First, What Is It?
Subtext is implied information. It’s that simple. It comes from high context relationships, wherein two or more people have common knowledge of past events and refer to them without stating an outline of the events and how they effected each other and their futures. Most people employ subtext when talking to old friends and family. An inside joke is the simplest form of subtext, but in writing subtext tends to be a little more sophisticated. Usually because the characters don’t want to really bring that old crap into the light. Subtext in a narrative is the best way to do exposition of plot and explore motivations of characters. Not all writers are good at this. Some writers hit a reader over the head with exposition and motivation. They hit them with signs that say “EXPOSITION!!!” and “MOTIVATION!!!” and most readers and viewers balk at that kind of clunky story telling. But it is easier to show then to tell, so I’m going to use Dracula, Kill Bill Vol. I, and Checkov’s The Cherry Orchard for my examples, so . . . spoilers.
For those you you who don’t watch this show, this moment happened right when Spongebob dropped the dialogue bomb of why Mr. Krabs had been gone (he was on vacation). It was purposely clunky, hence the title above his head.
Subtext or Are You Reading Too Much Into It?
There is a joke going around the internet about English professors right now that I love. Here it is:
It makes me laugh every time I see it or think of it, because I completely get it. While reading Dracula for a course, I was repeatedly confused by the idea that Lucy was a slut. Not vampire Lucy, but normal Lucy. I don’t get this. The evidence given to support her promiscuousness is the blood transfusions from four different men, one of whom (Arthur) said it made him feel like they were truly bonded in marriage. I get the idea of mingling blood relating to sex as one result of sex is consanguinity as in the creation of children; however, based on how the instances of the transfusions came about negates any agency from her in the act. She was passed out each time, suggesting instead non-consensual mingling of blood, just as Dracula took her blood without her consent. The leap from her lack of say in the blood transfusions to her being promiscuous seems very far fetched as her inability to consent completely throws out the idea of her as promiscuous which requires an act of agency and instead reinforces her as victim. The whole theory also throws out the fact that this was a life-saving medical procedure (do we consider getting a blood transfusion from strangers as a metaphor for sex when we are in a car accident and need one? No, we don’t. We consider it a medically necessary procedure.)
Some have brought up the fact that she had three suitors, like that is somehow evidence. I disagree as she was an heiress of good breeding and sweet nature. In the time period of the novel, three suitors is quite normal, especially considering the fact that before engagement people would refer to each other by titles and surnames. Dating wasn’t really a thing. Instead we would see friends of the girl’s family spending time with her in public spaces and with other family members and guests. There wasn’t really proclamations of love until a marriage proposal was also voiced. Men of this time were also hard pressed to get a woman alone to profess and propose, which was the only time it wasn’t unseemly for a girl to be alone with a man. Lucy’s three proposals are only strange in the fact that they all happened on the same day. If she had acquiesced to each man or showed fickleness in her decision, I could see an argument for a metaphor for promiscuousness, but I did not see evidence of any fickleness. Lucy seemed quite sure she wanted to marry Arthur to the very end. She does say something about how society doesn’t let a woman have as many husbands as she wants, but she isn’t thinking about sex but about the hurt she had to give to Dr. Seward and Quincey by saying no. She also knew it was a silly thought. She was most likely thinking idealistically, not sexually. I had serious doubts that Lucy knew much about sex, as she didn’t seem to come close to this consideration in any of her writings.
Other flimsy arguments that she was promiscuous bring up the times Dr. Seward and Dr. Van Helsing stayed in her room all night or washed her in a bathtub. This is again refuted by looking at their actions from the medical profession. Had they not done these things she would have died sooner, just as with the blood transfusions. Doctors throughout the ages have spent time in female patients’ rooms without it being called unseemly, far before the period of the book. I agree that the time period of the novel is far more stringent in its decrying of sexuality than say one hundred years prior, but medicine and science were gaining ground at this time over perceived propriety as is evidenced by the entirety of the British Gothic genre which includes far more scientific theory than previous genres.
My overall point though is what exactly do people see in that novel of Lucy’s actions pre-vampire to suggest her being promiscuous that can’t be brushed away by other evidence? I feel as though this is a game of rumor that has been going on for more than a century about this novel. Or preconceived notions gained from others’ interpretations such as that very awful movie where Lucy is naked and moaning throughout most of it. The idea of vampirism being about sex is an established theory, but in most instances then it would seem vampirism is about rape, wherein vampires attack and take from their victims without their consent. I think when Stoker has his characters describe Lucy as sweet, poor, or angelic, I believe he means she was sweet, poor, and angelic. I believe she was developed this way to make her undead state more contrasted and horrifying. I also believe she had so many suitors because Stoker needed someway to have a medical professional in (Dr. Seward), a representation of English power (Arthur), and a classical hero (Quincey) all in the story and connected to Dracula in a believable way with a motivation to go after him (the death of a woman they all loved). So I do not believe the subtext for Lucy being promiscuous is actually in the book but is being read into it. The novel does have subtext, just not that interpretation.
