Sub-text is the ‘under’ or ‘below’ text; what is not said or done. The term has a wide application to literature in general; particularly, perhaps, to the novel and short story, and other fictional genres, and to poetry. A reader tends to construct a sub-text for herself or himself, imagining or interpreting what is not said or not done (and how it is not said or done), what may be implied, suggested, or hinted, what is ambiguous, marginal, ambivalent, evasive, emphasized or not emphasized – and so on. In doing all this the reader exercises insight into the ‘unconscious elements in the work itself and thus elicits additional meanings. Psychoanalytical criticism involves a quest for such concealed or partially concealed meanings.
The term is often associated with drama to denote the unspoken in a play; which is implied by a pause and by silence. And perhaps also what Harold Pinter means by the pressure behind the words’. The term may also apply to the shape of the plot and the patterns of imagery.
Another and perhaps somewhat arcane concept of the sub-text is to be found in the work of two prominent Marxist critics: Pierre Macherey and Fredric Jameson. Macherey is concerned with the ‘silences’ or ‘gaps’ in a text which both conceal and expose ideological contradictions and he believes that the critic’s task is to reveal the text’s unconscious content. Jameson is concerned with the ‘political unconscious’ of a text: that sub-text which, historically and ideologically, constitutes the ‘unspoken’, the concealed and repressed.