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


Subjectivity: The opposite of objectivity. Broadly speaking, subjectivity is associated with the internal reality — with perceptions and thoughts arising and based in a given individual’s mind — and thus with bias and relative truth. By contrast, objectivity is associated with external reality — with impersonality and impartiality — and thus with empirical fact and absolute truth. For example, the statement “She is six feet tall” is objective, whereas “She is tall” is subjective.

When applied to literature, the terms subjectivity and objectivity may be used to describe the degree to which an author’s personal perspective surfaces in a passage or work. Subjectivity usually refers to the expression or evident presence of the author’s own feelings, opinions, or experiences but may also refer to the feelings and thoughts of the characters. Objectivity refers to the presentation of characters and plot in a detached, neutral fashion, without overt authorial commentary or judgment. Confessional poetry, in which poets reflect on even the most painful matters in their private lives, such as abuse and suicide, epitomizes authorial subjectivity, as do autobiographies and fictional works in which the author openly addresses the reader. For instance, in Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), Kurt Vonnegut tells the reader in chapter one that “People aren’t supposed to look back. I’m certainly not going to do it any more. I’ve finished my war book now. The next one I write is going to be fun. This one is a failure, and had to be, since it was written by a pillar of salt.” Journalism, by contrast, emphasizes authorial objectivity, as did many modernist writers. The works of Henry James and Ernest Hemingway exemplify the objective style, as in the opening paragraph of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms (1929):

In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees… .

Whereas some writers are much more objective than others, most critics would agree that no author can be completely objective; for one thing, the very choice of what to present and what not to present in a story involves a subjective decision. Thus, while subjectivity and objectivity are often viewed as a contrary philosophical and linguistic pair, or binary opposition, they may be better understood as end points of a continuum, with infinitely subtle gradations in between.

Twentieth-century French psychoanalytic critic and theorist Jacques Lacan used the term subjectivity to refer to that which we would (but may be unable to) know, that which we do (or believe ourselves to) know, and individual or cultural ways of knowing (or trying to know). He also identified three orders of subjectivity: the Real, the Imaginary order, and the Symbolic order. The Real is not what we typically perceive as reality; rather, it is the intractable, substantial, and apparently inevitable world (e.g., death, gravity, the physicality of objects). Although its existence is undeniable, the Real defies interpretation and symbolic representation. The Imaginary order, linked to the five senses, produces a false but comforting sense of unity in the individual, who, though perceiving himself or herself as one coherent whole distinct from other individuals, is internally divided between the conscious and unconscious. The Symbolic order, the preestablished order of law and language in any given society, represents the cultural realm to which all individuals must submit.