Sunday, July 18, 2010

TSS: How important is THEME to you?

Last week, we talked about whether or not setting is very important in a book and most of us decided it's not a key component, but when it's done well, it's great and when it's done badly, it shows.  This week, let's talk about theme!

Theme is one of those Big Ideas you learn about in English class.  We analyzed every book for symbolism and responses and nitpicked each sentence until we felt certain we had learned exactly what the author meant to do by writing a particular book.  After my last English class (sadly, I didn't take even one in college), I proceeded to never really analyze theme again.  Sure, there have been times when I've read a book and thought, "What the heck is going on here?"  There are books in which theme is so prevalent and obvious it would be hard to miss (The Sparrow and The Vintner's Luck are two that jump immediately to mind).  But mostly... I ignore all that scholarly stuff and focus on the story.

I don't mean to say that the themes of books no longer resonate with me.  But while I loved English class, I hated beating every little thing into the ground, and it's very refreshing to just be able to read and enjoy a book without worrying so much about What The Message Is and whether I truly understood the message (I probably didn't).  I sometimes wonder if I would have liked The Lord of the Flies and The Grapes of Wrath more if I hadn't spent so much time looking for color and animal symbols or wondering about the meaning behind the name "Rosasharn" (by the way, it took me a ridiculously long time to realize that Rosasharn and Rose of Sharon were the same person).  Or if I would enjoy poetry more if I wasn't so intimidated by finding the meaning of every word in each carefully allotted space.

On the other hand, though, I think I would have benefited from a guiding hand while reading The Bone People.  What happened in that book?  A lot of things that I didn't understand, that's for sure.  What was the theme?  No clue.  Really.  I have some vague notions but nothing that I could, say, write a five-paragraph essay on.

That said, when I feel that I've truly connected with a book, then I love theme.  It can make a story so much stronger.  For example, would The Sparrow or The Vintner's Luck have been nearly as powerful without their religious undertones?  Would I have enjoyed Crime and Punishment at all if I hadn't felt completely connected to what Dostoevsky was doing?  Without theme, The Metamorphosis is just a bizarre story about a boy turning into some sort of beetle.  And there are some books that I choose to read for theme alone.  Hilary Mantel's novels all center around the uses and abuses of power- I love that she somehow made Robespierre a sympathetic character.  It's unlikely I'd go through this whole post without mentioning how much the themes in Wish Her Safe at Home and, to a lesser (but in some ways more disturbing) extent, Excellent Women, resonated with me.

So I would say for me, theme is very important, but I don't like to force it or break it down and analyze it.  I just feel happy when I "get" it and when I don't... well, I move on to the next book.  What about you?


  1. Oh I hate themes! I am glad I just read Jane Eyre for fun and then later started to pick it apart cos it is just no fun at all

  2. I don't always make the effort to notice themes in the books I'm reading, but I usually find it rewarding when I do. There's probably a selection bias there, though--the books with strong themes are probably the ones I would find thought-provoking enough to keep thinking about. But in general, I do like to see an author exploring a theme I care about in interesting ways.

  3. I don't go overboard in looking for themes, so I giess it's not that important for me. Sometimes things just naturally jumo out, and I might think about them for a while, but it never occurs to me otherwise. The only exceptions I can think of is when I really don't understand anything happening in the book and then I start to wonder- just in an effort to figure out what happened.

  4. Theme is something that enhances a book for me. If what I read has an underlying theme or some thematic elements for me to chew on, it's more likely I'll remember the book later on, whereas if it's all plot, I'm likely to forget it quickly. Theme makes a book memorable and longlasting for me. I don't do much to look for it as I read, though. Not on first read, at least. But I'm generally pretty good at picking out themes once I've read for the story itself. I guess that's the benefit of spending 8 years only reading classics, where you KNOW there are themes! In fact, I get really frustrated when I can't pick out the themes in classics (like in Bartleby the Scrivener).

  5. I'm a reader for whom writing/theme/etc are more important than plot...or, what a story is about is more important to me than what happens. I don't hunt for symbols, but I pay attention to things that pop up as I'm reading, and then I tend to make sense of it all when I go back through the book and my notes in preparation for my review. I guess I'm one of those rare people who actually enjoyed the overwrought analysis of high school English class.

  6. I rarely "get" themes unless somebody tells me what they are, so I'd have to say it doesn't matter to me. In fact, it's kind of irritating, because I like books to entertain me, not to seem like homework!

  7. Fun post!

    Themes are everywhere. Unless it is a pure carbon-copy piece of pulpy genre fiction (in which case the themes are built in to the recycled plot and scenes), I think authors can't help building them into their novels, because they are human beings. The question is whether they are intelligible, and then the question is whether they are cohesive, and THEN the question is whether the author had the skill to make conscious use of them, with the reader in mind. In the last category I've found writers who really lay them out on top where you can't miss them, and others who make you dig.

