Charles Baxter's collection of critical essays, Burning Down the House, is, like other good books about writing, very much about reading. He also has a small book in the Graywolf "Art of" Series, (which he edits) entitled The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot, which he says is largely based on a number of "close readings," mainly of short stories, in which he acts as a "critic-sleuth," trying to reveal how writers get at the "half-visible and the unspoken," which constitute what some critics like to call "subtext."
I said in an earlier blog that I was suspicious of the word "subtext," for it seems to me to be merely a new term for an old concept. And Baxter admits that he is certainly not the first to argue that a good story is energized more by what it implies than what it states—"the half visible and the unspoken." Chekhov once said that it is always better to say too little than too much, although he coyly said he was not sure why. And of course, there's Hemingway's famous claim that if a writer of prose "knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water."
Subtext, as used by recent critics and writing teachers, refers to the complex significance that underlies or inheres within a story—some sense of human mystery that transcends mere plot and character configuration. Many other writers have talked about it. A story, Flannery O'Connor says, "is a way to say something that can't be said in any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate."
And Eudora Welty once said: "The first thing we see about a story is its mystery. And in the best stories, we return at the last to see mystery again. Every good story has mystery--not the puzzle kind, but the mystery of allurement. As we understand the story better, it is likely that the mystery does not necessarily decrease; rather it simply grows more beautiful."
More recently, Robert Boswell, talks to aspiring writers about subtextual implication in his book The Half-known World: “If the writer’s goal is ‘literary fiction’ [one of his or her responsibilities] is the creation of a half-known world. To accomplish this, the writer must suggest a dimension to the fictional reality that escapes comprehension.”
Subtext, the way Baxter uses the term, means the story as significance rather than the story as event. For example, in John Cheever's story "The Swimmer," while the surface text is about a man swimming home through backyard pools, the subject of the subtext, according to Baxter, is about impulses that become repetitive addictions leading to the derailment of ordinary life.
Chekhov's "Lady with the Dog," says Baxter, is on the surface, about a man who has an affair, whereas its subtext is about a man who discovers that what he thought he wanted is not what he truly wants at all, but rather something he had not asked for or even known about. J. F. Powers' story "The Valiant Woman" is, on the surface about a priest and his housekeeper, whereas its subtext is about what Baxter calls the "grievous injustices" of marriage.
Many writers who are also in business of teaching others how to write use the concept of subtext. David Baboulene, who says he is working on a full-length book on subtext, has published two books on the nature of story in which he introduces the importance of the concept. In Story Theory, 2014, Baboulene says his great discovery about subtext is that a writer does not work with subtext, that "it's entirely wrong-headed, as a writer, to even think about subtext." What a writer does is create "knowledge gaps" in the story so the reader can create the subtext. Baboulene's basic definition of story is "any form of communication that includes knowledge gaps in the telling."
The idea of an underlying meaning in a story has been around at least since Edgar Allan Poe's discussions of the short story. Poe was the first to make a distinction between plot, or "what happens next" and pattern, or "what the story means. He distinguishes between the usual notion of plot as merely those events which occur one after another and arouse suspense and his own definition of plot as an overall pattern, design, or unity. Poe emphasizes that by "plot" he means pattern and design, not simply the temporal progression of events. Only pattern can make the separate elements of the work meaningful, not mere realistic cause-and-effect.
There is little doubt that Poe was, if nothing else, a thoroughgoing formalist, always more interested in the work's pattern, structure, conventions, and techniques than its reference to the external world. For Poe the overall design was not a pre-established intention, totally in the mind of the writer before the work's composition, but rather that the pattern of the work was achieved in the actual working out of the work.
The 1842 Hawthorne review is of course the central document for understanding Poe's contribution to the theory of the short story. What is most important in the literary work is unity; however, unity can only be achieved in a work which the reader can hold in the mind all at once. After the poem, traditionally the highest of high literary art, Poe says that the short tale has the most potential for being unified in the way the poem is. The effect of the tale is synonymous with its overall pattern or design, which is also synonymous with its theme or idea. Form and meaning emerge from the unity of the motifs of the story.
