The Mystery of Subtext: An Appreciation ‹ CrimeReads

During my high school years, when I was at my most rebellious, my eyes glazed over and rolled with impatience whenever our beloved English teacher, the indomitable Mrs. McFadden would talk about the role of the forest in the Last of the Mohicans. Who cared about such trivia when there were more important things to be concerned with—like that cute boy in my fifth period math class or the next Saturday night’s dance.

Undeterred by our lack of interest, she would continue unabated, telling us about the literary devices authors often employ to bring a simple story up to the level of art. She would describe the metaphors and similes that enrich the narrative and give the characters depth and substance. She explained that the form and structure an author uses to create a story tells the reader as much about the plot and the themes as do the words on the page. And it is the subtext, she said, lurking just beneath the surface—what the author chooses not to say, or say obliquely—that often speaks the loudest. If we could find this recognized buried treasure, if we could these hidden gems, and unravel the mystery behind the words and images, only then would we grasp the true meaning of the story, the real intent of the author.

Despite my respect for Mrs. McFadden and her passion for literary fiction, I preferred mysteries to the heavier, more obscure texts that were assigned to us. I would open a good mystery—Daphne du Maurier’s Rebeccafor instance or Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None and know fully well that whatever was presented at the outset, might not be what it appeared to be. As a reader, I was willing to second guess everything, to look beneath every word and description for the clues I knew the author had left for me. I eagerly traversed the path she laid out and followed her like a devoted acolyte to the end where I knew everything would make sense and the mystery would be solved. Along the way, I examined every event and deed, trying to discern what was true and what was false. There was something thrilling about analyzing what was really happening or who someone really was before any of it became apparent. The usual problem solving, the act of turning over every possible scenario in my mind made me feel as if I were one with the author, that she had written this story solely for me and together we were solving this great mystery before us.

After college, when my initial rebellion against literary fiction ebbed, I decided that I wanted to learn more about the genre. It was Kafka’s metamorphosis that made me realize I could approach literary fiction in the same way I approached all those mysteries I loved because truly, this novella had to be about something more than a bug. But what was it about? What was Kafka trying to tell me? The more I read, the more I wanted to know.

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The story on the surface is simple, a traveling salesman awakens one morning to discover he has been turned into a beetle-like insect. As the story progresses, he learns to adapt to the limitations and the isolation, but it is his family’s repulsion toward him and their rejection of him in his current state that leads to his death. Kafka masterfully leaves clues along the way in the symbols and in the subtext that tells the reader this is a story about something more than an insect’s demise. What the allegory and the subtext suggest is a description of a truly alienated man, and on a larger scale, an alienated artist.

Suddenly, as I read on, picking up the clues that Kafka offered, the story spoke to me in a very personal way. I too was an alienated young artist—a writer whose many rejections made me feel akin to this man turned insect who now spoke in a voice that no one around him could understand or was willing to listen to. As I plumbed the depths of this narrative following word by word, image by image the path he mapped, I discovered a connection with him and with the character that I had not felt anywhere else. And though we were separated by years and death, culture and gender, I was able to say to this author: Yes, I see what you see, I know what you know, I feel what you feel.

Readers instinctively know how to approach mysteries. They don’t instinctively know how to approach literary fiction. So many times, I read the reviews in this genre that run something like this: “Maybe I missed the point of this story …” or “I’m not sure what the theme is”, or “What…did I just read? !” They don’t understand that they need to look for the clues the author has left behind in the images and in the subtext, the same way they would do if they were reading a mystery. If they follow the path the author has cleared for them, if they look beneath the surface of the symbols and ponder the words, the setting, and the characters, they will understand that nothing is as it appears to be. Readers will then readily solve literary fiction’s mystery hidden in the subtext, and arriving at the end, despite time and cultural differences, they too will say: Yes, I see what you see, I know what you know, I feel what you feel.

And isn’t this why we write and read literature? We hope that we are not alone in our experiences and perceptions of life and the world, we long to know that there are others who share our beautiful, terrible experience of having lived in the world.

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