Definition of Subtext

Subtext, a concept rooted in Latin’s “to work below or weave under,” defines the subtle, underlying themes within communication. As a noun, it takes form as dehyphenated subtexts or hyphenated sub-texts. Essentially, subtext operates beneath the surface, its intricate messages conveyed indirectly by speakers or authors and comprehended by attentive listeners or readers. While a text may host multiple subtexts, the primary one often lurks between the lines, discreet and implicit.

In literary domains, subtext becomes a tool for authors to communicate messages that evade direct expression. This clandestine layer of meaning finds a comfortable home in various genres, such as comics, comedy, science fiction, and magical realist fiction. The role of subtext in communication is particularly notable, as it significantly contributes to enriching the overall narrative by incorporating nuanced and hidden expressions that add depth to the message being conveyed.

Examples of Subtext in Literature

Example #1

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 part is from Charles Dickens’ famous book, Oliver Twist. It talks about a lady seeing a doctor, but the hidden meaning is bigger. Dickens is telling us that even girls had a tough life without good medical help. The doctor and nurse in the story act unkindly, showing that the medical people also don’t care much. In simple words, this passage’s secret message is that the medical world is not doing well, just like other parts of society. Dickens is using this scene to say that things are not good for everyone, and even when someone gets medical help, it might not be the best. The author is pointing out the problems in society, making us think about how things can be tough for people, even when they seek help.

Example #2

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.

In Thomas Hardy’s book, A Pair of Blue Eyes, there’s a part where Elfride Swancourt plans to tell her dad the truth but changes her mind at the end. What the author is really saying, without directly saying it, is that Elfride isn’t just unsure; she’s also shy and doesn’t have much say in making decisions. Hardy uses these lines to hint that Elfride faces a challenge in expressing herself and lacks the power to decide things on her own. The real message, hidden between the lines, is that Elfride’s character is more complex than what’s explicitly written in the novel, and her hesitation reflects deeper aspects of her personality.

Example #3

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.

In “A Very Short Story,” the writer, Hemingway, tells about a couple kept from getting married, and they’re in a spot where they don’t have the right papers. Still, they act like they’re married. What Hemingway is really saying, without directly saying it, is that social rules make it simple for people to have relationships outside of marriage. The hidden message in these lines is Hemingway’s way of showing how societal restrictions can lead to relationships outside of marriage becoming more common. He uses this scene to suggest that the barriers in society can sometimes push people to form connections that go against traditional expectations.

Example #4

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.

In “A Modest Proposal” by Swift, the hidden message in these lines is about how poverty is a big problem, and someone caring for street children should be respected. The real idea is that these kids, if not taken care of, can become a burden on society. So, the true meaning behind this text is not what it seems at first glance. The author is using this to talk about a deeper issue, suggesting that honoring those who care for disadvantaged children is important because it can prevent future problems in society. The subtext here shifts the focus from what is stated directly to a broader concern about the impact of poverty and the value of caring for vulnerable individuals.

Example #5

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.

In Chinua Achebe’s powerful book, Things Fall Apart, the main character gets angry because his wife breaks community rules. The hidden message, or subtext, is that African culture supports men having power over women, even if there are only a few reasons for it. The passage suggests that in this cultural setup, the rules favor men, allowing them to control and make decisions even when there might be just a few reasons for their anger. The author uses this scene to hint at the broader issue of patriarchy in African societies, showcasing how cultural norms can sometimes justify the dominance of men over women, even when the reasons may not seem strong enough.

Functions of Subtext

Subtext serves as a literary tool that goes beyond the surface, offering readers additional information that encourages them to connect the dots and derive meaning from the text. It operates like a hidden layer, inviting readers to engage more deeply with the material. The development of characters can be witnessed by readers through subtext, as it frequently communicates implicit messages that add to the overall narrative. This subtle layering prompts readers to sharpen their critical reading and thinking skills, fostering intellectual acumen and wisdom. In essence, subtext acts as a silent guide, enriching the reading experience by encouraging readers to read between the lines and derive a deeper understanding of the story, characters, and the underlying themes embedded in the text.