Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Speech Communication


Narrative ambiguity, a concept which has only recently achieved prominence in literary criticism, has important implications for the performance of literature as well. Few studies exist which focus exclusively on narrative ambiguity. Most, instead, discuss the semantic kind. Recently, however, the increase of interest in the narrative form in general has precipitated interest in narrative ambiguity as well. In the field of the performance of literature, however, no one has investigated this phenomenon until now. The purpose of this study was to define and describe narrative ambiguity through an examination and identification of it both in theoretical writings and in selected novels of contemporary author John Hawkes in order to uncover implications for its performance. Generally, ambiguity did not achieve status as a praiseworthy artistic device until 1930 and the publication of William Empson's Seven Types of Ambiguity in which he defined ambiguity generally as having more than one meaning. Unfortunately, this view of ambiguity has perpetuated a definition so general that it reduces the precision of critical terminology. Ambiguity is one type of multiple meaning unlike other effects such as irony and symbolism which are often confused with it. All multiple meanings depend on reader recognition and participation, but ambiguity differs from other multiple meaning effects in that it calls for two or more interpretations, but prevents the reader from choosing one as correct. Although narrative ambiguity differs from the semantic kind delineated in Empson's book, similarities also exist and this study established the intimate relationship between the two. Semantic ambiguity arises only within words and word phrases. Narrative ambiguity, on the other hand, emanates at the structural level of the narrative form. Thus ambiguity in individual words may reinforce narrative ambiguity but cannot create it. This study suggested classifying ambiguity as either conjunctive or disjunctive. When conjunctive ambiguity operates, two or more meanings arise and complement each other so that the reader need not choose between them. In disjunctive ambiguity, the two meanings mutually exclude each other but are equally tenable. Thus the reader cannot choose. As a result, disjunctive ambiguity is particularly suited to the narrative form and arises in many contemporary narratives, notably those of John Hawkes. Ambiguity is sustained within a narrative in one of two ways. In many novels authored by Henry James and Herman Melville, opposing sets of clues each support the various interpretations. Study of John Hawkes's novels has revealed that the text can suggest two or more possible meanings without providing any supporting clues. Traditionally, scholars have focused on ambiguity-creating devices such as incomplete reversals (or opposing clues which support the various interpretations), gaps (or informational omissions within the narrative), and verbally created ambiguities. Study of Hawkes's novels revealed other devices for creating ambiguity. In his early novels, for instance, he uses device such as stereotypic characters, commingling of dream and reality settings, and more significantly, the absence of supporting clues. In his later novels we see a refinement of these techniques as well as an increasing reliance on the first-person narrator whose reliability is suspect. Clearly, ambiguity is an important literary device; therefore performers need to familiarize themselves with its workings in the narrative. This study identified general and specific ways in which solo and group performers can preserve, and in many cases, feature the ambiguity in Hawkes's novels so that readers may become more sensitive to narrative ambiguity in terms of its meaning, function, value, and the relationship to performance.