What Does It All Mean?


Over the weekend, one of the eleven-million pictures that made an appearance on Facebook was a Venn diagram displaying a relatively tiny crossover between what authors mean when they write, and what English teachers think they mean.  It’s a joke, based on the collective years of agony most of us spent having to read a story and determine what it’s really about.  You know what I’m talking about, don’t you?  For example, when I took English 101, I remember having a knock-down-drag-out literary argument with my professor over Randall Jarrell’s Death of the Ball Turret Gunner.  For those of you who haven’t read it, here:

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

The professor had just finished lecturing that the poem was about humanity’s neverending spiral toward war and violence.  I found myself becoming upset with the distance such concepts built around the main character of the poem.  I raised my hand, and said I disagreed – that it was about a dead guy.  You’d have thought I’d thrown my English book at the professor, he turned so red.  I ended up having to write a short paper on the poem, to explain my position.  Yeah, that’s a good way to punish me…make me write something.  *laughs*

My teacher and I were both right.  I didn’t express myself well in the inital argument, being 18 and completely convinced of my own brilliance.  I didn’t know how to tell the teacher that I thought the poem was not only about a broad theme but about the pain and helplessness of a specific man whose death didn’t even end up being anything more important than a mess in the turret of his plane. It offended me that the teacher only wanted to talk about the bigger points, when it seemed to me that the one man’s tragic story was more important.

An author rarely has only one point to make in his work.  When we write a story, we’re writing about a person and a world and events, all of which bring in different aspects of the author’s psyche.  The reader will discover the theme that means most to him in the reading.  While the classics have been studied for years and their themes thoroughly fleshed out, I still think that every work has a depth that can speak to the reader in individual ways.  Ten people can read your book and all come up with different ideas of what you meant, depending on their own experience.  Everything we write has a link to something within us.  We may not even realize there’s a theme to our work when we’re creating it, but it’s there.  It’s echoing in our voice.  It’s peeking behind our words, showing itself only after the work is complete and can be observed as a whole.  The reader who feels trapped will see freedom in the story, and the reader who’s lonely will find friendship. If you’re determined to find the underlying theme in a story you’re reading, far be it from me to stop you.  But remember that sometimes the theme will show itself when you stop digging for it.   When you’re writing a story, don’t stress so much about choosing your theme or making your book about something deep and meaningful.   Meaning reveals itself through the words you choose and how you put them together.


22 comments to What Does It All Mean?

  • I remember thinking that analyzing themes was a laughable waste of time in high school. However, now determining the theme of my novel is one of the first things I do in the outlining process, as it influences (and is influenced by) the character arcs and the personality of the main characters. Oh, the sweet irony.

  • As a writer and a teacher I feel this especially powerfully. Most college instruction these days isn’t much interested in authorial intent, which is fine by me, and is more interested in how a writer manifests less consciously other issues in play in his/her period etc. And I’m OK with the idea that readers will get different things from a story (mine or someone else’s) BUT they better be reading closely and accurately. Nothing frosts me more than misreading and inserting your own random views/experience into your “interpretation” over what the text actually provides… 🙂

  • I don’t really look for deeper meaning in novels and film. I’ve seen so many arguments over what some director meant when he made this or that film and I’m usually, “man, I just watched the movie. It was cool. It had zombies and explosions in it.” It’s probably that ability I have to shut off the analytical side of my brain and just watch/read something for sheer enjoyment. I honestly have become irritated at realizing I’m being beat over the head with some author or director’s views and opinions, when it’s so blatant that I can’t shut the analytical side off. Then again, there are some where I can still shut it off, despite the message, like when people were going all crazy about Avatar. I have friends who really can’t shut that side down and I find myself almost feeling sorry for them that they can’t just enjoy a work for entertainment.

  • I have, at times, written novels that had great action, strong plot, amusing characters, but themes that I find reprehensible — all sort of by surprise to me. (I hadn’t *meant* to write a novel that said “conforming is the way to survive”; that just happened!

    In the case where my beliefs most diverged from the story I was telling, I reworked plot and characterization, until I could stand the idea that students/readers/whoever would take away a message I could get behind.

    The experience, though, made me really think about how much an author plans her work. There’s no place in my notes for “theme” — that’s a concept that’s just supposed to emerge organically.

    Hmmm… food for this English major’s thought…

  • I went to a book club years ago, long before I bothered to think *theme!* in any of my writing. A very well educated woman asked me, “What ws yoru initial theme when you started this novel? And how did it evolve as you wrote?”