    Whew, long winded! So, I'm taking your overall question as whether readers enjoy *uncovering* themes. The answer in my case is a big yes! If it's a good book, I can do it without losing my immersion in the story.

    But as to whether they are important, I think that goes without saying. Even readers who don't like to think about them are getting the benefit. An author's facility with themes is what makes that hard-to-pin-down difference between a book that feels deep and complete, and one that feels made-up, even when the writing is good.

    The usual problem is that there are way two many themes. The author never finds an inner logic for the story. That is the kind of book that disappears when you pick it apart. Which I don't enjoy at all.

  8. Anonymous7/18/2010

    Characters tend to be most important for me when choosing a book, with story coming in at a close second. I rarely read for theme, however, I love it when I can pluck one out of a story.

  9. I don't choose books for their themes, I just happen to notice themes when I read books - I can't ignore them, it's just how my mind works (pattern recognition set to maximum). So yes, themes are important, they're the framework supporting the whole story and the development of the characters. But they're not the most important part of a book - a good plot, plausible characters and well-described setting, imaginatively written are just as important, if not more so.

  10. I think the trick is to separate Theme from Formal Criticism. You don't need to understand a single symbol in the book to understand theme. Theme is the larger issues the book tackles, the moral of the story, the ideologies presented. For me, the themes or philosophies presented in the book are more important than anything else.

  11. Since I am an English teacher, I always feel guilty when I read things like this. Themes should be one tool in a teacher's arsenal. The problem with teachers like so many of you evidently had is that they are trying to make you see how to use the tools, and the only fully realized interpretation they have handy is their own.

    Epiphany: perhaps what the world needs is a textbook for high school teachers that offers multiple interpretations of some standard texts?

    Anyway, I like what Trapunto says about theme except for one thing--I don't believe an author has to mean it. I had an epiphany in grad school where a student spoke up (against the rules) during a workshop and said "but I didn't mean that" and the teacher stood up and boomed frighteningly at her "SHUT UP AND TAKE CREDIT!"

  12. In my more recent years, theme has become much more important to me in the things I read. I will agree with you that I don't like it when the theme is so obscure that I barely get a whiff of it while reading the book, and then have to go out and think and analyze forever trying to understand what it was, but I do enjoy writing with interesting themes and sometimes search it out. I think that a book with a clear and clearly delineated theme can make everything so much more meaningful and cohesive, and most of the time the books that resonate with me the strongest are books that handle theme with an expert hand. This is not to say that I want to spend a whole lot of time picking apart the text of a book to get down to the smallest examples, but I do love that moment when everything gels, and the theme just rises right off the page. This is a fantastic question!

  13. Theme is one of those elements that can really enrich a book for me. It's also one of the HARDEST things to teach. I always tell my students: "A theme is not a single word. It's not 'love" or 'poverty'. Think if a sentence that explains what YOU took away from the book, and then you're in the theme neighborhood." I find comfort in the fact that readers bring a multitude of "baggage" to their reading and the themes emerge based on what we bring. In that light, it's far less scary and more personal.

  14. I agree with everyone, more or less, again.

    A couple more thoughts:

    Themes can be useful when faced with genre blind-spots. I once, as is my wont as a fantasy fan, recommended The Fionavar Tapestry to someone who had heard of it but not read it, only to be told, "I don't like books about elves and dwarves and magic and stuff."

    "But," said I, "It's not about that. It's about friendship, and love, and the obligations of the gifted in the face of impending apocalypse..."

    (I have some great conversations in the pub, me...)


  15. Jeanne,

    I don't believe an author has to mean it.

    Yes! A story isn't just the words an author writes, but the words a reader reads. In his essay "Necessary Golems" in Look At The Evidence, the legendary John Clute says:

    "The words an author has given birth to are dead until they're read, until they're re-created by the critic (who is somebody writing a review, or somebody reading a book in bed, or somebody telling somebody else about something s/he's just finished: who is anybody, in other words, who is doing the job."

    I guess possibly the most famous fantasy example is Lord of the Rings, which readers have been generating themes for for over half a century, despite JRRT's insistence that there were none...

  16. Sounds just like my English classes. I remember one time when someone finally said to the teacher "but we can't KNOW what they were thinking" and everyone thanked them for saying what everyone always wants to say.

    I like themes and they're great material for using in reviews and articles on a book but otherwise I'm not too bothered, occasionally though they're what makes the book good.

  17. I normally don't notice the theme unless they hit me over the head with it but that said, I'm drawn to themes of redemption and grace. And y' know, despair and the Apocalypse. :)


I read every comment posted on this blog, even if it sometimes takes me a while to respond. Thank you for taking the time and effort to comment here! Unless you are spamming me, in which case, thanks for nothing.