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Title: Subtext  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: The Seagull, Moscow Art Theatre production of The Seagull, Geo Bogza, Express Yourself (Madonna song), Konstantin Stanislavsky
Collection: Fiction, Literary Concepts, Theme
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia


Subtext undertone is any content of a creative work which is not announced explicitly by the characters or author, but is implicit or becomes something understood by the observer of the work as the production unfolds. Subtext can also refer to the thoughts and motives of the characters which are only covered in an aside. Subtext can also be used to imply controversial subjects without specifically alienating people from the fiction, often through use of metaphor. Especially in light of their inherently ambiguous and self-referential character, many authors have explicitly used subtexts (or subtexts about subtexts) in humor.

Subtext is content underneath the dialogue. Under dialogue, there can be conflict, anger, competition, pride, showing off, or other implicit ideas and emotions. Subtext is the unspoken thoughts and motives of characters—what they really think and believe.

Subtext is also a frequently used method of subtly inserting social or political commentary into fiction. Subtext is often also inserted in narratives where explicit themes are unable to be shown or expressed due to censorship or simply interest in appealing to a general audience. Frequently, these subtexts may be of, but not limited to, a sexual nature or possible references to sexual orientation. Their inclusion is such so that they are easily overlooked by younger viewers but may be caught by more mature viewers. Subtext also serves to add complexity to a premise that may superficially appeal to younger viewers but may also attract older fans, as is often the case with cartoons, sci-fi and fantasy. It also may serve to aid in suspension of disbelief.

Subtext includes information about the period and culture in which the author of a book is writing that may not be deliberately articulated but is conveyed through the text in speech, social customs or historical details.

A more recently coined term, metamessage (also spelled as meta-message and meta message) is considered by some authors to be synonymous with subtext.[1][2] Metamessage is a term more commonly used in the analysis of business communication rather than of literary works.[3]


  • Definition 1
  • Examples 2
  • Political use 3
  • Metamessage 4
  • See also 5
  • References 6


The author David Baboulene, in his practical academic work on Story Theory — The Story Book[4] defines subtext as "the result of any form of gap in knowledge between any of the participants in a story; for example, between the author and a character, between two characters or between the audience and at least one character."

An example of this occurs in the 1978 movie Superman. Lois Lane has just met Clark Kent. The subtext is that she has taken an instant dislike to him. At the surface, however, their conversation seems only to solicit and supply information about the existence of others of Clark Kent's type. "Any more at home like you?" she inquires. "Uh, not really, no", Clark replies.[5]


In the play Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen, subtext is important in gaining a greater understanding of the characters, as they cannot always speak freely due to the constrictions of social conventions at the time.

A scene in Woody Allen's movie Annie Hall, in which subtitles explain the characters' inner thoughts during an apparently innocent conversation, is an example of the subtext of a scene being made explicit.

Victorian novels may feature confining social norms such as strict marriage conventions, taboos against births out of wedlock, inheritance to first born sons, etc., that form the subtext of plot and character. These issues can be deployed unconsciously, as in Wilkie Collins' "The Woman in White" or as part of a concealed critique of gender politics, as in Charlotte Bronte's "Jane Eyre".

In the episode "My Best Friend's Bottom" of the British comedy TV series Coupling, "Captain Subtext" is a tool used in the narrative to explicitly make the viewers aware of the subtextual message in the dialogue. In it, the dialogue and the subtext have been deliberately made humorous.

Television sci-fi such as the original Star Trek and Doctor Who (both of which implicitly avoided onscreen sexual situations) have often been discussed with respect to certain scenes or lines of dialogue.

Cues for the subtext are sometimes given in the main text in the form of intertexts, which are allusions to the themes of other texts. An example is Blade Runner, which can be interpreted as containing numerous biblical (intertextual) allusions, framing the subtext as a religiously inspired theme—the search for the Creator and the meaning of life beyond physical existence.[6]

Political use

Historians have often identified certain themes that served as subtexts during times of chaotic change or revolution. By careful use of subtext, especially such that is highly symbolic and culturally bound to a sub-group with little formal power, groups can work to instill a sense of purpose or focus to an anticipated future revolution, often without the ruling party's understanding.

