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Masculine Fiction, and How Subtext Can Enrich a Text: A Critical Paper

Hemingway's Iceberg Theory of Writing
Hemingway: “If it is any use to know it, I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg. There are seven-eights of it under water for every part that shows."

In fiction, subtext can enrich a text and provide depth to a work in ways no other tool in the writer’s toolbox can, primarily because as its very nature subtext’s effects are more deeply felt. As Charles Baxter writes in The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot, subtext can be thought of as “the ghosts moaning from beneath the floor” (3); these “ghosts” can be felt in dialogue, in exposition, in the narrative via a character’s actions, and through the use of subplots, and they provide an undercurrent of deeper meaning that enriches the fiction. Because subtext refers to the intentional and/or perceived unstated meaning behind the actions, dialogue, and exposition that the reader understands prima facie, it is especially effective where one or more characters are being dominated by a superior force, or, in other words, in fiction that might be thought of as particularly masculine, as this paper will demonstrate.

Charles Baxter's The Art of Subtext
The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot, A great book by Charles Baxter on subtext in fiction

Masculine fiction, here, shall be defined as literature experienced through the point of view of a man or through the point of view of a woman living in a particularly masculine world. For our purposes, “masculine world” refers not only to the setting (harsh, unforgiving environments such as the bitterly cold country of Jack London’s “Bâtard” or the war sections of Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods), but also to the socio-political environments within which the characters live, such as those we experience in the male-oriented, urban environment of Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters, or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Birdsong,” which takes place in a country where certain things are expected of women of a certain age, specifically that they be married. In these and other examples of masculine fiction the message, the themes, what the reader is meant to feel through the subtext, is often concerned with the subjection of the male or female protagonist or protagonists to one superior force or another. This subjection is normally represented in the form of a dominant male (though not always, as is the case with works by Jack London), and likely with reference to class, financial status or social status, and/or the quest for the affections of an idealized man or woman.

Some novels, such as Fox’s Desperate Characters and O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods, are laden with subtext, which greatly influences the reader’s experience of the text. Through subtext, readers gain an understanding of the setting, of the tone, of the reality of the lives of the characters inhabiting the authors’ meticulously-controlled worlds; in these works subtext informs the reader not just of what the characters are doing but it informs them of what the intent of the character’s actions mean or could potentially mean, given the level of ambiguity intrinsic to most subtext. In these works, subtext is produced and exposed to the reader through a distinct, compelling arrangement of words and scenes and repetition that creates a heaviness, a distinct, overwhelming consciousness that more is “going on” below the surface right before the reader’s eyes. The effectiveness of the subtext to enhance and drive forward the understated, the sub-knowledge being passed to the reader, like any other authorial device, is the author’s ability to execute upon the promise she proposes through her hints, her clues, her arrangement of the literary mechanisms within the narrative the reader considers while formulating an understanding of what is going on between the characters and/or within characters themselves. It is true that the elements contributing to subtext may display themselves in ways relatively elusive to the reader, but no doubt they are there, fuzzy perhaps at first glance, but likely staring wide-eyed at the reader from behind a minimally-veiled spider web of exposition, dialogue, and action.

Short stories may employ subtext to the same degree and effect as longer works. In stories published in The New Yorker by Daniel Alarcón, David Gilbert, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, subtext is used deftly by the authors to bring forth drama, to create material impact in a short amount of space. In Alarcón’s and Adichie’s stories the authors create subtext that substantiates and impresses upon the reader the class differences between the story’s characters as well as the loss of identity, and in Gilbert’s “Member / Guest,” while also dealing with class and social status, it is predominantly used to highlight the insecurity and fear of not really knowing the world in which one is living, or in understanding the complexity of the dynamics between the people one cares about. In all cases, subtext adds a rich layer to the narrative that produces in the reader certain emotive feelings that would otherwise not exist without its presence.

Cover for Tim O'Brien's In The Lake of The Woods
Tim O'Brien's fantastic novel In the Lake of the Woods

To hone in more on subtext in masculine fiction as opposed to any other type of fiction, specific texts were selected based on their particular use of subtext, but also in relation to their narrative diversity from each other. For example, Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through it primarily deals with three generations of Maclean men, men who are very different from one another and who view the world differently. Each of the Maclean men exemplifies particular masculine traits and behaviors, however few of those traits and behaviors intersect. While the protagonist of In the Lake of the Woods remains a relatively unreliable narrator (to an extent), it’s clear that his quest for the masculine alpha male ideal—Vietnam veteran, senate candidate, accomplished son and husband—is his principal goal. And in “Birdsong,” though the protagonist is a female, she lives in a masculine world in the sense that separate from her accomplished lover (and, in some cases, even in his presence), she is neither worthy of equality nor respect at work or home, nor capable of appropriating it even briefly while waiting in traffic. The texts referenced here have been selected for their particular and diverse perspectives (or representations) on the subject of masculinity and subtext.

