Subtext  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Subtext is content of a book, play, musical work, film or television series 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.

Subtext is content underneath the spoken dialogue. Under the dialogue we can have conflict, sexual tension, anger, competition, pride, showing off etc. Subtext is the unspoken thoughts and motives of your characters -- what they really think and believe. And what you leave a lot out of in the dialogue is subtext. Pushing this just beneath the surface of the dialogue is what makes life so interesting and people to be so misunderstood.

H.G. Wells's The Time Machine, for example, uses the Morlocks and Eloi as metaphors for exploitative capitalists and exploited workers respectively.

Examples of subtext often include the sexuality of the characters, such as the nature of the relationship between the teachers in the film version of Lillian Hellman's play The Children's Hour (which was based on an actual case in Scotland), or the gender ambiguity of Mr. Humphries in Are You Being Served?.

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.

Especially in light of their inherently ambiguous and self-referential character, many authors have explicitly used subtexts (or subtexts about subtexts) in humor.

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

It might also be claimed in these last two examples that once the subtext is made explicit, it is no longer a subtext: The authors are highlighting a supposed subtext in order to create a new subtext about the transformation of the previously implicit subtext. Because of their complexity and implicit character, subtexts are often debated, especially by theorists wishing to advance a particular position or theory by claiming something as a subtext.

Political uses

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. Note the recurrent themes of Moses leading the people of Israel out of Egypt, and the thinly veiled reference to the big dipper and little dipper constellations in the Spiritual "Follow the drinking gourd."

Others would point to the "deep river" and "looking to Canaan land" subtexts as working to pacify or fragment the slave population by focusing their attention on the afterlife thus possibly overlooking the injustice of the present.

See also




Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Subtext" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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