At my daughter’s back to school night, her history teacher told us how he expects the students to interpret documents using text, context, and subtext. Fiction authors intuitively use the three tools to enrich their writing.
Text simply means what the author has written.
Context is the situational/cultural/social/political relevance. In other words, the “who, where, what, when, why.”
Subtext is the hidden or implied meaning.
Let’s take the following scenario:
A man is at a high school reunion, where he meets his high school sweetheart whom he hasn’t seen in ten years. The attraction is mutual, and they rekindle their romance. But before temptation is too strong, he remembers his wife, who is alone at home, taking care of their newborn baby. He leaves the reunion early, drives back home, and opens the door. Looking at his haggard wife rocking the baby, his eyes tear up. His voice shakes as he says, “Honey, I’m back.”
Let’s examine the words: “Honey, I’m back.”
Text: The man is back home.
Context: He was away at a reunion, but he felt guilty about leaving his wife to take care of the newborn, and cut his trip short.
Subtext: He nearly succumbed to temptation, but rose above it. He decided to return to his wife, and to his roots. He doesn’t have to say anything more, but the reader knows what he means. He is ‘back’ from his moral ‘excursion’.
Let’s look at the following example:
A couple is at a restaurant, ordering food. The husband has put on several pounds over the past few years. He orders a steak, a side of fries and mashed potatoes. The wife, who is not generally a health freak, says, “I’ll have a salad. I’m watching my weight.”
What’s the subtext?
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Sunanda Chatterjee is a practicing physician in Southern California. When she is not by the microscope making diagnoses, she loves to write fiction.