The texts referenced vary not only in the authors’ genders, race and ethnicities, eras in which the pieces were written, form (short story versus novel), etcetera, but in who is narrating the work and/or through whose point of view we experience the narrative. For example, in Desperate Characters we have a narrator who takes Sophie’s (the protagonist’s) point of view—Sophie, who lives in a very Caucasian, male-centered, late 1960s Brooklyn where reminders of class and race are a look out the back window or a visit to a friend away. In O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods, we’re instantly thrust into the masculine world of John Wade from page one. Wade, who is a violent (we quickly come to find out) Vietnam Veteran who has just failed at a bid for governor of his state, who is “not yet prepared to make love” after already having failed at a previous attempt, and whose demons we’re watching crawl swiftly out from wherever they’d been hiding while he’d been building the façade of an accomplished and, in many ways, exceptional life (1). Maclean’s A River Runs Through it is told by Norman Maclean himself, and is, for the most part, a story told with a great deal of subtext and very little mention of women who, for the most part, are either promiscuous, overly-motherly, or a little of both. In the world of Maclean’s characters all of this is commonplace, and given it is Maclean’s point of view through which the story is told, it makes perfect sense that we witness the machinations of men in a particularly masculine environment. But Maclean’s use of subtext is slightly effeminized, at least in comparison to the other works, in that Maclean softens the harsh nature and the masculine peacocking of his characters to show their humanity, to break their established patterns, to show, at least in a minute sort of way, how they change.

The short stories referenced vary more in terms of the authors’ and protagonists’ cultural and ethnic diversity, but the authors’ reliance on subtext is no less critical to the overall strength of the works. What is clear in all of the works save for Dashiell Hammett’s TheMaltese Falcon is that without the work happening below the surface, without the mysterious intrigue woven into the narrative via subtext, the stories and novels would not have the material impact, would lack the same complexity and substance on the reader’s sense of importance of what is going on in terms of plot, theme, action, or otherwise. The subtext in each of the works is what holds the work together, what drives the reader forward and keeps them hooked, for without the work happening below the surface, without the subtext, it is safe to assume that the texts would feel naked, would lack that thing that ensures their remaining compelling fiction through the duration of the work, or for that matter, long after the reader has finished reading the last sentence.

Once the reader comprehends that subtext is present (whether consciously or, at worst, somewhat consciously while reading), the experience of the narrative is that much richer, that much more engrossing. But fiction (of any length) does not necessarily require subtext in order to be a good or compelling piece of fiction. A great example of a work, in this case a novel, without—or with very minimal—subtext is Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, which is about as masculine a novel as has ever been written. The entire novel is written in the present, in the here and now, right before the reader’s eyes, and really, the only moment in the entire novel that could be argued as subtext would be the minor story regarding Flitcraft, which Sam Spade, the novel’s protagonist, tells Brigid O’Shaughnessy as a sort of backstory—the one and only moment of its kind in the work. The Maltese Falcon is distinct in its lack of subtext as to be impressive for this fact alone; it is striking that an entire novel can be so lacking in subtext yet endure and remain as interesting as it has remained over so many years. Charles Baxter, in The Art of Subtext, sums up the type of novel that exists when stripped of subtext (as well as the face of the characters), and whose mold The Maltese Falcon appears to fit almost literally:

…if we take away the face and the subtext, then where is the story? Maybe in

the clothes, or the weapons, or the cars, and the explosions and the shoes, and

the swimming pools and the sex and the firepower and the situation, in a kind of

reproduction of the glittering surfaces and the beasts of commerce that feed on

them. But if the story is going to be a story about persons who have been granted

their humanity, who can live and die with all their attendant angels and devils

lurking in the background, people, in short, with those archaic things called souls,

it probably cannot do without that something—let’s call it a face and not be

embarrassed about it—that lies underneath the hood. (Baxter, 174)

It is thus in the everything else that makes The Maltese Falcon work, i.e., the quick pace of the narrative, the direct, tough guy dialogue, all of the action, and of course, the flat, one-dimensional descriptions of the characters, who are, in effect, exceptionally well-developed caricatures. The Maltese Falcon is a good contrast to fiction that employs subtext, and will thus be referenced as a contrast to the other works being analyzed, the works that do employ subtext, regardless of to what degree.

Of the works reviewed, including the exceedingly “masculine” texts of Jack London’s “Bâtard” and Maclean’s A River Runs Through It, none was more startlingly brutal than O’Brien’s novel, In the Lake of the Woods. The masculine weight of the world—of Wade’s losing an election, of his value as a man and his lack of worthiness of having married Kathy (who, we’re meant to understand, is somewhat of a martyr in having stuck with Wade for so long), of having suspicious, bold interrogators questioning him, of his Vietnam Veteran buddies’ testimonies about the events at My Lai—all of these pressures are on John Wade, and the reader immediately begins to suspect him of murdering his wife, which is an entirely reasonable suspicion, given the fact that he himself, perhaps indirectly, is himself unsure of his innocence.

Book cover of Paula Fox's Desperate Characters
Paula Fox's Desperate Characters

In the novel, O’Brien uses subtext to draw out conclusions, however ambiguous, from Wade’s actions and thoughts for the reader. Subtext is how we learn about pretty much everything there is to learn about to understand Wade, and to decipher what really happened to Kathy—although, spoiler alert, we never truly find out. From the beginning of the novel, after we learn of Wade’s violent and angry thoughts and at his wanting to kill everyone once his father has died, Wade is already engendering subtext, is already creating for the reader the mystery and intrigue and curiosity behind the unknowns of his past, as well as the most important one presently: did he kill his wife, and if he did, was it intentional? It is a question that Wade, the rest of the characters in the novel, and the reader all find themselves asking from page one up until, and likely beyond, the end of the novel.