According to the Russian formalists, we can think of details in a story that are there merely to give us a sense of actuality as being relatively "loose" and even dispensable, or at least changeable. Details that are in the story because they are relevant to its meaning or overall rhetorical effect we can think of as being relatively "bound" to the story, that is, intrinsic and not easily detachable or changeable. Trying to determine which details in a story are "loose" and which are "bound" is one of the most important skills for reading stories effectively. One of the most important ways we can determine which details are bound and which are loose is by applying the principle of redundancy or repetition: if a certain detail or kind of detail is mentioned more than once or twice in a story, we might suspect that it is relevant in some way.
The circulation in American universities of the central ideas of the New Criticism, also called "formalist," "contextual," or "objective" criticism, was mainly due to the publication of two highly influential literature textbooks in the 1930s by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren: Understanding Fiction and Understanding Poetry. The most basic and pervasive premise of the New Criticism was that the meaning of a work is not equivalent to what the artist "intended" when he wrote it, for poetic language is so highly connotative that the ultimate meaning of a work of art exceeds any original intention. To get at a work's meaning the reader had to engage in a close analytical reading. The assumption was that the work was a highly unified object that communicated something significant about human experience by the choice and arrangement of its individual parts.
New Critics felt that the work's theme was too complex to be reduced to some discursive idea purposely placed within the poem by the author, which could be plucked out by the reader like a raisin from a cake. In a central essay on the subject entitled "The Language of Paradox," Cleanth Brooks argued that whereas the scientist wants to freeze language into widely-agreed upon denotations, literature is always breaking up these agreements in perpetually new ways. The primary device for achieving this constant break-up is metaphor, and metaphor, argued the New Critics, is by its very nature always ironic and paradoxical. Thus the values sought after in poetry by the New Critics were those of complexity, irony, tension, and paradox.
According to Russian Formalists Boris Eichenbaum and Boris Tomashevsky, when approaching fiction one must make an initial distinction between the series of events which a writer takes as his subject matter and the specific structure that results when the writer presents the completed piece of fiction to the reader. Although one may be tempted to think of both these series of events as the same, formalists saw the former as merely the raw material, whereas the latter is the transformation of the raw material by means of purely literary conventions or devices. The Russian Formalist notion of narrative structure that later proved highly influential is the concept of a "motif" as being the smallest particle of thematic material in a story, organized in strategically justifiable ways which the Russian Formalists call "motivation."
As I say, this is all old stuff, but every once in a while, a critic seems to discover the concept as if it were brand new. One example I ran across in doing the research for this blog was an article by Dan Shen entitled" 'Overall-Extended Close Reading' and Subtexts of Short Stories," English Studies 91 (April 2010). Shen, Changiang Professor of English at Peking University, notes that close reading, after being discredited for a time as conservative and limited, is showing signs of return. This should not be surprising, given the fact that regardless of what critical trend sweeps through graduate programs—theoretical, social, political, biographical, etc.—it is inevitable that there will always be a return to a close reading of the literary work.
Shen proposes what she calls "overall-extended close reading, "which she says is particularly useful in investigating "subtexts of short stories." She suggests the following three parts of her so-called "new" methodology: (1) examining "local elements in relation to their global function, taking into account the interaction among textual details in different parts of the narrative; (2) taking into account the socio-historical contexts of the work; (3) paying attention to intertextual relations by comparing the text to related texts.
Anyone familiar with modern literary criticism since the New Criticism will see that this proposal is hardly original, for it simply suggests that close reading should not ignore a social and an intertextual context.
