The Thorniness of Theme

June 26, 2010

“Analyze the theme of this work, supporting your answer with examples from the text.”

Could there be a more despised English question?

I’m hard-pressed to find one. And yet, theme is so important to writing. It’s why we do it at all. But see, here’s the difference: it seems some high school teachers  people find the theme by killing the story. They dissect the work, render it sterile and cold on the table, and excise from it relevant quotations and examples, isolated bits of story-guts that may have as little to do with the author’s actual point as a bit of intestine with how much you enjoyed that chocolate mousse last night. Theme, I think, is better understood holistically, through the living story.

Think of books that really spoke to you. Did you go through them afterwards with your highlighter and say, “Oh yes, this quotation on page 42, that supports my reading of this work because…” No. You probably thought, “Wow, Romeo and Juliet couldn’t live without each other. Who knew there was a love that strong?” And I could be alone on this one, but I’m guessing most writers don’t write with an English class in mind.

It sounds like I’m bashing theme. I’m not. All works of fiction operate under some overarching principle. Romeo and Juliet: “Love Trumps All.” Not Wanted on the Voyage: “Crulety isolates, love unites.” Blindsight: “Point of View Matters.” This principle is- surprise!- the theme, and without it, there can’t be any story. The problem is the way in which theme is taught. Ferreting out quotations and arguments makes kids hate the book. Once that resentment begins… well, they’re not likely to be receptive to the theme anyway. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard someone say, “I felt like I would’ve enjoyed it if I read it outside of school.”

It’s too bad that searching for theme can spark that reaction, because theme is why we write. Some people say, “No, I write because of the characters- they’re so compelling!” Cool. Look closer. Why are they compelling? R’s been in my head for almost three years. No R, no Project W. Why hasn’t she left me alone? Because she makes me question what it means to be human. It’s a question to which I don’t have the answer, and writing about her is helping me find out. Eventually, I’ll end up with a work in which a sub-theme is “Being Human Means…” So, yes, an obsession with a character, but more with the theme/question/principle attached to her.

If there is no such theme/question/principle, what’s the point? Writing is hard work. It’s lonely. There’s always something good on TV. If there’s no passion to explore or defend something, we’re not going to make it to the end of the book. And if the writer somehow manages, the reader won’t, because that lack of passion shows. But this is where the “thorniness” comes in. Blindingly obvious allegories don’t do so well. Think Everyman. And yet, those are works with themes. I guess it’s because the story has been reduced to a vehicle for the theme, rather than the two being interconnected. If you have a message, the saying goes, send a telegraph.

Theme is probably one of those things that shouldn’t be this complicated. Characters act. Things happen. We formulate a hypothesis on the way the world/people work. Simple as that.

Yeah, right.



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