    “Uh… Kill the bad guy? And let him get eaten by gators?”

    Yep. She was offended. And I was horrified. Me and my big mouth. Like Mindy, for me, theme was an organic result of a process, not the instigating factor for a novel. I had no idea theme *could* be the creative drive for a novel. And for me, even now, many years later, theme is always the final result.

  • Algis Budrys said it well: People mistake words on the page for story. Story is something that happens between the manuscript and the reader.

  • I, too, find thems as I write. The one time I tried to fix on a theme and then write, I found that the thematic stuff had a stultifying effect on other elements of the book — little stuff like character, plot, setting…. In my opinion, it ALL needs to be organic, theme included. As soon as it’s not, I start to compromise my creative process, and that’s never good. Your mileage may vary, of course.

  • Unicorn

    I always, always look for a deeper meaning in a story, be it a book or a movie or whatever. If I can’t find it, I get irritated and never finish the story. Part of Terry Pratchett’s genius: His books may be comic and satirical but he always has a strong theme. I can’t stand comedies without themes.
    Very interesting post, Misty, thank you. I love “Death of the Ball Turret Gunner”.

  • I have to admit that this is a topic that makes me a bit crazy. (And, full disclousre, though most folks here know, I’m an English prof). I hate it when people talk about “deeper meanings” in books, because, for my students, what it means is not “something of depth and importance when the plot alone may seem trivial.” What they mean is some coded message, some sort of secret that they can’t find, that their English prof wants them to find, and if they just had the code, knew that secret, then they’d get out of this class! Works don’t have “hidden meanings.” (Unless we’re talking art and the Davinci code, of course). They mean what the words say they mean–but words mean lots of things… so the monstrous comes up time and time in Shakespeare, and he works out what being monstrous means. For Viola in Twelfth night she calls herself “poor monster” and Antonio implies that someone who looks virtuous, but isn’t, is monstrous. Two different definitions that make for an intersting discussion (like, who really is monstrous in Tweflth night–I taught it today, so it’s on my mind). But it isn’t, to my mind, “hidden” or “deeper.”

    And I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed something *less* for analyzing it. When I have the moment of “ah! This is very much a Western inspired film” (Drive, in my opinion) or “oh, that’s a reference to Dante…” it makes the works richer, for me.

    That said, I have written stuff, gone back and reread it, and though “oh, goodness, is that what I said? oh my.” And I’ve deliberately tackled themes (though they usually emerge after the nugget of the story). So I do buy that meaning is made by both author and reader, never only by one. But I do also think, as writers, we are responsible for what we say. We should be taken to task (good or bad) for what our pieces produce in our readers.

    So I guess the answer to the question Misty poses is “it means what I said in book. Go read it.”

  • What AJ said times 10!

    I care about themes and multi-layered plots in books I read, but when I write I tend not to think consciously about them at all until well into the story – the second or third draft perhaps. First and always, it’s about the story and the story is about the people living it and theme/meaning are found in the lived experiences of the characters. What I mean IS the story, so I have to write the story first and through it discover meaning.

    This is not to say that others should work this way, simply that I do. If I start with a theme, I end up writing a thesis based argument, not a story.

  • Faith – kill the bad guy and feed him to gators sounds like a fine theme to me! My WIP started with a housewife, a cursed sword, and the conviction a dragon came into it somewhere.

  • I always sorta thought a lot of art happened like this…
    1) Take a toke from a joint/peyote/whatever
    2) “Dude, wouldn’t it be cool if, like, there was this lion with wings.”
    3) “Oh, yah, that’d kick ass. We could make it with a bird head. Like one of those eagles or something. That’d be awesome”
    4) “Wicked. How about a big lizard tail. Can you pass the Doritos?”
    5) “Here dude. Hey, I bet bob would dig this. Lets go over to his hut.”
    6) Bob comes up with this horror story about said beast, ’cause Bob likes scary stuff.
    7) Wait 2000 years
    8) Historian: “…and the demon of the west wind, Griff, symbolizes the balance of man and nature bla bla bla”

    Sometimes art is simply done ’cause it’s cool, IMHO. May be a subconscious expression of what’s cool at the time, but the artists may not have been thinking deep thoughts about themes. I’m sure many of them were probably using their ‘cool stuff’ to impress girls, boys, or whoever.

  • AJ, I didn’t mean to disparage academic literary analysis, and I absolutely agree that students must read closely and accurately, as you said.

    Peafairie said, “it means what I said in book. Go read it.” And Sarah said If I start with a theme, I end up writing a thesis based argument, not a story.

