Is there a term for when an author intentionally generates two completely different responses from two distinct parts of their audience or readership?

An example I found could be in The Picture of Dorian Gray, where Oscar Wilde says:

Yes, there is a ... moral in Dorian Gray - a moral which the prurient will not be able to find in it, but which will be revealed to all whose minds are healthy

This isn't a great example, because Wilde later joked that it wasn't intentional:

Is this an artistic error? I fear it is. It is the only error in the book.

  • 2
    @bobble that's a good question. Perhaps I can say why it came to mind. A joke was made to an audience of 2: an expert and an author. The joke was that the author should write "A quick guide to becoming an expert in x". The expert laughed because of the absurdity of anyone "quick(ly)" achieving expertise in a field that takes decades to master. And the author laughed at the absurdity of themselves enough knowledge to write such a book. So it was amusing to witness two people hear the exact same joke, and both laughing a lot, but they were laughing at completely different things.
    – stevec
    Jun 25 at 15:10
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    @bobble As I reason it out, I think it has to be of the author's intent. Otherwise I think it boils down to simply confusion by one part of the audience.
    – stevec
    Jun 25 at 15:15
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    Good examples are (1) early 20th century novels which hid the clues that certain of their characters were gay. (2) Russian novels which criticized the regime in subtle ways that you couldn't actually put a finger on and say "this is seditious".
    – Peter Shor
    Jun 26 at 13:05
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    The most extreme example I've seen of this of Elizabeth Hand's novel Waking the Moon, where I think the ending can be interpreted in two antithetical ways, depending on whether you notice some clues pointing to a Roman mystery religion.
    – Peter Shor
    Jun 26 at 15:54
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    In politics, the term is 'dog whistle" (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dog_whistle_(politics)) Oct 29 at 21:01

It is unlikely there is such a term. The twentieth century has produced various theories about readers' responses to literary works and what I have read about them does not seem to suggest that literary theory has come up with a specific term for this phenomenon.

There is the more general term "code", which has many different meanings. Cuddon lists eight meanings, including the following (Cuddon, page 154):

(e) a cipher, (f) a system of words, letters or symbols for the purpose of secrecy or economy in transmission; (…)

Based on this, an author might try to provide (a) a surface meaning that is clear to all readers or viewers and (b) a coded meaning that is only "decoded" by a certain class of readers or viewers. René Girard, for example, suggested that Shakespeare's plays conveyed a surface meaning to the groundlings and a different meaning to the more literate nobility, i.e. the unmasking of mimetic desire and the scapegoat mechanism. However, Girard did not use a specific literary term for this "technique".

One may interpret Girard's suggestion as a special example of a divergence in what Hans Robert Jauss called horizon of expectation (German: Erwartungshorizont). In Jauss's theory, the term refers to "the shared set of assumptions which can be attributed to any given generation of readers" (Cuddon, page 415). Whereas Jauss focuses on different generations, Girard's hypothesis relies on different horizons of expectation within the same generation, namely based on different levels of literacy (not merely the ability to read; the nobility would have been exposed to a greater number of literary and philosophical texts).

Another set of terms from reader-oriented literary theories that could be brought to bear on this question is Wolfgang Iser's distinction between "implied reader" and "actual reader". The actual reader (Cuddon, page 446)

receives mental images while reading; but these images are, inevitably perhaps, modified by the experience and knowledge (and thus other images), which the reader brings to the text.

Jauss does not seem to use a term for the technique of "intentionally impressing different meanings on different audiences".

Another pair of terms that seems relevant is Umberto Eco's distinction between "open" and "closed" texts, which Cuddon discusses in the entry on reader-response theory (page 771):

An "open" text (e.g. Finnegans Wake (…)) requires the reader's close and active collaboration in the creation of meaning; whereas a "closed" text (e.g. whodunit by Agatha Christie, (…)) more or less determines or predetermines a reader's response; (…).

This distinction does not really help us until we can determine whether the different meanings asked about in the question are (a) two meanings that result from the work's openness or (b) two different meanings predetermined by a "closed" text. The term "intentionally" in the question may suggest that the author intended two meanings to be found by different sets of readers. However, the concept of authorial intent has been questioned by literary theory, for example by the New Criticism ("The Intentional Fallacy" by W. K. Wimsatt Jr. and M. C. Beardsley, 1956) and by Roland Barthes ("The Death of the Author", 1967). The author is considered unreliable; may not know what they are doing, resulting in a discrepancy between intention and result; may misremember or misrepresent later on what they intended, etcetera (see also Eagleton, pages 134–135). Based on this, an author who claims he tried to impress two different meanings on two different audiences may be trying to look cleverer than he really is.

It is hard to prove that nobody has ever come up with a term for what is described in the question, but based on what I have read so far about literary theory, it is unlikely to exist. The modern suspicion against authorial intent makes the coinage of such a term rather unlikely.


  • Cuddon, J. A.: The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. Third edition. Penguin 1992.
  • Eagleton, Terry: How to Read Literature. Yale University Press, 2014.
  • Girard, René: A Theatre of Envy: William Shakespeare. Oxford University Press, 1991.

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