Guide to Literary Terms

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What is the literary definition of ambiguity?

The literary definition of ambiguity is when a text expresses something in such a way that precludes the reader from coming to a clear conclusion as to the author’s intent.


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Last Updated September 12, 2022.

In a literary context, ambiguity occurs when it is impossible for the reader to come to a singular, certain conclusion about the author’s intent in a text. Literary ambiguity is often intentional, created by the author through careful word choice to suggest two or more equally valid interpretations. 

Ambiguity originates from the Latin word ambiguus, a combination of ambi, meaning “both,” and agere, meaning “to drive.” 

An example of ambiguity can be found in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. In its final chapter the protagonist, Edna Pontellier, swims out to sea. When she is far from shore, she runs out of strength:

Exhaustion was pressing upon and overpowering her.

“Good-by—because I love you.” He did not know; he did not understand. He would never understand. Perhaps Doctor Mandelet would have understood if she had seen him—but it was too late; the shore was far behind her, and her strength was gone.

(Chapter 39)

While the ending implies that Edna succumbs to exhaustion and drowns, it is unclear whether she decided to end her life or was overwhelmed by the forces of fatigue and tide.

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