English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

Dictionaries associate--with more or less affirmation--that subtext is "the implicit or metaphorical meaning (as of a literary text)".

Can a subtext however apply to meaning conveyed by something other than literature, i.e. through aesthetics?

share|improve this question
up vote 3 down vote accepted

Yes, it can. There's no reason why a philosophical piece of writing pertaining to aesthetics, for example, can't have a subtext. The same can apply to a conversation; it isn't uncommon to have people speaking about a specific issue but also have other themes involved in their discussion which influence what they say. The easiest example I can think of is two colleagues flirting while talking about work.

share|improve this answer
by non-literary I meant also non-verbal as with semiotics in e.g. painting, dance or architecture. – Benjamin Jan 4 '12 at 12:38
I can't speak about architecture, but paintings and dancing can certainly have underlying or hidden meanings in their main theme. However, I am not certain at all that you can use the specific word, as its definition alone refers to verbal communication of ideas. I'd use it in quotation marks, making sure my audience is familiar with literature and subtexts. – Irene Jan 4 '12 at 12:45
@Irene I think of the "text" in the word "subtext" as indicating the implied message "text" which is "sub" (underneath) the explicit work. Whereas you seem to think of it as indicating the explicit work. I suppose the word can be read either way. Before it was co-opted by Stanislavsky, "subtext" simply meant text appearing below other text on the page. Again, I suppose this can be read either way. the "text" referred to by the word "subtext" could be the text below, or the text which it is below of. I just thought the difference in perspective was interesting. – MετάEd Jan 4 '12 at 23:13
Well, the word "text" in academia refers to anything that transmits some sort of message or information - it could refer to a painting ("visual text"), movie, piece of music, etc. - so nonverbal things definitely apply. – alcas Jan 5 '12 at 4:58
Also, a somewhat related concept is paratext, which is the characteristics of how the text is presented which affect its meaning and interpretation but aren't really the text itself - in a book, paratext would include footnotes, introductions, cover art, indices, typesetting, etc. – alcas Jan 5 '12 at 5:00

The subtext of a work is the work's implied but unspoken ideas. Subtext was originally an acting term.¹ Examples of subtext include subtle social criticisms implied by the text using ambiguous or symbolic language, as well as emotions and desires not in the text that you can read in the actor's face, voice, and gestures.²

The word has since been adopted to mean implied but unspoken ideas in other creative arts. For example, Nijinsky invented a new, "crude" or "brutal" choreography for works such as The Rite Of Spring. It would be correct usage to describe this choreography as a subtext criticizing traditional ballet propriety or social propriety in general.³

Similarly, the Wikipedia article on surrealism uses the word "subtext" to distinguish Max Ernst's painting Little Machine Constructed by Minimax Dadamax in Person (Von minimax dadamax selbst konstruiertes maschinchen) from his painting The Kiss (Le baiser). The former can be seen as implying an erotic idea (possibly symbolizing the psychological pressures of sexual performance, according to the Guggenheim), whereas the latter has the erotic idea on the surface of the work.

share|improve this answer
Thanks for all the details. – Benjamin Jan 4 '12 at 22:53

Of course it can. Just Google, say, "musical subtext".

share|improve this answer
Or movie subtext. And here are a few written references to a painting's subtext. – FumbleFingers Jan 4 '12 at 13:12
Thanks. It is/was for me not a matter of course, especially because etymologically would suggest it is a kind of text. – Benjamin Jan 4 '12 at 14:01
@FumbleFingers A movie may not be a written work, but a screenplay certainly is. – Random832 Jan 4 '12 at 14:09
@Random832: That was why I put in the painting's subtext link. – FumbleFingers Jan 4 '12 at 15:02
Googling a noun phrase and finding it doesn't give me the confidence to use it. And I'm not sure "musical subtext" tells us the right thing anyway. A "musical subtext" might not be the subtext of a work of music. It might be a musical idea implied but unstated by the surface work. Which is, in itself, an interesting idea. For example, a work of music that uses traditional western musical language might be expected to resolve from a V chord to a I chord. A piece which ended on V would imply, without stating, the I chord which would resolve it. – MετάEd Jan 4 '12 at 23:20

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.