I. 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.
II. Examples of Subtext
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.
A student goes to turn in his paper. After looking through two pages, his teacher asks, “Are you sure you want to turn this in?”
The subtext of this question is the intended clue to the student that the paper is not ready yet to be turned in and he should edit through it again.
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.
III. 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 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 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.
Subtext through Promise
Subtext through Promise is subtext in which an audience expects certain promises to be kept by the author. In other words, the audience expects the story to run as stories usually do: the audience expects a plot that makes sense and is weaved together, characters who have revelations and change meaningfully, and symbols and motifs which make sense and suit the story. When an author fails to please the audience in this way, the story is considered poorly written or disappointing due to the subtext.
Subtext through Questions
Subtext through Questions is subtext created when readers and audiences have questions about a story, such as how a plot is developing or what a character will do. Naturally, such questions arise in a well-written story as a form of unwritten subtext.
IV. The Importance of Using Subtext
Subtexts are proof that stories are not surface-level things. Rather, they have a wealth of information available when you learn to read between the lines and to dig into what the story really means. Subtext allows controversial messages that would otherwise be questioned or left unpublished to reach public eyes. It allows characters who act one way to be revealed to be feeling and thinking another way. Subtexts weave through the underground treasure trove of hidden messages, meanings, and themes that many readers so often do not tap into.
V. Examples of Subtext in Literature
Subtext is common in literature and sometimes missed due to its below-the-surface nature.
From F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsy.”
“I’ve got a man in England who buys me clothes. He sends over a selection of things at the beginning of each season, spring and fall.”
He took out a pile of shirts and began throwing them one by one before us, shirts of sheer linen and thick silk and fine flannel which lost their folds as they fell and covered the table in many-colored disarray. While we admired he brought more and the soft, rich heap mounted higher—shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple green and lavender and faint orange with monograms of Indian blue. Suddenly with a strained sound Daisy bent her head into the shirts and began to cry stormily.
“They’re such beautiful shirts,” she sobbed, her voice muffled in the thick folds. “It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such—such beautiful shirts before.”
Daisy, while an emotional character, could not possibly be crying over the beauty of these shirts. Rather, she is crying over the subtext: she was not with Gatsby due to his lack of wealth, and now, he is wealthy and they still are not together.
“After the Diagnosis” by Christian Wiman.
No remembering now
when the apple sapling was blown
almost out of the ground.
No telling how,
with all the other trees around,
it alone was struck.
It must have been luck,
he thought for years, so close
to the house it grew.
It must have been night.
Change is a thing one sleeps through
when young, and he was young.
If there was a weakness in the earth,
a give he went down on his knees
to find and feel the limits of,
there is no longer.
If there was one random blow from above
the way he’s come to know
from years in this place,
the roots were stronger.
Whatever the case,
he has watched this tree survive
wind ripping at his roof for nights
on end, heats and blights
that left little else alive.
No remembering now…
This poem has a complicated subtext, as the poet remarks on a tree which has avoided falling for years but has now been struck. The subtext is that Wiman himself had just been diagnosed with Waldenström’s macroglobulinemia, an incurable blood cancer, which is now in remission. The poet examined trees as a way of subtly examining himself having been struck by the disease.
VI. Examples of Subtext in Pop Culture
Subtext can be found throughout pop culture in movies, songs, speeches, and advertisements.
Toy Story 3
The toys face a major challenge when Andy becomes older and he no longer wants to play with them. One subtext of this movie is to adapt and become useful or become discarded. Toys of the past will come to be replaced by new toys, just as people who do not adapt will come to lose their jobs and be replaced with workers with new skills. It’s a dark message from a typically heartwarming movie.
Avatar is remarkably similar to Pocahontas in its message that the earth must be loved and taken care of in order for us to survive in peace and harmony. The world in Avatar shows that such harmony is not only possible but necessary when humans attempt to steal great energy from their world but learn that doing so would kill it.
VII. Related Terms
Similar to subtext for its hidden meaning, innuendos are specifically insinuations beneath the surface which imply that something else, often derogatory, is true. Although subtexts may be used for a variety of reasons, they generally remain below the surface. Innuendos, on the other hand, often have clear meanings to be readily understood close to the surface. Here is an example of innuendo versus subtext:
She’s been gaining more weight than usual, if you know what I mean.
This phrase, paired with “if you know what I mean” serves to imply that a woman has become pregnant as in “gaining more weight than usual.” This is a thinly veiled innuendo.
Miranda couldn’t understand why she had become so lightheaded and nauseous that morning. She hadn’t eaten anything strange the night before. Getting dressed, she struggled to pull on her jeans, which had become just a little tighter than usual.
In these examples, pregnancy is not directly stated but clued at through innuendo and subtext. Whereas the innuendo is more overt and obvious, the subtext is purposefully below the surface.
Doublespeak is used specifically when the meaning of words is distorted or disguised on purpose. Whereas subtext hovers below the surface and in between words, doublespeak uses words to confuse or mislead the reader. Here is an example of doublespeak versus subtext:
We’ve had to downsize.
“Downsizing” is doublespeak for “firing people.”
The boss said bonuses are going to be a little late this year, as he still has some business to attend to.
The boss has said he “has business to attend to.” The subtext of this could mean that he has something difficult he must do, such as fire certain workers to balance the budget.
VIII. In Closing
Subtexts allow writers, filmmakers, and speech makers to insert hidden messages about politics, real life, and controversies. They allow characters to say one thing but mean another and for authors to insert themes and ideas without overtly calling attention to them. Subtexts provide books with depth and meaning for readers who are willing to read between the lines.