Shen chooses Stephen Crane's story "An Episode of War" to illustrate her "new" strategy, arguing that previous critics' failure to consider the interaction among "local elements" in the story and insufficient attention to intertextual and extra textual relations have resulted in a failure to perceive a "most essential subtext" in the story, whereas her "overall extended close reading" has enabled her to see a "macrostructural satirical strategy—"feminization" which consistently deprives the protagonist and his comrades of masculinity as a most important cornerstone of traditional heroism."
The "local elements" Shen picks out in the story—the lieutenant dividing coffee, a simile of a girls boarding school, his crying out when shot — what she calls all typical feminine behaviors dramatize the soldier in the story as being like a "weak and vulnerable female." She also notes several similes of child-like behavior, e.g. "Don't be a baby," which she calls "childization," which reinforces the "macrostructure" of feminization. She concludes that this feminization strategy has eluded generations of critics because of the "bondage of conventional interpretative frames," (whatever that means). She cites a Crane poem and his story "Mystery of Heroism" to provide a social and intertextual context for his attitude to war.
I mention Professor Shen's discussion of subtext in Crane's "Episode of War" to illustrate that simply because a critic adopts a new term does not mean that said critic has access to the underlying significance of a story. I suggest that Professor Shen's picking out references to traditional "feminine" behavior simply refers to a common cultural cliché that if a man does not face an injury with a stiff upper lip and a straight face, he risks being called a "sissy," or in some circles he is referred to by the vulgar metonymy whereby men reduce women to their genitals.
In a piece I published a piece on Crane's story "An Episode of War" some forty years ago, I suggested a "reading" of the "subtext," (without using that term) that integrated many more of what Shen calls "local elements" in the story than the simple cultural cliché of being a "sissy" and thus justified the story as embodying a much more universal theme typical of Crane's philosophic point of view in such stories as "The Open Boat," "The Blue Hotel," and others.
Although the title of Stephen Crane's short story "An Episode of War" obviously points to an event somehow related to a national conflict, the central character, a lieutenant, is not engaged in a war activity when the story opens. He is simply dividing coffee for his men. Instead of using his sword as an instrument of war, he is using it as a tool to perform an everyday household chore. While engaged in an activity of ordered, "mathematical," normality the lieutenant suddenly cries out, and the situation is ordered and normal no longer.
At this crucial point the story presents a frozen scene in which the lieutenant can only gaze "sadly, mystically" at the "green face of a wood," while the men stand "statue like and silent, astonished and awed by this catastrophe which happened when catastrophes were not expected." As is usual when one is struck unexpectedly, the lieutenant looks quickly at the man near him "as if he suspected it were a case of personal assault." When he realizes that the man next to him is not the guilty party, he looks further for a cause. But all he sees is "the green face of a wood." And indeed the answer to the question: "What struck the lieutenant"--the question that the lieutenant, the men and the reader ask at this point--can only be: "the green face of a wood."
Crane's control of the details of this situation further suggests that the wood is the enemy. He not only refuses to show us the person who fired the shot; he does not even say that the lieutenant was shot at all. All we see is the blood that mysteriously appears on his sleeve. Furthermore, it is the wood, not the supposed enemy behind it, that is called "hostile." In fact, the wood dominates this first section of the story. As the lieutenant begins his trip back through the lines for medical aid he stares at it once more; and the reader is forced to focus on it also as the men in silence "stared at the wood, then at the departing lieutenant; then at the wood, then at the lieutenant."
The wood as enemy is suggested by two more indirect references in the second section of the story. When the lieutenant goes back through the lines, he sees a general on a black horse gazing over the lines of the blue infantry “at the green woods which veiled his problems.” And at the end of this section, as the lieutenant turns his eyes toward the battle itself, he sees crowds of men standing and firing away, not at a concrete, observable enemy, but at the “inscrutable distance.” With the piling up of such images of the wood as a "mystery," as "hostile," as something which "veils" one's problems, as "inscrutable," as something one can only gaze at "sadly, mystically"; we begin to realize that the lieutenant's enemy is the most general human enemy, that the "war" in which he is engaged in is the "war" in which human beings are always engaged--a war that, in our everyday ordered activities, we often forget. The green face of the wood that strikes the lieutenant and gives no answer is the blankness we all face when something unexpected and mysterious confronts us..