From the beginning of the novel, after we learn of Wade’s violent and angry thoughts and at his wanting to kill everyone once his father has died, Wade is already engendering subtext, is already creating for the reader the mystery and intrigue and curiosity behind the unknowns of his past, as well as the most important one presently: did he kill his wife, and if he did, was it intentional?

O’Brien is exceedingly skilled at the use of subtext, and in the timing and placement of it throughout the book. After losing his bid for governor, Wade and Kathy are at a Mini-Mart, and Kathy makes an offhand joke while discussing her sister’s erratic love life. The joke involves snakes and politicians, and Wade responds “Clever, clever,” which sets up a minor row between Wade and Kathy. Because O’Brien a few lines previous mentioned that Kathy would be “gone” in nineteen hours, the cloud of suspense is set, and the “Clever, clever,” is that much more ominous. The “Clever, clever” is a sort of villain-esque chastisement of Kathy by Wade, and the reader as well feels the power of Kathy’s being admonished. We then witness the somewhat uncomfortable quiet between the married couple as they sit at a table, during which time Wade internally recalls Kathy’s aging over the years, how gregarious she had been in her youth, and so on. It is then that Wade apologizes to Kathy. But as he does time and again throughout the novel, Wade returns to his unpredictable nature, and “looked at the revolving clock. ‘Mr. Monster,” he says, casually. And he need not say more. Because of everything that has transpired up to this point—O’Brien’s reminding us that Kathy will be gone, that Wade had been an angry boy and young man growing up, that in essence everything he’d worked for had ultimately been for naught, and that Kathy, as we later find out, understands that Wade could indeed get rid of her—well, what else is there to say? With all the hints O’Brien drops throughout each paragraph, each sentence, we know what we’re meant to think, in particular because nothing is said overtly to allow us to know, but rather to only allow us to surmise. And surmise we do. The subtext, O’Brien’s skillful use of the subtleties and implications of the characters actions and direct and indirect dialogue are what make the novel as dark and gloomy as it is, and also what keeps the reader on the edge of her seat.

In contrast to the work being done by O’Brien below the surface, Dashiell Hammett constructs his narrative entirely at surface level, avoiding, for the most part, the potentiality of interpretation by the reader. Hammett’s narrative is action-packed, character dialogue is direct, men behave and act out viciously and brutally, in typically aggressive, masculine displays of force and power, imposing circumstances and conditions their way through intimidation and violence, and if the reader is meant to understand something not said or done through the characters themselves, Hammett ensures he provides the reader with all they need to know or understand by stating it unambiguously immediately following the action or dialogue. For example, after Sam Spade, Hammett’s protagonist, knocks out Joel Cairo, one of the novel’s antagonists, we’re in a scene that is perhaps a little too clear, and a little too stripped of ambiguity, at least as compared to the subtle nature of subtext-enhanced fiction:

“Then why did you strike me after I was disarmed?”

“Sorry” Spade said, and grinned wolfishly, showing his jaw-teeth, “but imagine

my embarrassment when I found that five-thousand-dollar offer was just hooey.”

“You are mistaken, Mr. Spade. That was, and is, a genuine offer.”

“What the hell?” Spade’s surprise was genuine. (Hammett, 50)

What we get in this passage is dialogue, but it is dialogue meant to convey information, and thus comes across as Hammett spoon-feeding the reader details important to the plot. While the dialogue (and the novel, in general) work from the perspective of being a quick and vibrant, enjoyable piece of fiction, the technique is a relatively transparent one. There is nothing whatsoever outside of the action happening before us that we need know, or that we need analyze or ponder: it’s all right there in the dialogue, dialogue tags, and supporting prose, just as it is in the rest of the book. Spade’s “wolfish” grin, his “jaw-teeth,” are egregious examples of what appear to be an author taking shortcuts to deliver what he wants the reader to see (and, in a way, feel) rather than actually putting in the effort to show the reader, to let the reader extrapolate from the text what he wants them to take away from the particular scene. And if Spade’s “What the hell?” isn’t clue enough that surprise is what Spade is meant to demonstrate, Hammett provides the obvious “Spade’s surprise was genuine.” As if the reader did not already understand that through the dialogue itself. Hammett errs on this front numerous times in Falcon, as he errs in his usage of other writer tools, namely character description and an over-dependence on exact or overly-similar instances of repetition in one form or another, including his use of “yellow-grey” eyes about a dozen times too many.

