The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Ambiguity: Lack of clarity or uncertainty in meaning. A word, phrase, statement, or passage is ambiguous when it can be understood or interpreted in more than one way. Ambiguity often results from use of pronouns without proper referents, use of words with multiple meanings, unusual syntax, and inordinate brevity.

Ambiguity may be intentional or unintentional and, depending on the context, may be a virtue or a flaw. If denotative precision is required, as is often the case in speech, ambiguity is a flaw. But if plurisignation, or multiple meanings, are intended or desirable, as is often the case in literature, ambiguity is a virtue. The richness and complexity of literary works depend to a great extent on ambiguity, which can be used to create alternative meanings or levels of meaning or to leave meaning indeterminate. In his exploration of ambiguity as a literary device in English poetry, critic William Empson highlighted the importance of connotation to meaning and identified various types of ambiguity in his book Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930).

EXAMPLES: The following lines of poetry contain verbal ambiguities:

Piping songs of pleasant glee

On a cloud I saw a child… .

— William Blake, “Introduction”

to Songs of Innocence (1789)

Who is piping: the speaker or the child? And who is on the cloud?

The pears are not seen

As the observer wills.

— Wallace Stevens,

“Study of Two Pears” (1938)

What point is Stevens trying to make? That the observer does not want anyone else to see the pears, and so they are not seen? Or that the observer wants the pears to be seen in a certain way, but they are not?

Sometimes ambiguity is of a more general nature. Whether the ghosts of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847) and Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (1898) are supernatural beings or hallucinations is left ambiguous. For instance, in the following passage from The Turn of the Screw, in which the narrator, a governess, suspects that her charge Miles has seen the ghost of Peter Quint, the governess asks:

“Whom do you mean by ’he’?”

“Peter Quint — you devil!” His face gave again, round the room, its convulsed supplication. “Where?

Is Miles’s exclamatory statement an answer to the governess’s question (in which case he is calling his governess a “devil”), or is it an address to the ghost of Quint (in which case he is calling Quint a “devil”)? And why is Miles asking “Where?” In the ensuing, final paragraphs of the governess’s narrative, in which Miles’s “little heart” suddenly stops, James ignited a still burning critical controversy by leaving it ambiguous whether Miles was frightened to death by the governess, murdered in some more direct way, or victimized by a successful, but fatal, exorcism.