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Indeterminacy in literature is a situation in which components of a text require the reader to make their own decisions about the text’s meaning. (Baldick 2008) This can occur if the text’s ending does not provide full closure and there are still questions to be answered, or when "the language is such that the author’s original intention is not known". Baldick further describes the concept as "a principle of uncertainty invoked to deny the existence of any final or determinate meaning that could bring to an end the play of meaning between the elements of a text". Therefore, indeterminacy is the belief that it is not possible to decide entirely what a word means when used in a certain circumstance, so the meaning of the whole text must remain open to interpretation.
Indeterminacy is not ambiguity
In literature, indeterminacy is sometimes confused with the idea of ambiguity, as the two are very alike. However, as opposed to ambiguity, indeterminacy is "applied by its practitioners not only to literature but also to the interpretation of texts". (Encyclopædia Britannica 2011, p. 1 of 1) Nevertheless, the presence of indeterminacy does not mean that decisions about meaning cannot be made at all, but only that there will be no final official judgement or approval on any individual interpretation. (Baldick 2008) Furthermore, the presence of indeterminacy does not result in all interpretations being of equal legitimacy; instead it indicates that all meanings drawn from an indeterminate text are "partial and provisional, and that what we write about it itself as a text, is open to further interpretation".
Indeterminacy and the reader's imagination
A slightly different approach to indeterminacy is the idea that the reader’s "concretization is left to a large extent to... imagination". (Stanzel 1988, p. 116) This becomes clear when comparing narrative fiction; which is commonly indeterminate, to film; the very nature of which often precludes indeterminacy. Stanzel quotes John Fowles in regards to the indeterminacy of narrative as an advantage. "There are hundreds of things a novel can do that a cinema can never do. The cinema can’t digress, above all it can’t exclude... you’ve got to have a certain chair, certain clothes, certain decor. In a novel... you don’t have to “set up” the whole screen. The delight of writing novels is what you can leave out on each page, in each sentence".
Furthermore, McHale (1992, p. 36) highlights the "partial indeterminacy, the 'gappiness' of fictional objects, including fictional characters", by pointing out that no depiction of a fictional character or object could ever be as absolute as what actual human beings consider themselves and their objects to be. "It is always as if a beam of light were illuminating a part of a region, the remainder of which disappears in an indeterminate cloud". (McHale 1992, p. 36)
This literary meaning of indeterminacy is often associated with deconstruction, the post-structuralist theory propounded by Jacques Derrida, and is best described as "a philosophically sceptical approach to the possibility of coherent meaning in language". (Baldick 2008, p. 1 of 1) However, Royle (1995, p. 46) quotes Derrida as saying "I do not believe I have ever spoken of 'indeterminacy', whether in regard to 'meaning' or anything else... deconstruction should never lead either to relativism or to any sort of indeterminism".
According to indeterminacy theory, all texts can have the "multiplicity of possible interpretations of given textual elements, because the author’s meaning or intent may be unclear, or distorted by pop culture".[this quote needs a citation] So, indeterminacy is not always purposeful. However, while some indeterminacy in literary fiction is permanent; the gap will never be filled or closed; other areas of indeterminacy are temporary, and deliberately planted by the author with the intention of leaving a gap that the reader themself can fill, by the "process of realizing or concretising the text". (McHale 1992, p. 36)
- Chris Baldick, "Indeterminacy" from the Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, Oxford (2009) ISBN 0-19-920827-1
- Encyclopædia Britannica 2011, "Indeterminacy", retrieved 7 March 2011, 
- Brian McHale, Constructing Postmodernism, Routledge (1993) ISBN 0-415-06014-1
- Nicholas Royle, After Derrida, Manchester University Press (1995) ISBN 0-7190-4379-4 
- Franz Karl Stanzel, A Theory of Narrative, Cambridge University Press (1986) ISBN 0-521-31063-6