Book Cover of Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon
Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon

In contrast, Jack London’s “Bâtard” is a story whose theme, whose subtext, is the story. It’s almost a moral tale in its singularity, in the meaning and intent behind London’s words. There is a hate between Black Leclère and his dog Bâtard that is stronger than love. The story is about Leclère’s trying to break Bâtard, to no avail, but also Bâtard’s skewed loyalty to his owner, who, in the story, and because London has anthropomorphized Bâtard, is Bâtard’s nemesis while also being his caregiver and protector. “Bâtard” is a good mirror for the nearly subtext-free Falcon but also for subtext-heavy fiction, because besides the work under the surface of the story London has plenty of action, plenty of on-the-surface brutality that requires no deeper meaning to make the story work; when the main characters are a man and his dog in constant conflict and battle with each other in the heart of the wilderness, what more suspense is required?

In terms of action scenes where stakes are high, the drama occurring on stage is critical to advancing the plot and hooking the reader, and there is little to no subtext, Falcon and “Bâtard” are more similar than not. In scenes where physical confrontation takes place, the works read and feel very similar. With the protagonists’ aggression toward their intended victims—in Bâtard Leclère’s wounding Bâtard and vice versa, and in Falcon Sam Spade’s knocking out Joel Cairo and manhandling Cairo’s young sidekick Wilmer—what we get is violence that is quick and merciless. In this scene from Falcon, Cairo pulls a gun on Spade, but his dominance in the scene is humorously short-lived: “Fist, wrist, forearm, crooked elbow and upper arm seemed all one rigid piece, with only the limber shoulder giving them motion. The fist struck Cairo’s face, covering one side of his chin, a corner of his mouth, and most of his cheek between cheek-bone and jaw-bone. Cairo shut his eyes and was unconscious (Hammett, 48).

It is a very clear description of violence, but almost theatric in its dramatic flair, however effective. There is no subtext, and there is really no need for it, either. And here, in this scene from “Bâtard,” we get the same type drama:

But Leclère caught Bâtard behind the ear with a blow from his fist, knocking him

over, and, for the instant, stunning him. Then Leclère leaped upon him with his

feet, and sprang up and down, striving to grind him into the earth. Both Bâtard’s

hind legs were broken ere Leclère ceased that he might catch his breath.

“A-a-ah! A-a-ah!” he screamed, incapable of speech, shaking his fist, through

sheer impotence of throat and larynx.

But Bâtard was indomitable. He lay there in a helpless welter, his lip feebly

lifting and writhing to the snarl he had not the strength to utter. Leclère kicked

him, and the tired jaws closed on the ankle, but could not break the skin.

(London, 27)

The dominance of one character over the other in sheer force and violence is all that needs describing. All is said via the action in both works, and so no supplemental information is needed to drive any further points, any further meaning, to the reader during these particular scenes. This is not to say that plucking action scenes randomly from works cannot be done willy-nilly to show commonalities in works with subtext and works without subtext, but rather that the authorial decision-making process during the crafting of the narratives does not exclude including similar narrative elements in works that are very different structurally and/or stylistically or, in this case, in terms of their use of subtext.

Following the scene where Spade knocks out Cairo, Hammett returns his characters to more action and exposition, and London takes pains to hint—and not overly subtly—to his use of subtext in the story. It is a relatively transparent indication of London’s desires or goals for what he wants readers to pull from his work, but thankfully not too much of a disruption to the story.

Speaking of Bâtard’s motivations, of his intentions, of the why Bâtard stays with Leclère even when the ability for him to leave presents itself, we’re given a chilling view into not only Leclère’s thinking, but also, indirectly, Bâtard’s:

And he knew the subtle speech of the things that moved, of the rabbit in the

hollow wing, the baldface shuffling under the moon, the wolf like a gray shadow

gliding betwixt the twilight and the dark. And to him Bâtard spoke clear and direct.

Full well he understood why Bâtard did not run away, and he looked more often

over his shoulder. (London, 25)

What more is there to say? In three telling sentences, London provides the reader with everything there is to know about Bâtard and of his relationship with Leclère and why Bâtard stays. As much as Leclère wants to break Bâtard, Bâtard wants to break Leclère or, more likely, end his life for good. It is thus revenge and hatred that London conveys through subtext, not only from Leclère’s view of Bâtard but from Bâtard’s view of Leclère. And it is through this subtext that London’s story is enriched, whereas Hammett’s goes contentedly on its way to the next action scene. This is not to say that we do not remember what has transpired in Falcon—we do. But the impact, what we feel about the scene is dramatically less than what we feel we’ve experienced in “Bâtard.” Without the use of subtext, the conveying of the disturbing nature of Leclère’s and Bâtard’s codependence would lose its power or at least be drastically minimized, and the feeling that the reader senses upon having glimpsed into their unnerving world would be tragically lost. In Hammett’s world, we feel the punch, but we move on. In London’s, we feel the punch, and for a long while afterwards we continue to feel the pain.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s short story, “Birdsong,” is another work that utilizes subtext, but unlike “Bâtard” or In The Lake of the Woods, Adichie uses it more in the way Fox employs it in Desperate Characters, i.e., to expose or draw attention to the more domestic concerns of her characters, namely the relationships between men and women and, especially, the underpinnings of class and social status and its effect on—in this particular story—one woman’s happiness. From the opening of the story, and throughout, Adichie returns the narrator again and again to the present scene and day, which has the narrator sitting in a Lagos traffic jam ill at ease with a woman in the back seat of a jeep (presumably a passenger being chauffeured), who is staring at her. The narrator imagines her lover’s wife as being this woman, and from that moment on and through developments in the story, it’s clear that the narrator is a mistress, that her “boyfriend” will likely not leave his wife, and that the narrator’s life will probably be a sad affair, in particular because she is of a certain age—an age where women should be married, and in even more so because Lagos is a “city full of tarnished angels,” i.e., women who have never married. Naturally, the narrator does not want to be a tarnished angel (Adichie, 5).

