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?