Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Ambiguity

ambiguity--an essential ingredient in character-driven fiction in which intent and outcome are left purposefully vague; motives and subtexts which may be interpreted variously by a given group of readers; a quality of meaning in dramatic writing where the reader is allowed some say in the interpretation.


Was the Billy Budd of the eponymous novella a naive narrator or, to use contemporary PC tropes, intellectually challenged?  Surely Herman Melville had had enough seafaring experience to open the possibility of the unspoken subtext of a sexual hang-up by Clagett over Billy, but did he intend the reader to infer a sexual conflict between the two characters?  

Was the governess of The Turn of the Screw seeing the ghosts of Miss Jessel and her lover, Peter Quint? Or was she merely delusional, and if that were the case, how does that explain the fact that the governess's young charges, Flora and Miles, may have been seeing the ghostly appearances?  You might also ask, as some readers and critics have asked, if the most recent governess had frightened Miles to death.

Was Spencer Brydon merely delusional in "The Jolly Corner," or was he in fact being confronted with a ghost.  In even more mischievous fact, Has Brydon dies at the end of the story, whereupon, because the story continues for a bit, was he experiencing a moment in the afterlife from which point he could look back at his earthly self, just as he had in fact done at the beginning of the story when returning to his old family home?

Did Jane Eyre actually hear or sense Rochester as he called to her across the moors in his moments of need and peril, or was her awareness merely the intuitive process of a woman hopelessly in love with Rochester?

Did Hamlet actually see his father's ghost on the battlements of Elsinore Castle or was Shakespeare merely anticipating the arrival of Sigmund Freud?

It is a lovely feeling to have readers arguing over the plausibility and possibility of events in one's work, to know that readers have taken one's work away with them, off the page, after the work had been completed.  One such way to achieve this status is through the process of ambiguity.  Call it Chekhovian if you wish, the process involves not spelling things out too clearly, not explaining too much, removing from one's work the same sorts of details humans are likely to remove.

Call it ambiguity.  It is a friendly, welcoming country with no officious border guards or entry restrictions, although it does have a suspicious nature when it comes to the excess baggage of explanation and no sense of humor.

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