Ambiguity in Literature
Now, let’s examine ambiguity used as a literary device in some of our favorite works. When found in literature, ambiguity is sure to be intentional, forcing the reader to contemplate a central idea.
Thou still unravished bride of quietness…
- "Ode On a Grecian Urn," John Keats
Does “still” mean “unmoving” or “not yet changed"? More than likely, we’d have to read on to see what Keats was up to.
I ran all the way to the main gate, and then I waited a second till I got my breath. I have no wind, if you want to know the truth. I’m quite a heavy smoker, for one thing—that is, I used to be. They made me cut it out. Another thing, I grew six and a half inches last year. That’s also how I practically got t.b. and came out here for all these goddam checkups and stuff. I’m pretty healthy though.
- The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger
“They” and “here” are rather ambiguous words. Salinger is assuming the reader will understand “they” refers to the medical professionals in the rehab center and “here” refers to the center itself.
O Rose thou art sick / The invisible worm / That flies in the night / in the howling storm / Has found out thy bed / Of crimson joy / And his dark secret love / Does thy life destroy.
- "The Sick Rose," William Blake
Blake leaves this poem open to a wealth of varying opinions regarding the meaning of “rose,” “sick,” “worm,” and “bed of crimson joy.” Is this poem about the flower? Or is it about the loss of a loved one? Why was "Rose" capitalized?
Her right arm lay in the cushioned parapet before her. She raised her hand, and made a light, quick movement toward the right. No one but her lover saw her. Every eye but his was fixed on the man in the arena.
He turned, and with a firm and rapid step he walked across the empty space. Every heart stopped beating, every breath was held, every eye was fixed immovable upon that man. Without the slightest hesitation, he went to the door on the right, and opened it.
- The Lady, or the Tiger?, Frank R. Stockton
Stockton ends this story with a ton of ambiguity. Behind that door, there’s either a tiger or another woman. The princess told him to choose the door to the right, and he did. But, what is her wish? That he faces a tiger or another lover?
Exhaustion was pressing upon and overpowering her.
“Good-by— because I love you.” He did not know; he did not understand. He would never understand. Perhaps Doctor Mandelet would have understood if she had seen him - but it was too late; the shore was far behind her. And her strength was gone.
- The Awakening, Kate Chopin
This is a good example of syntactic ambiguity. The entire passage leads readers to wonder if she committed suicide or was simply swept away by the current.
Like puns and humor, ambiguity also lends itself well to poetry. Writers often use it on purpose to evoke mystery or feeling. Ambiguity can open the door to deeper, implied meanings that the reader must draw for themselves.