Commit a54bfe6d authored by Michael Richter's avatar Michael Richter
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The present paper is a first attempt to approach the subtext by means of information theory (Shannon, 1948). The object of study is a text by the Russian writer Anton P. Chekhov, i.e. the short-story "Ward No. 6" ("Palata No. 6" in the original). In this introductory section, we first introduce the notion of subtext, we then explain why we have chosen to address that issue by investigating "Ward No. 6", and we finally present the research question that we seek to answer in general terms.
The message conveyed by any text is fed from three meaning sources. The first is the explicit meanings, i.e. those meanings that are explicitly coded by the linguistic material appearing black on white (we restrict ourselves to written texts here). The second source are those meanings that the cooperative interpreter will infer from the explicit text following Grician or Neo-Grician reasoning (ReferencesXXX), thereby making use of linguistic knowledge as well as non-linguistic recourses (world knowledge). Even the most explicit text leaves open numerous informational gaps, which must be filled correctly in order to arrive at the intended message. These "bridging inferences" (Irmer 2011) may be called the implicit meanings of the text. The third source of meaning is the context, understood as the conversational situation in which the interlocutors connect in communication. The context delivers values for origo categories (Bühler 1934), i.e. for who is speaking ("I"), for the time of the utterance ("now"), for the spatial deixis ("here") etc. If we appeal to a common metaphor, we may say that explicit meanings appear at the surface of the text. Implicit meanings will then, accordingly, live "below the surface", which motivates talking about the subtext of the text.
The discourse about the subtext is rich (see Lelis 2011, 2013 for a survey), and the notion is controversial. There are at least two ways of understanding what subtext is (Ermakova 2010:72). Under the first reading, the one described above, the term is basically synonymous to "pragmatic inferences". Besides that, the term subtext is used in the literature also to refer to the ultimate sense of a literary text, i.e. to the sense that is intended by the author and that the
reader has to decipher (e.g. Myrkin 1976). In that second respect, the meaning of subtext comes close to the "moral of the story". In what follows we use subtext only
in the first of these two readings.
To approach the implicit meanings of a text, we will investigate the Russian short-story "Palata No. 6", written by Anton P. Chekhov
and published in 1892. Our choice is motivated by the following reasons.
1. Using a narrative text has the advantage that the informational impact of the conversational context is reduced because that the addressee
(reader) does not have to calculate her own position as well as the position of the speaker (author).
2. Chekhov is considered to have originated the role of the subtext, especially in his plays. Meanwhile, the notion of subtext has been found
indispensible in literary theory. According to the Oxford dictionary of literary terms (Baldick 2015), the subtext is "any meaning or set of meanings which is implied
rather than explicitly stated in a literary work, especially in a play". For the Russian Literary encyclopedia of terms and concepts (Nikoljukin 2001), the subtext
("podtekst") represents the "hidden sense of an utterance, stemming from the interaction of the literary meanings, the context, and the speech situation".
In the words of Freise (1997:84), the subtext is "a level of speech between the lines". We may thus safely expect a lot of "speech between the lines" in the work of Chekhov.
3. Related to the previous point, Chekhov is known for having developed a specific literary technique of "concentration and shortness" ("Konzentration und Kürze", Kluge 1994:48-49), manifesting itself in the language of the Chekhovian narrator, which usually shows simple syntax, parataxis, short sentences. This and the sparse use of adjectives, comparisons and metaphors is functional for Chekhov's intention is to challenge the reader intellectually and to encourage critical reading (Kluge 1997:67). Informational gaps in the literary (explicit) text are therefore part of the author's method. As "a progressive and democratic thinker,
committed to equality and human rights" (Whyman 2011:25), Chekhov invites his reader to autonomously act while reading. The reader is asked to actively interpret
by filling the gaps of the texts. Therefore, we may expect a Chekhov text to entail a drastic discrepancy between what is said explicitly and what is meant.
4. To the exclusion of individual characters, who may show dialectism, jargon or linguistic extravagance, the general language of the
Chekhovian short-story is the Russian literary language (Kluge 1997:49). That the author employs standard Russian text will be important
for our methodology to be introduced below.
5. The particular text "Ward No. 6" has been chosen here because of its considerable length compared to other short-stories of the author.
For our methodology to work, we need a text of a certain cardinality of words.
Our point of departure is that information and information density are characterising features of texts, thereby following Dretske (1981) who states that the flow of information is a framework for conveying meaning and for the evolvement of meaning. We determine the Flow of Information (Dretske, 1981) in sentences of Chekhovian stories, thereby utilising Shannon information (SI) as a lexical feature of words, and the research question is: can subtext be measured in Chekhov's stories by information theory?
We put two hypotheses:
H1: the information values of the contextualised narration are higher than those of the bare narration because it is only through
the connection with the context that subtext effects (can) arise, which constitute the "tension and drama" in Chekhov's narratives.
H2: information values of the contextualised narration are lower than those of the non-extended narration because the minimalist Chekhovian
narrative style dictates that text coherence is only established through connection with the context, and thus leaps in informativeness are mitigated by contextualisation.
To the best of our knowledge, models that employ information theory are very rare in digital humanities. To name two studies:
information from distributional and syntactic contexts is used by Rubino, Lapshinova-Koltunski and Van Genabith (2016) to classify
translations using a Support Vector Machine (Joachims, 1999). In a follow-up study, Bizzoni and Lapshinova-Koltunski (2021) use the
information-theoretic measure Perplexity for the evaluation. However, in contrast to our study, the authors are not primarily interested
in semantic but in structural properties of texts.
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