Thoughts on the Importance of Studying Theme

I recently took a road trip over several days. On the first day’s drive, the interior of my car was filled with the sounds of a wide variety of music, from Cat Stevens to The Shins to Elton John. But on day two, I was really looking for some silence. And that silence gave my mind space to wander.

I’m reminded of a story relayed in the biography of Charles Lindbergh, the famed pilot of the Spirit of St, Louis who flew from New York to Paris. Early in his career, he was a US Air Mail pilot travelling back and forth between St. Louis and Kansas City. In those days, before radios and complete music libraries tucked away in your back pocket, Lindbergh flew in silence. To ward off the boredom, he gave himself difficult problems to solve. One of those problems was determining how to fly across the Atlantic. And on one of his flights, he solved it and went to work.

I certainly did not go about solving such problems on my drive! But I did find some clarity that explained my confusion around how people discuss literature. Maybe not as sexy as being the first to complete a transatlantic flight, but in my corner of the world as a college professor, I appreciated the revelation.

One of the most difficult parts of teaching literature for me has been getting students to understand the concept of theme. 

I have sat in on over a hundred classes taught by a wide variety of teachers, sometimes as an evaluator and sometimes as an observer looking for ideas. And repeatedly, I witnessed a discussion of theme that instead focused on what I would call “topics.”

I can certainly understand why many instructors would limit classroom discussions to the level of topic. Students at any age can identify the topic of a book. Even young children can quickly identify topics of books read to them. But theme requires a much deeper level of analysis. More on that later…

This focus on topic rather than theme explains a lot though. I have often been confused about people’s reaction to many novels. But I now realize that they are reacting to their personal feelings about topics rather than about what a novel actually says. A while ago when someone posted a criticism of Atlas Shrugged. I pointed out that the conclusions about the novel were inaccurate and not supported by the text. After all, the characteristics that the reviewer claimed Rand is promoting are the characteristics of the villains of the novel. But people responded to me by saying that they could interpret the novel any way they wanted, thank you very much. 

Well, no. You can’t interpret a novel any way you like. This is what a focus on topics does. A discussion of theme requires textual proof as evidence that your conclusion about the novel is correct, is defensible. And a lively discussion with others who have read the same book forces you to defend that conclusions and forces you to listen to how others came to different conclusions. You then have an opportunity to reflect on your own thinking and perhaps to adjust it to some degree as you hear from different perspectives.

For example, a novel that I love teaching, and that, believe it or not, students have loved reading, despite their initial protestations upon seeing the title on the syllabus is Wuthering Heights. Some of the topics addressed by Emily Bronte in this novel include love, marriage, fatherhood, social class, revenge, nature.

Let’s imagine that the discussion revolves around topic. Most people focus on the topic of love in this particular novel, perhaps because it is the most obvious as even those who have never read the book are usually aware of the love of Catherine and Heathcliff. The discussion might include students’ opinions on the love affair of the couple. It might include the students’ feelings about being in love. It might include whether they like the couple. It might include a discussion of the characteristics of their love and whether students’ think these are good or bad characteristics or characteristics that they have experienced. All of these can lead to interesting discussions.

However, even a student who never read the book or one who read it but did not have a good understanding of what they were reading (what is often called functional illiteracy) can fully participate in a conversation on the topic of love. The student gets away without doing the hard work, and the instructor is none the wiser. Believe me, students are experts at this. 

I actually ended up quitting my tenured position over a formal complaint issued by a student who did not read the novella I had assigned. He was embarrassed because it was obvious to the class that he hadn’t read the book. After all, he had no idea how the book ended. I was called into the Dean of Students office and lectured for two hours on how cruel it was to embarrass a student in such a way. After all, the student didn’t have time to read the book. I should point out that this incident was the last straw in a long list of straws, most quite worse than this, but the dean’s expectations meant I could never ask students a question, lest they get it wrong and be embarrassed. In fact, I could not even solicit discussion for fear of someone relaying incorrect information about the book and then having to embarrass them with a correction. 

