Theme

Jan. 10th, 2005 07:26 am
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[personal profile] lullenny
The following is an excerpt from Part III of the book Making Shapely Fiction, by Jerome Stern. The first two parts are very much worth reading as well. The book is available in paperback.



Theme

When literary critics use the term, they generally mean the idea or point of a work. Writers are often made uncomfortable by questions like, "What is the theme of your novel?" It seems reductive, like someone asking, "What is the bottom line of this thing?" Writers hope that people will read and think about their work, understanding it through that experience. Some writers respond evasively to questions about theme, saying things like, "It's just a story," or, as Mark Twain wrote in his notice preceding The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, "Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot."

Other writers are more intellectual in their inspiration and more analytical about their creation. They clearly have a theme in mind, and t heir work is an exploration of a particular idea. Albert Camus or Jean-Paul Sartre used their fiction to discuss philosophical issues. Margaret Atwood and Robert Coover are explicitly interested in political themes.

If you want to explore philosophical, psychological, or social ideas in your fiction, think of theme as akin to character, setting, or imagery. Themes, like characters, can advance the plot, contribute to the tension, be attacked, and suffer ironic fates. John Barth made his themes the central characters in End of the Road and Giles Goat-Boy. Aesthetic ideas almost talk to each other in Julian Barnes's Flaubert's Parrot, Saul Bellow's characters embody themes.

Though many writers like to think of themselves primarily as storytellers, yarn spinners, and fabulists, themes and ideas are inevitable. Every work raises questions, examines possibilities, and imagines the consequences of actions. You can't avoid meaning even if you want to.

See Character, Didacticism, Motif.

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