A sad story, singularly focused on one woman’s affair with a well-to-do married man, much happens in “Birdsong,” even when nothing is really happening. The subtext is relatively apparent from the beginning of the story, at least a portion of it, in the differences between classes, something Adichie sets up before our protagonist even gets out of her car. Early on, having made love with her boyfriend “CwithaD,” which stands for “Cock with a Dick,” the narrator remembers when she and her friend Chikwado gossiped about their unmarried coworkers. Having recalled the sadness of time wasted on men not ready to “settle down,” and the luck of those already engaged, CwithaD, familiar with the age women in Lagos should be married, says (while they’re still in bed): “I just want you to know I’m not going to stand in your way” (Adichie, 5). Of course, the subtext here, the insinuation, is that he, CwithaD, will never leave his wife, will never marry the narrator, yet because of the hierarchy or imbalance in his being not only of a wealthier class but by his being a male in a unambiguously male-dominant society, his comment is meant to be a kindness, to show consideration. Of course, it achieves just the opposite. The pseudo-compliment is a recurring theme in the story, and the narrator is continually reminded of her station in life, especially when as a couple they are in the company of others. While much bothers the narrator about the insensitivity and, presumably, less than thoughtful words CwithaD voices, it is the witnesses around them, the waiter at the restaurant, the chauffeur who does not speak to her, that gradually chip away the narrator’s ability to control her emotions, to not express how she truly feels about the inequality that overwhelms her life—with CwithaD, at work, even in something as normal, as simple, as everyday as sitting in a car in a traffic jam. Subtext in “Birdsong” is so transparent, so clearly demarcated in the text, that it serves the same purpose that kindling serves when building a fire—it gets the fire going in the narrator’s soul until that fire is roaring and burning everything in its path.

Movie poster of the novel A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean
Movie Cover of Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It

While subtext in In The Lake of the Woods is a long and drawn out process designed to cover decades and long stretches of days during the present time, revealing a painful history of murder, injustice, and the hurt of a young boy that never heals even in manhood, subtext in “Birdsong” is more about quick moments of telling insight, an awareness and comprehension of a somber reality that highlights the small pains of class difference and conveys relatively uncomplicated information not only to the narrator but to the reader. Adichie’s use of subtext is also precise in driving home the point that what you see is not always what you get, at least in the microcosm of male/female relationships in Lagos.

When CwithaD sees the narrator reading the business and sports sections, he exclaims, “I knew you were different!” (Adichie, 7). Of course, the implication, the subtext here is that because she is from a lesser social class, and possibly because she is a woman, he had not expected her to be interested in such things, things only men, or wealthy, important, dignified men such as himself, would be interested in. A half-compliment, again, but she takes what she can get because he is undeniably a respected businessman and she is well aware that he is her only ticket to a life she would not otherwise have access to. But then, soon afterwards, CwithaD is giving her money “For your fuel,” she watches as he cleans his glasses with “scented most tissues,” and, crushingly, she discovers that her nickname for him, “CwithaD,” is also what his wife calls him, which is too telling to ignore. Besides her feeling like a prostitute at his supposed “benevolence,” the meaning behind the various things she discovers is that she, our narrator, is nothing special to him, that perhaps CwithaD is nothing but a creature of habit, and that she is just one of many women in his life who do not merit their own individual, unique pet names, but rather the same pet name all of his women have, so that CwithaD never confuses any of his conquests, especially when it comes to his wife. Eventually it is all too much to bear, and the narrator revolts in small ways against not only her unattainable lover, but the men and women around her at her place of employment who go along too easily with the stereotypes and roles men and women are expected to fill in the everyday life of a people one hundred percent invested in—and dependent on—a male-oriented society.

Like “Birdsong,” “Member / Guest” is another story that uses subtext to expose the theme that everything is not what it seems. As opposed to Adichie’s narrator, the narrator of “Member / Guest,” Beckett is a girl born with a silver spoon in her mouth. Through her parents, Beckett is a member of an exclusive and private club in The Hamptons, or as Beckett and her peers call the South Fork of Long Island, “The country.” Because of Beckett’s age, the perspective of the narrator is slightly different, and her understanding of the relationships around her is less realized, but nonetheless the reader is provided with the “what” of the subtext, even if it eludes Beckett for much if not all of the story.

From the start, Gilbert creates the world around Beckett in such a fantastically regal way that the reader suspects there must be ugliness nearby. Unlike the almost claustrophobic worlds of “Birdsong,” “Bâtard,” and In the Lake of the Woods, the world of “Member / Guest” is one of social gatherings and of Beckett’s interactions with the different groups she belongs to—that of her parents and their Hampton’s friends, Beckett’s Hampton friends, her brother Harry’s friends, and Tom, their “Homeland Security,” as Beckett’s mom calls him, who sits in a chair all day guarding the beach entrance to the private club, keeping out the “share house” girls and anyone else who would venture an attempt at entry. While the action and sequence of events in the story seem common enough, Gilbert infuses the narrative with subtle and not-so-subtle hints that everything is not what it seems, and that the world of the wealthy can be much crueler on the inside than it seemingly is on the outside.