Yes, I digress, but I bring this up because the only way it would be acceptable for a college dean to argue that reading the book is not important to a college education if someone is busy is if that dean believes theme is irrelevant. Just start a discussion on topics so students can talk about their lived experiences.

After plenty of trial and error, semester after semester, I found a way to help students with the concept of theme. First, I explained that the theme is “the message about the world, about people, and/or about relationships that the novel is communicating to the reader.” And when expressing the theme, I required students to fill in the following blank with a complete sentence: “The theme of [name of novel or short story] is ______________.” 

Requiring the blank to be filled in with a sentence eliminates the tendency to use single words,  such as injustice, pride, envy, love, time, etc. “Jealousy” is not a theme. Instead, it is simply a topic. The theme would be the message the novel relays about jealousy. What do we, the readers, learn about jealousy from the novel? What conclusions can we draw about jealousy from the novel? What does the novel have to say about jealousy in our world? Answering those questions will direct the reader to the theme.

If students wrote an essay using the thesis “The theme of Wuthering Heights is love,” the next four pages would be dedicated to “proving” that the novel is about love, which is self-evident and, quite frankly, doesn’t need to be proven. The skills required for this are very low on Bloom’s Taxonomy (identify, describe, explain, relate).

But requiring students to fill in the blank with a complete sentence, such as “The theme of Wuthering Heights is that an obsessive love is destructive” is the result of a very different class discussion and analysis. And the essay will have much more depth and sophistication. This also takes us higher on Bloom’s Taxonomy (analyze, interpret, defend, connect, support).

Perhaps a more obvious example is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a brilliant book that has been banned from many English departments across the country. At the college where I spent most of my career, we hired an instructor who had earned a Ph.D. in English literature from the University of California – Berkeley, and she proudly bragged not only that she had never read Huck Finn but also that she never would read it. At any mention of the book, which a colleague assigned every semester, she recoiled, like a vampire ducking sunup. It was simply too offensive. After all, it is about slavery and racism.

But these are simply topics. Imagine the class discussion that could result from assigning this classic. Rather than a focus on the actual text of the book (if anyone even got as far as to read the book!), the conversation would be limited to a discussion of how the students “feel” about racism, a limitation encouraged by the teacher. After all, that conversation requires little preparation on the part of the teacher and no text analysis by the students. What it does allow is a venue for students to express “their truth.” The best part is that a discussion which revolves around “my truth” cannot be countered or challenged by anyone. 

What if instead the professor AND the students spent their time looking at what Mark Twain actually has to say about slavery and racism. Once they have drawn some conclusions about what the novel has to say about those topics, then students can discuss whether or not they agree with the message of the novel.

And we can actually express different opinions about and argue about what that message is. I might find passages that support my theme, but someone else might find other passages that draw them to a different conclusion, a different interpretation. After all, not everyone needs to come to the same conclusion – as long as they have evidence. The best days in class are when students point out evidence to a theme I had not seen or thought of before.

But it often doesn’t get that far. And so many young people have no idea that Huck Finn is great partly because of its condemnation of slavery and through the humanizing of the slave Jim. Instead, they hear that it contains the “n” word, get offended without having any idea about the context, and reject the entire work as offensive. (Of course, it is also confusing that these same people can listen to the “n” word in the lyrics of hundreds of songs they hear every day.) And too many teachers allow this lack of thinking beyond reflexive feelings. It sure is easier.

The best way to study a novel is to remove the reader’s experiences and biases from the analysis of the theme. The best way to understand a different point of view is to put yourself in the characters’ shoes, to remove yourself.  This is a huge problem in our society today. So many are unable to put themselves aside to just listen to another point of view for a moment. And to listen with an open heart and an open mind. Reading a book is listening. It is such an important tool in fostering empathy.

One sign of a well written piece of literature is that the themes speak to the human condition, regardless of the author; they transcend time and place. Yet students demand, and now teachers insist, that books assigned in schools, from kindergarten through university, reflect the experiences and racial/ethnic background of the students. The reasoning behind this is that students need to “see” themselves in the books they read. They need to be affirmed. And the only ones who can affirm them are authors and characters who are of the same race/ethnicity/religion/sexual orientation/gender/fill-in-the-blank as the reader.