Such an example of the power and controversy of subtexts might include the deliverance theme pervasive in the songs, stories, and symbols of the slaves in the United States up through the Civil Rights era and, perhaps, still today. The slave prayers, with their theme of deliverance, may have seemed subversive, as striking at planter ideology and control [7]

Subtext messages have seen fairly widespread use as a way to combat censorship in literary works, for example in the former Communist bloc.[8] The practice is of course much older; e.g. one find works from the middle ages criticizing the church establishment. Some of these works use a formal technique called double structure in which the same text can have different (usually antithetical) meanings by reading sentences or verses in two different orders.[9]


According to a 2008 Gerard Nierenberg in his 1995 book The Art of Negotiating to denote (in the words of the textbook) "those messages that are conveyed between the lines of what we explicitly say or write, possibly due to the purpose, context, or timing of the message and/or the relationship between the people communicating".[10]

The term also appears in a 1972 book of Gregory Bateson, who suggested a somewhat similar distinction, although in the form of a potentially infinite hierarchy of messages, metamessages, meta-metamessages and so on.[11] Bateson argued that any message needs to be interpreted in the frame of reference established by a superordinate message cueing how the textual message is intended.[12] Alan Wolfe points out that Bateson's concepts and terminlogy are rather technical, and are thus commonly misinterpreted. In particular, in Bateson's work the metamessage is the framing message, not the actual (subtext) meaning assigned to the subordinate message in the context of the framing message.[13] About two decades before introducing the metamessage terminology into his works, Bateson studied by what "mood sign[al]" (his earlier term for metamessage) subordinated messages are interpreted "seriously, jokingly, sarcastically, as gestures of friendliness, as acts of aggression" etc. Invoking Bertrand Russell's Theory of Logical Types, Bateson proposed that for every signal, there is always signal level above it which precisely determines its interpretation. Bateson's theory was however criticized as too rigid and lacking explanatory power for real-world communication phenomena in which signals of any kind (at any level) can be deceitful.[14]

Metamessages can be delivered by a wide variety of means, including verbal modifiers (like "certainly", "only", "just", etc.),[15] and—in spoken communication—by paralanguage,[16] e.g. by rhythm and pitch.[15] Metamessages can also be conveyed by body language.[16]

The famous pipe image from The Treachery of Images with the subtitle "ceci n'est pas une pipe" (meaning "this is not a pipe") is sometimes given as an example of metamessage conveyed by paralanguage.[17]

See also


  1. ^ Rachel Ballon (2009). Breathing Life Into Your Characters. Writer's Digest Books. p. 225.  
  2. ^ Angus Stevenson (2010). Oxford Dictionary of English. Oxford University Press. p. 1112.  
  3. ^ Roger A. Lohmann; Nancy Lohmann (2013). Social Administration. Columbia University Press. p. 225.  
  4. ^ Baboulene, David (2010).  
  5. ^ [1], View source lines 1718-1722. 
  6. ^ Marcel Danesi (2004). Messages, Signs, and Meanings: A Basic Textbook in Semiotics and Communication (3 ed.). Canadian Scholars’ Press. p. 142.  
  7. ^
  8. ^ Lidia Vianu (1998). Censorship in Romania. Central European University Press. p. 25.  
  9. ^ Debora Shuger (2006). Censorship and Cultural Sensibility: The Regulation of Language in Tudor-Stuart England. University of Pennsylvania Press. p. 205.  
  10. ^ Richard Blundel; Kate Ippolito (2008). Effective Organisational Communication: Perspectives, Principles and Practices (3rd ed.). FT Prentice Hall. p. 10.  
  11. ^ Gregory Bateson (1972). Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology. University of Chicago Press. pp. 247–248 and 289.  
  12. ^  
  13. ^ Alan Wolfe (January 1996). Marginalized in the Middle. University of Chicago Press. p. 200.  
  14. ^ A.J. Jones (1983). Communication and Meaning: An Essay in Applied Modal Logic. Springer. pp. 132–137.  
  15. ^ a b Matthew McKay; Martha Davis; Patrick Fanning (2009). Messages: The Communication Skills Book. New Harbinger Publications. pp. 75–79.  
  16. ^ a b Michelle Lefevre (2010). Communicating with Children and Young People: Making a Difference. The Policy Press. p. 46.  
  17. ^ Studies in Language, Volume 28, Issues 1-2, J. Benjamins 2004, p. 247, doi:10.1075/sl.28.1.14hai
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