One of the first and most poignant moments that provide the reader with a glimpse behind the curtain is also one of the most raw and shocking. As Beckett approaches her parents, and without any other provocation known to the reader, Beckett’s mother overreacts to Beckett’s father addressing Beckett as “toots”:

“Hey, toots,” Dad said.

Mom tilted her head like a dog with an uncanny sense for hearing foolish

things. “Toots,” she said. “Who are you—Frank Sinatra?”

“What’s so bad about toots?”

“Since when have you called her, called anybody, toots?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “It just came out.”



“I didn’t realize we were suddenly at the Copa.”

“O.K., drop it.”

“What’s next, a fedora, a rendition of ‘My Way’?”

“Oh, fuck off.”

“Don’t you mean, ‘fuck off, toots?’” (Gilbert, 68).

The explosion of irritation by Beckett’s mother towards her father’s ostensibly harmless calling of Beckett “toots” is a jolt to the narrative, which, up until then, had concerned nothing more than wealthy men and women floating around a plastic utopia of golf and tennis and sun tans while their adolescent offspring inaccurately ruminated on the ins and outs of sex. It’s a powerful, story-setting moment, and gives perspective to the rest of the story in a way that the story would not be read otherwise. The subtext here is that all is not well in “the country,” and as we move further along we come to understand that Beckett’s world is one of navigating precarious lines in terms of class, history, culture, and the downfall, in various ways, of all these things in the privileged world in which she lives. It is through subtext that we learn a great deal of how Beckett pictures the world.

When Mrs. Lynton, who is from San Francisco and who rents the same small cottage every year despite having, at one time, grown up in a huge beachfront house there “return[s] to bemoan change and reconfirm ruin,” she puts the idea of traveling to Cambodia into Beckett’s head, which Beckett considers (Gilbert, 68). That Mrs. Lynton recommends Cambodia is irrelevant, but what is relevant is that it is another of the pieces of the puzzle that maintain the theme, that provide the subtext, i.e., Beckett’s world is too proper, too controlled, too removed from real life that the only balance to remedy this über-elevated world are extreme (to this world, anyway) contrasts to what she knows and has always known. When Beckett sees all of the beachgoers shoes on the terrace, she is reminded of all of the shoes at the Holocaust museum, and how “none of these feet knew such tragedy,” referring to the feet in the Hamptons (Gilbert, 69). About a possible future tragedy, Beckett’s father says “it would be bigger and more awful than 9/11.” Back and forth Gilbert navigates the reader from the plush, carefree world of the Hamptons to the horrors of the outside world, all in contrast to the microcosm of Beckett’s life, which has its own little tragedies, its own little victories.

Cover of Bâtard by Jack London
Bâtard by Jack London

The overall subtext, the overall theme, surely, is that Beckett is simply not content with the magnificent life she lives, not, anyway, because she knows she is isolated from the real world. As the narrator writes: “That was the real challenge…the knowledge, or lack of knowledge, of what might be gliding beneath your feet” (Gilbert, 72). She is speaking of the fish, the deep vast ocean below her as she swims, but we understand that, in a pretty direct fashion, she is also referring to real life, the life others, such as her friend Clio, who is from Westchester, and not completely “one of them,” supposedly lives. Of course, much of “Member / Guest” does take place below the surface, but barely so. There is never any real doubt what the reader is meant to extrapolate from the various references throughout the story, so while the subtext is there, it’s very close to the surface, with little ambiguity allowed for interpretation (or misinterpretation) by the reader.

When Beckett sees all of the beachgoers shoes on the terrace, she is reminded of all of the shoes at the Holocaust museum, and how “none of these feet knew such tragedy,”

In stark contrast to the unambiguity of “Member / Guest,” Fox, in Desperate Characters, is rather strong in her use of symbols, shrewd visual imagery, highly-charged scenes, suggestive language, and delicately-placed aphorisms to accentuate her use of subtext to drive the story. The main symbol of the novel is surely the potentially rabid cat, which, from the first few pages of the novel, becomes the grand fear, the overarching threat posed to Sophie’s health and sanity. As Fox works the themes of trust and infidelity, abandonment, class, race, and paranoia, she uses the ever-creeping presence of the cat to create a parallel with pretty much everything negative in Sophie’s life, and in the life of her husband Otto. Fox’s skill in manipulating the meaning of what the reader understands is best showcased in these comparisons, in the light-touch relationships, in the interweaving of everything related to the cat and its having bit Sophie, and thus the reader often questions if she indeed understands what she is meant to understand as seen through the various references to the cat. On page five:

“I met Bullin on the street,” Otto said. “He told me two more houses have

been sold over there.” He gestured toward the rear windows with his hand.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the cat leap as though he had offered it


“What happens to the people in them when the houses are bought? Where

“do they go? I always wondered about that.”