The Opposite of Subtext
Years ago when I was in a two year playwriting program, I was made to read Checkov’s The Cherry Orchard. I’m still scratching my head on that one. Not because it was particularly deep but because I didn’t understand what anyone saw in it. Though I’ll freely admit that the names made following it harder, the dialogue itself often left something to be desired. The beginning has a lot of moments where people reminisce. As a writer, I can’t endorse reminiscence as a form of exposition. I can barely endorse it for any reason. It seems too clunky, and in The Cherry Orchard people have a reason for reminiscing, but it still comes kind of out of no where and leaves a lot of emotionality to be desired. Like this moment:
“ANYA. [Thoughtfully] Father died six years ago, and a month later my brother Grisha was drowned in the river– such a dear little boy of seven! Mother couldn’t bear it; she went away, away, without looking round. . . . [Shudders] How I understand her; if only she knew! [Pause] And Peter Trofimov was Grisha’s tutor, he might tell her. . . .”
There is no impetus for this line at all. It is a statement of facts. Telling us backstory. It’s a non-reply to Varya saying “I told them not to wake him.” Where is Anya’s motivation for saying this? It’s no where. I’ve heard that Checkov is a master of subtext, but stating backstory for no reason is the opposite of subtext. I’ve also been hard pressed to hear the subtext in other moments. Another harsh critic of Checkov believes that a good director took hold of Checkov’s work and told the actors how to behave to give the work depth versus it being in the actual text. This sounds like a good theory to me.
Good Use of Subtext
Now I’m a pretty big fan of the Kill Bill movies. They have great dialogue, great fights, good imagery, good acting, and a sense of humor about itself. In a recent rewatch, I realized there was more to the first one than one would think. Mainly, in the relationship between O-Ren Ishii and the Bride. There are some major clues in this movie that O-Ren and the Bride had a close friendship before the incident in the Texas chapel, but let’s go through them.
One: The first person on the Bride’s list is O-Ren, before the obviously easier Vernita Green. But the Bride wants to handle one of the most challenging of her targets first. There could be many reasons for this: she wants the others to know she’s coming (why else would she leave Sophie alive?), she wants to see if she is capable of fighting and killing after so long, she wants to get the arguably hardest challenge out of the way first, or O-Ren was important to her. I do believe that all of these are the truth and feed into the Bride’s motivations for taking down O-Ren first.
Two: The only person on the Bride’s list to get a biography is O-Ren. When going after Vernita, the Bride simply tells the audience where Vernita is now; whereas, O-Ren is shown at an important moment in her life (becoming the Yakuza boss in Japan) without the Bride there. Then we see a quite long and personal anime sequence showing how O-Ren became the woman she is, including the most important moments of her childhood. We do not see anyone else’s, including the Bride’s, childhood in either movie. We do not know what happened to the rest of the squad or Bill as children to turn them into killers, but we do see this with O-Ren. But how does the Bride know any of this? It is my theory that O-Ren told her about these moments as they grew closer in the squad or even before the squad (it is entirely possible that O-Ren and the Bride had teamed up before joining the squad). If O-Ren did tell the Bride about her childhood, it was most likely because the two relied on each and felt they could trust one another. Perhaps the Bride shared her childhood with O-Ren as well.
Three: The report in the present of the movie between O-Ren and the Bride is very easy but lacks overt expressions of motivation or emotion, unlike the dialogue between the Bride and Vernita, which is instead comprised of the digging up of old issues between the two, most likely never voiced. Overall, the best moment of subtext in this movie is an exchange between O-Ren and the Bride that had a lot of people scratching their heads as to the reason it was even in the movie.
While the reference to the the cereal slogan may seem out of place, it isn’t if we consider it subtextually. If based on evidences presented in One and Two mean that O-Ren and the Bride were once close friends, then this moment could be taken as a throwback to earlier dialogue they would have had when working together. Perhaps when they thought an assignment was going to be easy, but it turned out harder than expected, they would exchange these words and get amusement from it. Most people who are close repeat humorous exchanges throughout their relationship, so this is not a crazy conclusion to draw. So by repeating it here, O-Ren and the Bride are bittersweetly referencing their former closeness as opposed to giving a breakfast cereal free advertising.
Their final exchanges were laced with apology and respect. It did not seem as though O-Ren was simply apologizing for making fun of the Bride but possibly also for her part in the chapel massacre, and that the Bride was accepting that apology, but because of who they are (killers) the Bride and O-Ren are going to finish this fight. The idea of giving forgiveness while still fighting to the death is a very old Samurai story theme, making it both deep and in good tradition. O-Ren can’t voice an apology for the massacre because it is too horrible of an action to ask for forgiveness outright, so the scene is very heavy with all that happened between them before they meet this time.
Kill Bill Vol. 1 is chock full of subtext (and some hints as well, like the fact that it was Bill who actually did the killing of O-Ren’s parents) and is worth another watch to suss out back story and connections between the characters.
It is important not to read too much into a work, to read into it what you want to see versus what is actually there. But it is also important to pay attention and think about what is being presented while reading or watching a story. As a writer, it is important to use tact when creating back story as tact is the secret ingredient in creating good subtext.
Are there any works you find are lacking in tact? List them below! Or are really good at subtext? Explain why you feel that way.