Moreover, the lieutenant's confrontation in section one of the story is not only with the blank mystery of meaningless attack, but also with the ultimate extension of that mystery--the absolute mystery of death. The men shy away from him as if his "hand is upon the curtain which hangs before the revelations of all existence." They "fear vaguely that the weight of a finger upon him might send him headlong, precipitate the tragedy, hurl him at once into the dim, gray unknown." The results of such a confrontation are that the lieutenant becomes, at the same time, both lowly and dignified. The familiar sword he was using to divide the coffee becomes a strange thing to him. Puzzled with what to do with it, he looks at in a " kind of stupefaction, as if he had been endowed with a trident, a scepter, or a spade." The very metaphoric transformation of the sword suggests both implications--the royal dignity and authority of the scepter and trident, as well as the lowly earth-bound subservience of the spade.
Although "a wound gives strange dignity to him who wears it," and "men shy away from this new and terrible majesty," the lieutenant "wears the look of one who know he is the victim of a terrible disease and understands his helplessness." Now we realize that the terrible disease of which the lieutenant is a victim is the same disease of which all human beings are victims --the disease of simply being human and therefore susceptible to the mystery of the uncontrollable world outside and the ultimate mystery of death.
In the third section of the story, the lieutenant, having reached help behind his lines, faces a different response to his wound. Instead of being treated with the awe due royalty, as he was earlier, he is now treated with the scorn due a child who has been careless enough to get himself into trouble. The doctor's response to the lieutenant is the final manifestation of his isolation. Because he sees wounded men every day, the lieutenant is not special or royal as he was before. Just the opposite, he is beneath the doctor, "on a very low social plain." The lieutenant becomes merely an object that must be tended to precisely because he is a frail and "brittle" human object susceptible to the "hostile" world outside. In this story, the lieutenant is the only one who has faced the significance of the “green face of the wood,” and it is this that isolates him from all the others.
The lieutenant finally rebels. He fears the loss of the arm will make concrete a much greater loss he has been moving toward throughout the story--the loss of his familiar and ordered place in the world. But his rebellion makes no difference; and as he gazes at the schoolhouse door, "as sinister to him as the portals of death," we confront again the "veil" or "curtain" referred to earlier in the story that hangs before the revelations of all existence. We do not enter these "portals" with the lieutenant and thus do not know what "revelations" are made to him. The loss of the arm is as mysterious as the wound itself. Instead, the story jumps ahead to a scene perhaps several months later. As his sisters, mother, and wife sob for a long time at the sight of the flat sleeve, he stands shamefaced and says, "Oh, well. . . I don't suppose it matters so much as all that." And Crane sums up the story by saying, "And this is the story of how the lieutenant lost his arm." Both statements are obviously ironic, Crane's understatement giving us the clue to the irony of the lieutenant's disclaimer.
We realize that this has not been a story of how the lieutenant lost his arm. That event occurred outside the given details of the story. The story itself presents the experience that led up to the amputation. The lieutenant realizes, just as we do now, that the women are only crying over the physical loss of the arm. To them this is what the story is about. But the lieutenant now realizes that the physical loss is not so important. What is really important is the experience the lieutenant has gone through--an experience structured as a short story called "An Episode of War." And this story is about the lieutenant's confrontation with the mystery of the world and mankind's precarious situation in it.
I suggest that Professor Shen's singling out references to so-called "feminization" is a reduction of the mysterious significance of Crane's story. According to the New Critics of long ago, one of the principle criteria of determining what Shen likes to call "subtext" is to do a "close reading" of the entire story, not merely trace a single cultural metaphor.
The concept of subtext is indeed an important aspect of what distinguishes a great short story from a simple narrative, but it certainly is not a new notion just because it has a new name.