Taken all by their lonesome, text and subtext are dry, clinical words. And even when you translate them into plain English–what is said and what is not said—then big deal, so what? But they describe what’s probably the most powerful one-two emotional punch a work of literature can deliver to a reader. Implicit in the notion of subtext is the principle that what is not said is more powerful than what is actually there on the printed page. Getting to that secret unspoken thing is a discovery process that pulls us even farther into the story. It is one of the most exciting experiences we can have as readers.
Now there are any number of ways a text and a subtext can set each other off. Sometimes a comic text contains a tragic subtext, sometimes the other way around. Some texts present a lie or a distortion, and we readers have the pleasure of figuring out the unspoken truth that lies beneath, as when, for example, we realize the character telling us the story is not to be trusted. (Is the governess who narrates Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw really seeing ghosts or is she stone crazy? As it turns out, the silent subtext doesn’t take sides: she could be either or both and we readers are left uneasily navigating the space between.)
In still other works the narrator, whether omniscient, a specific character, or simply the writer herself as a character, presents events in a straightforward, presumably truthful fashion, a baseline of fact we are not intended to question. This is the mode most often employed in memoir. The text gives us the facts, as the writer remembers them: This is what actually happened. That is what she said, that is what he did. Here the subtext, the dimension we readers access solely by intuition, tells us how to feel about what happened. I am going to give you an example of that kind of subtext now.
I’m privileged to be reading in manuscript a remarkable memoir by a woman writing about her life with people and with cats. That thumbnail immediately conjures up an elderly recluse harboring 49 strays in a stinking house full of fur-matted furniture, but let me assure you this is a very different story. Hers has been a very rich and eventful life, acutely observed, full of relationships and accomplishment out in the world. Running parallel to it is the story of the equally rich and eventful lives of the cats she shared it with.
Particularly moving is her account of an early marriage and the exceptional cat who became her steadfast friend and protector during it. This remarkable feline individual—let’s call her Matilda— was an amazingly intelligent Siamese with an alpha personality. In the country, for example, the cat gets into trouble with a farmer for herding and bullying his flock of sheep. More tellingly, we are able to conclude from the cat’s behavior that she is a far superior mother to her kittens than the narrator’s mother was to her. Most important, she is sensitive, loyal, caring, and fiercely protective of her caregiver. She is there to actively console the narrator on days when she has suffered defeat at work and her husband simply takes off for destinations unknown or berates her for not devoting all her energies to advancing his career instead of hers.
When things really begin to go sour in the marriage, the husband descends into alcoholism. increasingly irrational behavior, verbal and then physical abuse of his wife. When he goes into a tirade and throws mugs at her, that same night the cat jumps full force on his stomach from a considerable height and leaps hissing from the bed. The cat teaches her kitten how to open the refrigerator door (she hangs by her paws from the handle while the kitten pulls at the rubber seal below) so that they can deposit a frozen chicken under his pillow. The kitten sits on the trash bin pedal while the mother cat paws out fish heads to leave in the husband’s slippers. Most diabolical of all, they unthread the cord from his pajama bottoms. (All this time he thinks it’s his wife and accuses her of gaslighting him.)
The marriage disintegrates step by excruciating step into a final tragic scene of violence that climaxes as the husband rears back his arm to punch his wife. The cat leaps straight at his face to defend her, but a hard kick from the husband sends it flying out the door—injured or not, it isn’t clear, but the cat is gone—and this section of the memoir ends with the flat statement, “And I never saw Matilda again.”
What is the silent subtext of this last sentence? We readers don’t need the writer to tell us how she felt about it. Like a punch in the gut, that simple stark fact sends us straight to the howling, unspeakable grief produced by the conflation of these two disasters, the loss of her marriage and, we have to say, the much bigger loss of her true soulmate, the cat. We don’t need her to tell us, either here or through the whole ten chapters of this section, that her cat companion was superior to her human one in every way imaginable: sensitivity, loyalty, kindness, moral character, intelligence. All that is abundantly clear from the straightforward evidence of these traits that she provides. She doesn’t need to say, Wow, wasn’t Matilda smart to figure out how to open the refrigerator door in the service of labeling and shaming disgraceful human behavior? All that she leaves to us, and we believe it much more deeply by figuring it out ourselves than we would by being told. We see the incredible cat continue to unfold new and amazing abilities as the humans stay locked in their destructive downward spiral.
The author doesn’t need to connect the dots. We do, and we love doing it. It makes us feel like active participants in her experience.
So when the narrator recounts a childhood in a neurotic academic household with a mother who threw milk bottles the way that, later in her life, her husband throws mugs, we don’t need her to explain to us that this early imprinting left her unable to separate love from outrageous treatment and kept her trapped in repeating this dire pattern in adulthood. She doesn’t have to say any of this. Like a Siamese’s penetrating yowl, it shouts at us silently from the page, over and over. And when that last line makes us realize, all by ourselves, that she is never going to hear that wonderful yowl again, it breaks our hearts.