Theme-atic

I was thinking, “hmm, what should I write about?” and then my critique group started up a discussion around theme. Because I own the Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and never get to use it, I looked up theme:

Properly speaking, the theme of a work is not its subject but rather its central idea, which may be stated directly or indirectly. For example, the theme of Othello is jealousy. See Leitmotif; motif.

But if we see Leitmotif, we might have to see Wagner’s Ring cycle, and I think one has to go into training for that, rather like an Olympic event. Let’s stick with theme.

In my experience, theme got a bad rap in school because it was presented like the prize at the bottom of a cereal box. Somewhere in every work of literature, a theme was hiding. It could be found, guessed at, or otherwise produced as a complete yet simplistic idea. It’s what a story meant, with all the subtlety of a 2×4 between the eyes.

Probably not the most effective use of the technique. To my mind, theme is more like the dryer screen that collects lint as the story tumbles to its conclusion. Lots of stuff in a story relates to an organizing thematic idea, but in more complex stories it’s often oblique, multi-faceted, backward, or even contradictory. It’s more about how a concept shows up in different ways in the story world without actually being a Holy Grail the characters chase. It’s that attitude, idea, or circumstance that impacts all the major players in different ways, and each example illuminates the others.

Longer stories often have several themes. A good example in my mind is (speaking of rings) The Lord of the Rings. It’s about stepping up and taking responsibility. It’s also about exile. It’s also about good versus evil. It’s also about the inheritance of sin. It’s about how good Viggo Mortensen looks in leather, and the artistry of Elven hairdressers. There’s no one cereal-box prize, nor should there be. That would diminish the work.

Perhaps themes are just whatever is roaming around in the author’s mind. I don’t start writing with a theme in mind—or if I do, I veer off of it pretty quickly because I have the attention span of a gnat. It’s when I go back to rewrite that I see strands of actual theme in the text. At that point, I dig them out and highlight them, usually with a puzzled, “Oh, so that’s what all this was about.” Scorched plays with ideas of meaningful self-definition. Unchained gnaws on the female role in society. I wouldn’t say that’s what they are about per se, but what flavors them–or so I discovered after draft one was complete.

It’s interesting that theme and Leitmotif are terms literature shares with music. That’s pretty informative all by itself. In pop music, we’d call it a hook—that little spicy phrase that pops up again and again and helps make the piece memorable.

Of course, outside of English class, does anyone actually notice theme, or is it something writers do mostly for themselves? Is anyone out there conscious of it?

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