Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Literature: Writing about Theme

Discussions of literature nearly always turn to the question, "So what is the author's theme?"

One point worth stopping to consider is that there are usually at least two themes apparent in any work.

Another way to ask this question is, "What does the author seem to be saying about human nature?"

Answers to such questions need careful framing. It's not the same to state a theme as to identify the "moral of the story," since "morals" are provided in fables, not standard fiction. So avoid language that involves "should, must, always" etc. or sounds like it is giving advice to the reader. Instead, here is a method for coming to an understanding of what at least one theme may be, in a given work.

1. Ask yourself what are the conflicts? Who is in battle? In the case of a short story that involves mostly an internal struggle, look at what parts of the character are in opposition.

2. How could each of these combatants be characterized in a concept noun?

3. Who/what wins the conflict?

4. What framing language will help you explain this? "The author indicates that humans . . ." or "The author speaks of . . . " are sometimes useful starters for this part.

5. Often, the easiest way to express the theme involves use of a cliché . If this is the case, it's an intermediate step, but move onto your own language for a rendition of that idea in original language.

Let's try it with "The Sniper," by Liam O'Flaherty.

1. One of the unnamed protagonist's conflicts is his struggle not to die at the hands of his opponent, who is positioned on the roof across the street.

2. Our sniper represents Life and to him, his opponent represents Death.

3. A clichéd version of this: Kill or be killed.

4. "The author speaks of the need in wartime to kill others if one wants to stay alive."

A second conflict he faces is internal and grows from the broader conflict.

1. He must kill another human being, someone he might well know, and this horrifies him.

2. On one hand he is Survival, and the other he is Humaneness (I feel this is different from the idea represented by Humanity).

3. A cliché may not exist for this one. I often point out that a broad theme in literature is "War is hell." That is too broad here though.

4. "The author addresses the inevitable split a soldier feels in a war zone: to protect his own life and yet to preserve all human life in general. In order to live, he must do things to others that would never otherwise be acceptable in his moral code."

Try this 4-step process and see if you can then explain an author's theme more clearly. Happy writing!