If a phrase is ambiguous, it means multiple things. It leads to vagueness and sometimes confusion or complication. A reader might encounter an ambiguous statement within poetry or prose. In some cases, these statements are crafted purposefully and in others, accidentally.
If an ambiguous statement is written purposefully it is could be done in order to create humour or allude to secondary or deeper meaning. The double meanings of some ambiguous statements are meant to make a reader take a harder look at the word or sentence itself.
Types of Ambiguity
This kind of ambiguity is present when a word is “polysemous,” or, it has multiple meanings.
This refers to the presence of two or more meanings in a sentence or phrase. A reader will interpret these different meanings due to the structure of the sentence rather than the content.
The vaguest of the three, narrative ambiguity refers to a story or idea that has different meanings. The distinction is not made clear by the writer.
Examples of Ambiguity in Literature
Example #1 The Sick Rose by William Blake
This is one of Blake’s best-known poems and is made up of one ambiguous extended metaphor that alludes to perceived female purity. The speaker compares the rose, a symbol of nature, beauty, and fragility to a woman’s innocence or chastity. As was the case in Blake’s time and in many places is still the case today, the value of a relationship with a woman was defined by whether or not that woman has had sex. Take a look at these lines from the second stanza of the poem:
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.
Here, the speaker is desiring how the worm found the young woman and destroyed her life with his “dark secret love. In ‘The Sick Rose’ the speaker makes clear that the woman alluded to in the text is not as pure as some might like. The rose has a sickness, a worm is feeding off of the rose’s beauty, depleting it of its worth. Blake’s rose is afflicted with the worm’s “dark secret love” and has its life destroyed. The worm, which by the end of the poem is much less ambiguous, clearly represents a phallus. It kills the rose’s (aka, the woman’s), virginity and ruins her life.
Example #2 The Flea by John Donne
A classic example of double meaning within poetry, ‘The Flea,’ much like ‘The Sick Rose,’ speaks of relationships and sex.
Take a look at these lines from the first stanza of the poem:
It sucked me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be;
Thou know’st that this cannot be said
A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead,
Yet this enjoys before it woo,
And pampered swells with one blood made of two,
And this, alas, is more than we would do.
Through a complex metaphysical conceit, the speaker describes being bitten by a flea, that also bit his lover. Their bodies are mixing inside the body of the flea, an ambiguous reference to the sex he’d like the two of them to have. She kills the flea, and the speaker uses this as proof that there’s no reason they shouldn’t sleep together. Their essences mingled successfully inside the creature, so they will in real life as well.
Example #3 The Tempest by William Shakespeare
One of the best examples of an ambitious character in literature is that of Caliban in Shakespeare’s famous play, The Tempest. He is the son of a witch and the resident of the island to which Prospero took shelter.
He is described as being half-human and half-monster and he becomes a slave to Prospero after his arrival. Caliban is a tortured, maltreated character, evoking pity and sympathy from the reader. This is quickly overturned when it’s revealed that he tried to rape Miranda, Prospero’s daughter. He suffers from this misdeed for the rest of the play and the reader alternates between feeling bad for him, fearing him, and hating him.
Example #4 The Gallery by Andrew Marvel
This poem, which is another example of how a metaphor might be used to create an ambitious double meaning, speaks of love and obsession. In it, the speaker describes a mental gallery of images that he has painted for his object of affection, Clora. Take a look at these lines from the beginning of the poem:
Clora, come view my soul, and tell
Whether I have contrived it well.
Now all its several lodgings lie
Composed into one gallery;
And the great arras-hangings, made
Of various faces, by are laid;
That, for all furniture, you’ll find
Only your picture in my mind.
The speaker asks her to come into his gallery, which stand-in for his soul, and understand the depth of his emotion. He is desperate for her approval and he hopes that after seeing what he has made for her, she will love him as he loves her. He desires to take her through the hallways and lift up the “great arras-hangings” to show her all that he has done.
The paintings in the gallery show the speaker’s many different emotional attitudes towards Clora. In one of these, she is depicted as a murderess with “Black eyes…and red lips,” that she uses to her advantage. This particular painting is slightly ambiguous shown as an attempt to show her cruelty towards him.