexts within a text, the main subtext often lies between the lines. It is quite unspoken and not very much obvious.

In literature, it is an implicit message that the author cannot directly convey to his readers. Therefore, he puts such messages in the subtexts. Subtexts are common in comics, comedy, comedy plays, science fiction, and magical realist fiction.

Examples of Subtext in Literature

Example #1

From Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

‘She was brought here last night,’ replied the old woman, ‘by the overseer’s order. She was found lying in the street. She had walked some distance, for her shoes were worn to pieces; but where she came from, or where she was going to, nobody knows.’The surgeon leaned over the body, and raised the left hand. ‘The old story,’ he said, shaking his head: ‘no wed-ding-ring, I see. Ah! Good-night!’The medical gentleman walked away to dinner; and the nurse, having once more applied herself to the green bottle, sat down on a low chair before the fire, and proceeded to dress the infant.

This passage occurs in Oliver Twist, the popular novel of Charles Dickens. These lines show that though Dickens has presented a lady to be treated by a doctor, the real message is that even the girls were living in such a plight that they did not have proper medical care. The callous attitude of the medical gentleman and the nurse shows this. In other words, the subtext of this passage is that the medical community has also deteriorated with other sections of society.

Example #2

From A Pair of Blue Eyes by Thomas Hardy

On Wednesday she was to receive another letter. She had resolved to let her father see the arrival of this one, be the consequences what they might: the dread of losing her lover by this deed of honesty prevented her acting upon the resolve. Five minutes before the postman’s expected arrival she slipped out, and down the lane to meet him. She met him immediately upon turning a sharp angle, which hid her from view in the direction of the rectory. The man smilingly handed one missive, and was going to hand another, a circular from some tradesman.

These lines occur in the novel of Thomas Hardy, A Pair of Blue Eyes. Here he presents Elfride Swancourt as having resolved to let her father know the reality but dithers at the last moment. In fact, he wants to say in the subtext that she is not only reluctant but also shy as she has no decision-making power. However, Hardy has never directly said it anywhere in the novel.

Example #3

From “A Very Short Story” by Ernest Hemingway

Before he went back to the front they went into the Duomo and prayed. It was dim and quiet, and there were other people praying. They wanted to get married, but there was not enough time for the banns, and neither of them had birth certificates. They felt as though they were married, but they wanted everyone to know about it, and to make it so they could not lose it.

This passage from “A Very Short Story” presents the subtext of a couple who have been barred from marrying to each other and placed in a situation where they have no genuine documents. Yet, they are posing as if they are a couple. The subtext of these lines is that Hemingway wants to point out the extramarital relationships that the social barriers have made easy.

Example #4

From “A Modest Proposal” by Jonathan Swift

I think it is agreed by all parties, that this prodigious number of children in the arms, or on the backs, or at the heels of their mothers, and frequently of their fathers, is in the present deplorable state of the kingdom, a very great additional grievance; and therefore whoever could find out a fair, cheap and easy method of making these children sound and useful members of the common-wealth, deserve so well of the publick, as to have his statue set up for a preserver of the nation.

The subtext of these lines from “A Modest Proposal” by Swift is that poverty is ruling the roost and a person taking care of a couple of street children deserves to be given some honor. The reason is that such children are becoming nuances of society in the long run. Therefore, the subtext of this text is entirely different from what it actually shows.

Example #5

From Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

Okonkwo was provoked to justifiable anger by his youngest wife, who went to plait her hair at her friend’s house and did not return early enough to cook the afternoon meal. Okonkwo did not know at first that she was not at home. After waiting in vain for her dish he went to her hut to see what she was doing. There was nobody in the hut and the fireplace was cold.

This passage occurs in the toue de force of Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart. Here, the protagonist is shown having justification for his rage as his wife has violated the community rules. The subtext message is that the African cultural setup favors patriarchy to rule the women even if there are a few pretexts for that.

Functions of Subtext

A subtext provides extra information to the readers, making them habitual of jotting the dots and making meanings of things present in the texts. Several subtexts also reveal things to the readers in a way that they become engaged. They also see characters developing before their eyes. They learn critical reading skills and thinking skills that add to their acumen and wisdom.