The Role of Ambiguity in Literature

Art lives in a realm of ambiguity, and it is ambiguity that grants it greater applicability to the average life. In Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham, three narratives lack detail as to draw greater attention to the ideas within the narratives and the idea of individuality within society. In We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, a dystopian society is rarely detailed, and character motives rarely dealt with, as Zamyatin tackles the ideas of revolution and individuality. Heavy employment of ambiguity in both Specimen Days and We functions to draw attention away from the minute details of the created worlds, and rather draw focus to the characters and their interactions, as well as the greater commentaries within each text.

In Specimen Days, the three part structure of the text draws focus away from the actual society and setting, rather drawing attention to the characters and motifs that wind through each storyline. The book is divided into three parts- “In the Machine”, “The Children’s Crusade”, and “Like Beauty”- set in the past, present, and future respectively. The styles of the three storylines differ greatly, one a ghost story, another a mystery, and the last a futuristic dystopian retelling. By differentiating the stories so much from one another, Cunningham completely deviates settings and storylines. By disrupting the natural flow of each text, and jumping right into another Cunningham draws attention to the shared characters and aspects rather than the actual storyline. The character’s growth and function within each text is supported by the uncertainty of when each story arc will end and where the next one will begin, as well as the ambiguity surrounding each setting and functioning of each world. This especially comes into play in “Like Beauty” where the functioning of the dystopian society is barely touched on, rather the characters and their connections to one another are explored, leaving the setting indefinite.

Through indefinite society in We, the uncertainty surrounding the functioning of the dystopian world also aids in drawing attention to the characters interactions and feelings rather than the details of a created, imaginary society. The functioning of The One State is barely detailed, only revealing information about its functioning when in becomes pertinent to the plots functioning, such as the voting system or the Sex days. While there is some detail regarding the functioning of the created society, it carries an air of ambiguity and uncertainty as not all information is revealed and the functioning not fully detailed. This slight ambiguity surrounding the functioning of the one State and the ciphers allows for further focus on the revolution and the decision D-503 faces when choosing comfort in the same or potential joy in the new. The lack of clarity surrounding the motifs and exactly why the characters are being repeated in Specimen Days contributes to the ambiguity within the text, and brings some focus to the commentary on the common ties of humanity. The china bowl appears in all three subsections of Specimen Days and is always gifted to a loved one. While it is unclear how the same bowl is in all three, very different, and very distant sections, it carries one of the major ideas of the text. Through all the subsections it is gifted to a loved one, indicating the universality of care and love. The ambiguity surrounding how the bowl appears in all three stories calls greater attention to its meaning as a motif within the text. Walt Whitman’s poetry, and the need to blurt it out at random times is also a motif across all the subsections. In “In the Machine” Lucas cannot help but blurt it out, in “The Children’s Crusade” Cat has difficulty containing poetry and Leaves of Grass plays a crucial role in the mystery, while in “Like Beauty” it is Simon who cannot control him impulse to read poetry aloud. While it is unclear once again how this occurs in all three, the selected lines from Leaves of Grass indicate a shared wonder in the world.

Through the lack of clarity surrounding the subsections tying pieces, they come to attention quicker and their meaning more absorbed. In Specimen Days and We ambiguity about factors within each text draw more attention to the authors main ideas and commentaries within the text. In Specimen Days and We ambiguity is used to call attention to more pertinent parts of the work. The employment of ambiguity grants the authors greater scope in the impacts of their works, as ambiguous as each text is, the reader can apply it to their changing world and circumstances.