“I don’t know. Too many people everywhere.”

“Who bought the houses?”

“A brave pioneer from Wall Street. And the other, I think, a painter who got

“evicted from his loft on Lower Broadway.” (Fox, 5).

And a few sentences further along: “Otto, I’ll just give him a little milk. I know I shouldn’t have fed him in the first place. But he’s here now. We’ll be going out to Flynders in June. By the time we come home, he’ll have found someone else.” (Fox, 5).

What Fox has done here is she has weaved the subtext into the dialogue in an almost double-talk sort of way so that the meaning the reader is extracting from the scene is influenced by a number of very different subjects, i.e., the returning cat, a “brave pioneer from Wall Street,” an evicted painter, and the tenants who we come to learn are “Negroes,” and who live in the houses and who are likely evicted once the investors’ purchases are complete. Because Fox knits the dialogue between Otto and Sophie in ways that convolute their questions and responses, the reader is, obviously intentionally, confused about who they are speaking of—although, on the surface, it really isn’t all that confusing at all. We know when they are speaking about the cat, and we know when they are speaking about “those people,” but because of the rapid fire interchange between Otto and Sophie, the subjects blend, and so produce meaning and insinuate meaning across various topics in a way that leads the reader to make the connections they’re meant to make.

To stay with Fox’s use of the cat for a moment, it’s important to understand what the cat represents to Sophie and Otto, as well as to the reader. Throughout the novel, Fox reintroduces the cat, or alludes or makes mention of the cat in some way, at specific moments in the narrative to bring forth echoes of subtext, and to engender signification. On page six, Sophie is bitten by the cat immediately after she tells Otto that “Catholics believe that animals have no souls.” From then on out, if we equate the idea of the cat and what the cat signifies to people who “have no souls,” it changes the reader’s perception, or understanding, of the more sinister elements in Sophie’s universe. While Sophie is speaking of the cat, it is people the reader is meant to think about, and people who have no souls are surely people whose moral compass, whose perception of right and wrong, are impaired. From a causal perspective, every negative action, every negative thought or interaction between the characters after the cat bite can be attributed in one way or another to the bite in some direct (or indirect) way. For example, on page ten, talking about his deteriorating partnership with Charlie, Otto says, “I’ll be better off by myself.” We know Otto is referring to Charlie, but because Sophie has been bitten by the cat, we understand that it is also a possible reference to Sophie’s dying from rabies. On page twelve, leaving their home, Otto “yearned to throw open the door he had only just locked, to catch the house empty. It was, he thought, a little like the wish to be sentient at one’s own funeral,” (Fox, 12). And then the very telling moment on page twenty-seven, which happens immediately following the phone call where Sophie only hears breathing on the other end of the line, when the cat returns. The subtext of the phone call, of Sophie’s asking Otto “You haven’t explained about not answering the phone,” is that someone is cheating, but we’re unsure which one of them. The cat makes its appearance as an ominous reminder of something that “has no soul,” and acts as a clever supplement to the subtext Fox has sprinkled on every page of the book. In a particular passage in A River Runs Through It, Paul is asked by Norman how it is that he knew to start using a particular fly to catch fish, and Paul replies: “all there is to thinking is seeing something noticeable which makes you see something you weren’t noticing which makes you see something that isn’t even visible” (Maclean, 92). In Desperate Characters, Fox seems to have discovered the same thing.

In Daniel Alarcón’s story “Second Lives,” subtext is used to explore the theme of loss of identity. Having been born to parents from another country, Francisco’s plight is one familiar to many contemporary Hispanics and Hispanic-Americans currently struggling to attain or maintain their U.S. citizenship. When Francisco and his family are sent “home,” Francisco is able to return to the U.S. because of his “first world passport,” which affords him the opportunity for a better life, the treasured “American” life and all that that implies. Of course, Francisco’s life will require sacrifice, and it’s a sacrifice that will be borne by not only Francisco himself but predominantly by the family members he leaves behind, including his older brother, all of whom slowly watch as Francisco becomes “American” and more and more estranged from the family that sacrificed what they could to ensure his success.

Sent to Birmingham, Alabama to live with his parent’s friends the Villanuevas, Francisco starts his American life, which is not as successful as his life back home, at least with regards to his stature in sports, with girls, and in terms of his social popularity. But he adapts, and soon afterwards thrives at various things, including, and naturally detrimentally to his relationship with the Villanueva and his own family, his relationship with the Villanova daughter. Through Francisco’s relationship with the Villanuevas, we come to learn that the Villanueva children do not speak Spanish, which Mr. Villanueva sees as a failure on his behalf:

The Villanueva children, Marisa and Jack, ages fifteen and ten, respectively,

made it clear from the outset that they spoke no Spanish. The language didn’t

interest them much, and their father, who insisted that my brother call him

Julio and not Mr. Villanueva, considered this his greatest failing as a parent.

It was his fault, he confessed to Francisco, for marrying an American

woman (Alarcón, 50).

