The Necessity of Ambiguity: Comparing ‘Teaching a Stone to Talk’ and ‘Running in the Family’

March 21, 2019 by Essay Writer

Ambiguous text, written in such a way that the wording can be interpreted with multiple meanings, is used regularly in literature as a means of creating deeper significance in the passage. This is demonstrated in the memoirs Teaching a Stone to Talk by Annie Dillard and Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family. Ambiguity in memoirs especially enhances the text by offering multiple ways for the reader to understand that which they are reading, as opposed to falling into the author’s own thoughts on their past experiences. The ways in which ambiguity enriches literature in reference to these two memoirs is through allowing the reader to find their own meaning in the text, distinguishing the author through their stylistic choices, and setting memoirs apart from other types of literature.

First of all, ambiguity allows for both symbolic and metaphorical interpretation of the text. If an event is fully explained there is no room left for expression of the reader. For example, in Running in the Family it is questioned whether or not Michael Ondaatje includes a subtle critique of colonialism. The mannerisms and actions of Ondaatje’s grandmother, Lalla, are described as “There was some sense of divine right she felt she and everyone else has, even if she had to beg for it or steal it. This overbearing charmed flower.” (125) There is a possibility that her behavior is written as such because this was how she acted, but the way Ondaatje has chosen to present this also brings up the possibility of greater intention behind his words. The term ‘divine right of conquest’ is often used to describe the way in which the colonizers behaved towards their newly obtained countries. They felt that they were helping the indigenous, which can be interpreted through the line “This overbearing charmed flower.” (125) Ondaatje’s writing of his grandmother in this way has the possibility of being interpreted as a portrayal of how the colonialist attitude has affected his country. Similarly, in Teaching a Stone to Talk’s essay “An Expedition to the Pole” describes her feelings towards organized religion by comparing it to the past expeditions of ship crews to the pole. Towards the end she states,

Many clowns are here; one of them is passing out Girl Scout cookies, all of which are stuck together. […] Sir John Franklin and crew have boarded this floe […] The men, whose antique uniforms are causing envious glances, are hungry. (51)

Interpreted literally, the paragraph is difficult to understand, but in the context of interpretation with the rest of the essay, it is more clear. Earlier in the piece, the ministers of her church give out wafers which are also stuck together. This is the way she views the ministers: as clowns. The crew can be seen as the people of the church, hungry for the understanding of God. In both of these examples, the ambiguity of the writing allows for a deeper meaning for the reader to discover for themselves.

Furthermore, ambiguity also allows for the author to express their stylistic choices. In Dillard’s essay “Total Eclipse” she states, “We teach out children one thing only, as we were taught: to wake up.” (97) When Dillard writes in this way, her work exists as more than just words on a page. It is art. When reading this sentence, what she means is likely not that the only thing we teach our children is to literally wake up. Instead, she uses ‘wake up’ as a metaphor for living, seeing, and experiencing. Dillard uses stylistic choices such as this throughout her writing to help the reader think more deeply about her meaning. Ondaatje makes use of a similar tactic. For example, when he tells about the number of cobras that invaded his father’s second home. He states,

After my father died, a grey cobra came into the house. […] For the next month this snake would often come into the house and each time the gun would misfire or jam, or my stepmother would miss at absurdly short range. The snake attacked no one and had a tendency to follow my younger sister Susan around. (99)

The fact that the explanation of the cobra’s actions are placed directly following “after my father died” shows that there is some deeper meaning behind the story, perhaps that the cobra is their father. Ondaatje’s and Dillard’s choice to use ambiguity in their writing is a stylistic choice to help the reader explore possibilities other than the most obvious.

Finally, ambiguity in these two memoirs is what helps distinguish them from other types of literature such as autobiography. An autobiography is an outline of the author’s entire life, but the memoir is considered to be more personal as it usually addresses a specific aspect of the author’s life and includes a personal evaluation that is meant to draw the reader’s attention to a theme. Ondaatje often addressing his parent’s married life could go to show that this specific theme is his parent’s love, just as with Dillard it can be said that the theme she focuses on is drawing more from your surroundings. However, both can be interpreted in different ways because of the ambiguity in the way they are written. Ondaatje also often explores his father’s madness. When discussing his father’s hold up of the train, Ondaatje says,

He pulled out his army pistol […] and threatened to kill the driver unless he stopped the train. He explained that he expected this trip to be a pleasant one and he wanted his good friend Arthur van Langenberg who had missed the train to enjoy it with him. (148)

This topic is addressed in great depth and could also be taken as the main focus of the book. Similarly, Dillard speaks a great deal about her travels and it could be interpreted that this is what opens the eye to the ways of the world. Such as when in Ecuador she sees a small deer tied up for a meal later and states, “‘Pobrecito’ – ‘poor little thing.’ But I was trying out Spanish. I knew at the time it was a ridiculous thing to say.” (66) which shows that she understands how her views are different from those of the indigenous people. The ambiguity of both texts allows for them to be identified as memoirs as well as interpreted in different ways by their readers, increasing their depth of meaning.

Ambiguity in literature does help to enrich its derived meaning. This is true because it allows the reader to explore what they believe the passage means rather than directly being told the meaning by the author. Not only this, but a specific stylist choice is displayed by the use of ambiguity, which shows that the author intended for the reader to question the meaning behind their work. It even helps memoirs to be defined as such. Ambiguity is part of what is so significant about memoirs. There is a very specific focus on finding meaning in events. However, not everyone finds the same meaning in events, making ambiguity a necessity.

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