    Yes. Exactly. And in far fewer words than I used, so rock on, you two. *smile*

    It just seems to me that lately we’re being inundated with books so jammed full of meaning that the story gets lost. Isn’t it more effective to communicate our meaning by offering readers a book with compelling characters and exciting events? Not long ago I tried to read a book that was terribly important, according to the reviews. Meaning and substance oozed out of every page so much that you’d be better off carrying the damned thing in a Ziploc bag to keep from slipping on the puddles of significance on the floor. Surely it must have been a good story, right? Wrong. Nothing happened in the first hundred pages, at which point I gave up. Whatever the meaning might have been, I never got far enough to dig it out.

    So again, I’m okay with the author not knowing what her theme is until the last pages have been written. I’d rather she knows her characters and her world and her story. The theme will show itself.

  • “Wicked. How about a big lizard tail. Can you pass the Doritos?”

    I’m laughing like a crazy fool now!

  • I laugh. Can’t help it. Whenever the subject of literary analysis comes up, I laugh. At the very least, I chuckle. I’ve always been very, very good at doing literary analysis. Sentence diagramming, not so much, but we all have our talents, right? But I totally made everything up; total BS.
    Books may have an overall theme, beliefs and world-view will creep in, but unless I personally knew the author, and even then I’m not sure, then I honestly have no clue what he/she was thinking when writing a work. I can interpret what it means to me, but beyond that, it’s pure, unsubstantiated, speculation. And I think it’s kind of silly to make up what might have been going on in someone’s head.
    But feel free to analyze my opinion. Maybe you’ll find a deeper theme. Keep it to yourself if it’s Freudian.

  • Now, I’d better clarify my position. I believe there’s absolutely a need for literary analysis. The only way to get a handle on what people four hundred years ago were thinking and feeling is to read what they left behind. We denizens of the 21st century know slavery is bad, as is mistreatment of women and abuse of children. It’s easy to look at the past with our jaded modern eye. It’s smarter to read what people of the day thought about it.

    So I’m in no way dismissing literary analysis. I’m saying that writing a story with an eye toward being deep and important and meaningful, without putting the real weight behind the characters and events, is foolish.

  • Misty – no worries! I didn’t think you were dismissing literary analysis; I did think you were making a good point about the difference between writing stories and reading them. Both are different processes, though they both center around the idea that stories can be a way to convey ideas, truths, if I may.

    Oh and I had to share this from a student paper since it’s so apropos. “A common concept in most poetry, symbolism gives some level of encryption to poems, leaving the reader with something to be analyzed after reading.” Well thank God for that! If poems weren’t encrypted we readers would have nothing to do with our time and I’d be out of a job.

    I weep for the republic when I read sentences like that.

  • Every story I’ve ever written has the same thing: “What if …”

  • *sigh* I shouldn’t post at midnight. Same theme. Not thing.

  • The one time I tried to write with a theme in mind from the start, I ruined the story. I like it when they emerge organically, though.

  • I’m going to play devil’s advocate on this one. Not to say that I always think deeply about my theme and what I want to say in a work before writing it, but I don’t think that allowing it only to emerge “organically” is the only way. Myself, I’d be afraid of Mindy’s nightmare scenario: reaching the end and then realizing that it says something truly horrible that you would never want to say. Thinking about the theme beforehand is one way to try to head this off.

    But I don’t think that means sitting down every day, before writing, and humming your mantra: “the theme of my story is X”. It just takes only a little thought – if you’re a planner, you’ll have an outline. Are there any themes that resonate with you, as an author, that you see reflected in your outline? Are there any that you’d like to see reflected, but that aren’t? That’s a good time to think about that kind of stuff.

    Having a conscious theme also doesn’t have to be preachy. Nor does having one necessarily make a story boring or stultifying. (I’ll also agree with Pea Faerie: if your theme/meaning is “hidden”, then you’re probably doing it wrong.)

    I blogged about integrating theme into your writing a few months ago – and I think i came to some pretty useful conclusions about how to do it. You can check it out here: http://undiscoveredauthor.wordpress.com/2011/05/27/approaching-a-theme-writing-from-your-characters-moral-framework/

  • I’ve been thinking about my last comment and I apologize. It’s simplistic and pompous. I’m surprised nobody called me on it. I didn’t mean to say literary analysis has no merit. It definitely does. It’s just that sometimes I think we try to dig too deep. There isn’t always a hidden meaning or a deep theme.