The subtext here is that marrying people from outside one’s nationality, marrying someone outside one’s culture, dilutes that culture, and causes one to lose his or her identity piece by piece. This is also reflected, understandably, in Francisco’s distancing himself from his family—the family that gave up their prized son to a country and people that offered more than they could otherwise provide. The irony of Francisco’s being abroad comes mostly when he teaches the “gringos to curse” in Spanish. While Spanish and his background are, in a major way, why he doesn’t assimilate as swiftly as he would have had he been an American without his ethnic background, they also act as a catalyst for it given the common ground children often find in curse words and in misbehaving in general. As Francisco reports of this particular time in his life in his letter to his parents, he says his parents are proud, calling him “the educator.” But his brother, the narrator of the story, says, “This was the first letter in which he forgot to ask us how we were” (Alarcón, 52). The implication here is that a transition is going on, the subtext being that Francisco is moving on, he has acclimated to his surroundings, and is thus no longer one of them but an American, not someone trying to be American, but an actual red, white, and blue, red-blooded American boy born, and predominantly bred, in the good old USA. Good for Francisco, of course, because the sky is the limit given the alternative, but a painful development nonetheless for the family—Francisco’s family—that made it all possible for him.

It is somewhat difficult, and at best a fiddly proposition, postulating that there is some identifiable trait, some provable element to subtext that is inherent, or more intrinsically prone to presenting itself in masculine fiction as opposed to fiction in general. Perhaps it is not that there is some connection between subtext and masculine fiction per se, but rather that the subtext employed in masculine fiction as defined in this examination serves only to strengthen those masculine elements the authors are already employing to perpetuate a certain feel, a type of mood, recognizable in literary works that are male-oriented, that address masculine subjects and concerns—that, in short, build upon the male-controlled world of the work by adding its masculine accoutrements here and there to strengthen the overarching storyline. The same then would assuredly apply to fiction on the whole, any type of fiction, be it literary fiction, genre fiction, etc. The degree to which subtext is used certainly plays a role in what we shall refer to as the “heaviness” of the work, which, as we’ve seen, contributes in large part to why In the Lake of the Woods and Desperate Characters felt as imposing, as “heavy” as they did, as compared to the other works analyzed here.

What is clear in all of the works, from Jack London’s “Bâtard” to Maclean’s A River Runs Through It to The Maltese Falcon and the rest is that the calculating inclusion of subtexts related to subjugation in some form or fashion help to advance the masculine themes as opposed to any other themes that could potentially be incorporated into the fiction. That is to say, we come to understand the men in the works through the inclusion of subtext substantially more than we come to understand the women in the works, save for Sophie from Fox’s Desperate Characters, Kathy from In the Lake of the Woods, and Adichie’s distraught narrator in “Birdsong.” In those works, we do understand and appreciate what we’re meant to through subtext when concerned with the female characters, but really only in relation to the men around them and whose lives come into conflict with theirs; in In the Lake of the Woods Kathy is already gone and presumed dead, in “Birdsong” the narrator is unequivocally subject to the whims and personal and professional life of CwithaD, and Sophie is, we’re lead to believe, possibly crazy as a consequence of potentially having rabies. So even when the female perspective is coupled with subtext, the female characters are minimized in some form or fashion, either by their absence, their vulnerability, or, as is the case with Sophie, their potentially having a disease that makes them quite literally crazy.

At the end of A River Runs Through It, Maclean writes, “My mother turned and went to her bedroom where, in a house full of men and rods and rifles, she had faced most of her great problems alone” (Maclean, 102). In a way, it’s a telling statement for the works referenced here, in terms of an overarching theme carried through each text via the inclusion of subtext. Perhaps it is not so much that subtext enhances “masculine” fiction by incorporating elements that are more typically associated with men, but rather that when themes of subjugation permeate subtext, a masculine text is formed—especially when created in conjunction with stereotypically male-associated subjects such as war, fishing, hunting, and environments where men hold the power and women, sadly, hold less, if any at all. In any case, the use of subtext enriches the texts exponentially, creates for the reader a sense of deeper meaning happening below the surface of the action, and infuses within each text a richness of quality not easily escaped after the work is put down. To manipulate a line from Maclean’s A River Runs Through It: A [story, then, rich in subtext] . . . has so many things to say that it is hard to know what it says to each of us. But we know that without it, something would be missing, and something would, surely, be lost.

Works Cited

Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. "Birdsong." 20 Under 40: Stories From The New Yorker.

Ed. Deborah Treisman. New York, Farrar Strauss And Giroux, 2010. 1-19. Print.

Alarcón, Daniel. “Second Lives.” 20 Under 40: Stories From The New Yorker.

Ed. Deborah Treisman. New York, Farrar Strauss And Giroux, 2010. 45-69. Print.

Baxter, Charles. The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2007. Print.

Fox, Paula. Desperate Characters. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1970. Print.

Gilbert, David. “Member / Guest.” The New Yorker, 12 Nov. 2012: 66-73. Print.

Hammett, Dashiell. The Maltese Falcon. New York: Vintage Books, 1929. Print.

London, Jack. “Bâtard.” The Call of the Wild, White Fang, and Other Stories. New York:

Penguin Books, 1986. 21-37. Print.

Maclean, Norman. A River Runs Through It. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1976.

O’Brien, Tim. In the Lake of the Woods. New York: Mariner Books, 2006. Print.

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