Here is the thing: it isn’t about you! A novel doesn’t exist to make you feel seen in the world, to feel better about yourself. It is for you to learn. To learn about the loves of the other. When you work to discover the theme, you look at the topic from the novel’s point of view. Once you discover and provide evidence for the theme, then you are free to express your opinion about the theme – whether it aligns with your experiences or not, whether you believe it is a theme worth exploring, whether the theme resonates with your biases. That is a separate discussion, and often one of the most engaging and enlightening parts of a class.

For example, after leaving my college professorship, I spent a few years teaching middle school – an unexpected blessing in my growth as a teacher. One of my favorite class meetings occurred when my seventh grade class read the short story “Tears of Autumn” by Yoshiko Uchida, about a young Japanese woman, Hana, who travels on a boat to America to meet the man her parents arranged for her to marry. One topic is taking risks Hana takes a huge risk to travel to a land she has never visited and a man she has never met…alone. The journey is arduous and lonely. The man she is to marry is not as he was described. But she desperately wants to leave her village for America. Hana saw her future laid out if she stayed in her village, and it was a future she did not want. Although we do not know how things turn out for Hana in the United States, the class came up with a possible theme that to change the course of one’s life, one must take risks.

Once the class found the evidence to come to that conclusion, the girls erupted in protestations that they would NEVER agree to an arranged marriage, and thus, were loath to such risks. Oddly enough, when I asked why they were so opposed to an arranged marriage, they all agreed that they wouldn’t want to marry some ugly, mean, old guy. Pointing out that they must not think much of their parents if they all thought they would be married to some ugly, mean, old guy didn’t impact their objections. It was a funny, lively conversation, but it was nothing compared to what was to come. A 12-year-old boy raised his hand. He told us that his parents were in an arranged marriage. And, he explained, his parents had the best marriage of anyone he knew. He glanced around at a room filled with children whose parents had fallen out of love, who had suffered from mid-life crises, who fought openly, and who divorced. He definitely thought the risk was worthwhile. And the others were forced to rethink their initial reactions. A great conversation tied to theme.

And back to Wuthering Heights. Yes, the novel is about love, and throughout the book, we read about many different types of love, most notably, the loves of Catherine and Heathcliff, as previously mentioned, and of Catherine (the same Catherine) and Edgar. Their relationships are polar opposites. Catherine’s love for Heathcliff is filled with wild, obsessive passion. Her love for Edgar is based on stability, in terms of money, lifestyle, emotions, dependability. A third love, between Hareton and Catherine Linton (a different Catherine!) provides readers with the theme, for their love is a biological and symbolic combination of the other two love affairs. In other words, somewhere in the middle of wild passion and unemotional calculation lies the best hope for a relationship.

The best discussions that followed the discovery of the theme usually came when the classroom of mostly 18-year-olds was punctuated with a few older students who have been married and have their own children. The 18-year-old students long for a love that Catherine and Heathcliff feel for each other. The older students? No thank you. Been there, done that. Too much drama. The type of love Edgar offers is much better, they explain to their younger counterparts. This is where people can, and are encouraged to, bring in their own experiences and biases. 

But at the end of the day, Emily Bronte shows the reader that, in fact, neither of those options is the best. The best is to find a love that combines passion, although not wild uncontrollable passion, with stability, but not unemotional calculation. And after the discussion of students’ personal experiences with each extreme, most students come to the conclusion that perhaps Bronte is correct. Not that they are required to come to that conclusion! That has just been my experience with this particular novel.

My goal as a teacher has always been to encourage students to get outside of their little world (or their bubble, in current parlance), to explore, through literature, the experiences of others and to perhaps see the world through different eyes. One of the best ways to do that is to focus on theme.

One thought on “Thoughts on the Importance of Studying Theme

  1. Pingback: Group Identity (Part Nine) – The Writing Life

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