Gaps & Silences


Who?               Pierre Macherey

When?             1966 - onwards



This page follows from some of the ideas on Discourse discussed elsewhere. There are a number of ways of interpreting the gaps and silences that we find in a text. This depends on whether we believe that they are intentional on the part of the author or unintentional.


Unintentional Gaps:

Many writers are not worried about post-modern ideas of uncertainty and unreliability. They just want to write a realistic, good story that sends out a certain message about the world. However, as we have seen from our discussion on Discourse, no one has an unbiased and completely pure view of the world. We all, to a greater or lesser extent, have been affected by the society that we have been brought up in. In growing up, we have had to accept a set of rules, or a discourse, that everyone else in our society shares. This set of rules tells us what is right or wrong, true or false, sane or mad and it affects how we see or judge the world.


Here is a simple example of how using a different set of rules can affect how we see or judge the world. Imagine that during a football match one player suddenly picks up the ball runs past the other team deep into their half and scores a goal. If we judge this action using the rules of soccer the player has broken the rules and the goal won’t count. However, if we judge this action using the rules of American football the player will have scored a perfectly legal touch down. This example does not seem very convincing because we are aware of both sets of rules and can switch between them depending upon what game we wish to play. The problem with a discourse, however, is that we are often not aware that our society even has a set of rules because we follow them so naturally and unconsciously and because of this we do not have the freedom to switch from one set of rules to another. In a sense we’re stuck with our discourse, with the game that we are playing, our one way of viewing the world.


This presents a problem when trying to write. An author will write about the world as he or she sees it. However, the view that any author has of the world is not how the world really is. Instead it is the world seen through the filter of their discourse, through their set of rules. As such the story they write will not be able to represent the world fully and when the writer comes across part of the world that does not fit with his or her ideology they will be forced to leave a gap, silence or contradiction in their text. At this point their story will break down or stutter. By examining these gaps, silences and contradictions, these stutterings, we can see how the world the writer is trying to create is different to the way the world really is and from this we can try to figure out the rules of their Discourse.


A good example of this can be seen when we examine the ‘nice guys eventually come good’ discourse in our society. This is clearly an assumption, bias or prejudice because the world is full of evil people who have achieved power success and fame and there are also lots of good people who have been rewarded with nothing. However, the myth of the good guy eventually winning the day is a favourite one and can easily be found in literature and movies. Take Harry Potter for example. At Hogwarts Harry is usually a fairly poor wizard, his spells don’t often work and he is clearly an inferior wizard to Hermione. However, when it comes to the crunch and Harry has to cast an incredibly powerful spell, pull off a complex broomstick trick or duel the evil Lord Voldemort (a wizard far more experienced and more ruthless than he) he always manages to do it. Rowling has to make Harry seem like a feeble wizard so that he qualifies as a nice guy who we will sympathise with but then she also needs him to defeat the baddies so that he can be a hero. The contradiction between Harry’s usual ineptitude and sudden brilliance when necessary is a clear example of a gap or silence within the text and it is a contradiction that we accept because we have bought into the ‘nice guys eventually come first’ discourse that our society propagates.


Intentional Gaps:

Many modern writers, however, tend to be aware of all these theories about discourse and post-structuralism and how you can never really represent the world as it truly is; how everyone is going to interpret a story differently and how we are doomed to a life of uncertainty and ambiguity. As such, some writers respond to this by actually including this idea in their writing. The use of intentional gaps and silences, in this way, may be seen as a post-modern, ironic, depressing awareness of the fact that we can never be certain of anything.


More interestingly, it may be an attempt to allow the reader more freedom to interpret the text and to make explicit the reader’s role in constructing the story and filling in the gaps.


Finally, specifically in the case of Marquez, the gaps and silences in his novel may be an expression of the magical realist idea that you cannot reduce reality down to a series of factual nuts and bolts; that we shouldn’t always try to make sense of things ‘logically’ and ‘rationally’ and that perhaps some of the beauty of life lies in its mystery and its inexplicability and that perhaps we should just sit back and accept that rather than trying to look for reasons for everything.