Ambiguity (am-big-YOU-ih-tee) refers to the quality of being open to multiple interpretations. In literature, ambiguity may occur with a character, word or phrase, plot point, image, trope, or situation that can be understood in two or more possible ways. It allows room for doubt and complexity, as well as moments of double entendre and humor.
The word ambiguity first appeared in English circa 1400 and meant “uncertainty, doubt, indecision, hesitation.” It derived from the Old French ambiguite by way of the Latin ambiguitatem, meaning “double meaning, equivocalness, double sense.”
Ambiguity should not be confused with vagueness, which is generally a sign of poor writing. Vagueness allows so much openness that no interpretation can be formed or relied upon. Ambiguity, on the other hand, skillfully allows for multiple specific and distinct possibilities, all of which can be supported by evidence found within the text.
Lexical vs. Semantic Ambiguity
There are two different types of ambiguity you may encounter in literature: lexical and syntactic.
This refers to two or more possible meanings for a single word. An example of lexical ambiguity can be found in a famous W.C. Fields quip: When asked “Do you believe in clubs for young people?”, Fields answered, “Only when kindness fails.” In this repartee, Fields played with the ambiguity of the word clubs. His inquirer meant clubs in the sense of “association or organization” or, perhaps, nightclubs. But, Fields’s response depended on the word’s other meaning of “stick or bat or weapon.” Thus, he was jokingly implying that he supported young people resorting to violence if kindness didn’t yield the desired results.
This kind of ambiguity indicates two or more possible meanings within a sequence of words or a sentence. For example, there is a joke where a tourist says to a hotel doorman “Call me a cab,” and the doorman responds, “Ok. You’re a cab.” This exchange relies on syntactic ambiguity. The joke’s humor arises in the dissonance of the sentence, which could mean both “Locate a cab for me” as well as “Tell me that I am a cab.”
It’s easy to differentiate between these two types of ambiguity if you remember that
syntactic refers to syntax, which means the way words are arranged, and lexical references lexicon, which is a dictionary of a language. Keeping that in mind, syntactic ambiguity indicates ambiguity arising from syntax and lexical ambiguity refers to ambiguity arising from a word’s meaning.
Ambiguity as a Narrative Device
Authors may elect to include moments within their narratives that are open-ended, leaving the audience unsure of what events definitively occurred or how to interpret them.
Events that are introduced in the middle of a narrative and unresolved by its end are called cliffhangers, and they’re often resolved in subsequent installments. Authors like Charles Dickens, who released their novels in installments, also utilized cliffhangers. Dickens, for example, ended one installment of The Old Curiosity Shop with the character Little Nell deathly ill, making readers wait until the next installment to find out if she lived. In addition to literature, cliffhangers are often seen at the end of television show episodes, forcing the audience to tune in the next week (or next season) to find out what happens.
If, on the other hand, the plot itself ends in a way that’s open-ended and ambiguous, it’s not a cliffhanger. Instead, the ending is meant to remain unresolved, allowing the audience to think about the possible interpretations long after. This kind of ambiguous resolution can be seen in Yann Martel’s novel Life of Pi. The book’s protagonist, Pi, presents two versions of his shipwreck survival to the investigating police officers and asks them which they prefer. He gives them—and, by proxy, the readers—no concrete answer for which version is the real one.
Similarly, the series finale of the HBO show The Sopranos also drew to an ambiguous close. The final scene shows mob boss Tony Soprano and his family out to dinner, with suspicious characters all around, and then suddenly cuts to black before the final credits roll. Audiences wondered if the abrupt end implied Tony and his family were fine or indicated that he was shot to death by an enemy in the restaurant.
Literary Devices that Rely on Ambiguity
Irony occurs when a word or event indicates something different than—and contradictory to—its actual meaning. The ambiguity between actual meaning and appearance creates verbal, situational, or dramatic irony in a text.
Puns rely on wordplay that exploits multiple different possible meanings (or similar sounds) for humor. This type of lexical ambiguity allows multiple humorous interpretations.
Ambiguity is often an important part of characterization, as many characters have ambiguous motives and/or morality.
William Shakespeare’s Prince Hamlet is a perfect example. He wants to avenge his father’s murder and protect his mother, both of which are morally good goals. However, he’s also willing to inflict emotional pain on his mother and sacrifice countless lives to achieve his vengeance. He’s also pained by Ophelia’s suicide, yet he treated her callously and was unconcerned with the outcome of his behavior. Hamlet cannot be described as fully good or fully bad, and his moral ambiguity helps make him a compelling character.
Ambiguity Outside of Literature
Outside of literature or other narrative-driven media, the term ambiguity is generally seen in the field of law. It references a situation where the terms of a contract could have multiple possible definitions or refer to multiple situations. Ambiguity in law is either patent or latent ambiguity—the former being ambiguity that is readily apparent to anyone perusing the legal document in question, and the latter meaning that the way the document is worded appears clear but, on further examination, could apply equally to two different subject matters or entities.
Examples of Ambiguity in Literature
1. Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale
Near the end of Atwood’s dystopian novel, heroine Offred is brought out of the Commander’s house and leaves with Eyes, who may or may not belong to the rebel group Mayday. Her story then ends abruptly, and the final section of the novel is composed of “Historical Notes” offered by a character named Professor Pieixoto, who is writing about Offred’s life many years in the future.
Although Pieixoto offers insight into some elements of Offred’s fate, ultimately many details remain unclear and mysterious. The novel’s last line is “Are there any questions?” Although offered as part of the professor’s analysis of a historical document, this final line echoes the ambiguity of the book’s ending and Offred’s life.
2. John Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn”
Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme
The first line of the poem is a perfect example of lexical ambiguity, since still can mean both “unmoving,” and “always, continually, even yet.” The ambiguity allows the reader to imagine either, or both, of these possible interpretations.
3. Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot
At the end of the final act of Beckett’s play, main characters Estragon and Vladimir stand beneath a tree, gazing out at the desolate landscape. After discussing whether they should split up, venture off together somewhere new, or return again the next day to continue their endless waiting for the titular Mr. Godot, they share this final exchange:
Vladimir: Well, shall we go?
Estragon: Yes, let’s go.
The stage directions that follow this scene are “They do not move,” and then the play ends. This ambiguous closing allows the audience to imagine that the pair might stop waiting for Godot or return the next day. They may not even leave the tree and instead sleep there that night. The bleak uncertainty of the ending amplifies the existential pain illuminated in the earlier acts of Beckett’s masterpiece.
Further Resources on Ambiguity
Goodreads has a great list of the best books with morally ambiguous characters.
David G. Brooks of the University of Sydney published an excellent exploration of ambiguity and close reading in literature.
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy published a wonderful—and very in-depth—article on ambiguity.