An Essay on Theme, or, Ur Doin It Wrong

by Rin

To open this post, I’d like to repeat something one of our friends said on Twitter last night. And I quote: “My least favorite question in the world: ‘What is the theme of this film(/novel/play/poem/song)?’ I can’t pick just one theme for ANYTHING.”

To which I responded: “That’s because if something has a single, easily identifiable theme, it’s Doin It Wrong.”

In high school, I developed an aversion- well, let’s be honest and call it a burning hatred– toward most of modern theatre. This is relevant, I promise. Because the reason I hate modern theatre so much is that, when I first started to really study it, I had a whole bunch of anvil-dropping, symbolism-laden, theme-heavy crap driven into my head. It’s a problem that modern playwrights (and I think there’s a reason it’s specifically playwrights, but more on that later) have, where they think they have to have an Theme.

I’m giving that a capital letter because that’s the amount of importance that scholarship assigns to it. Literary scholarship frelling loves Themes. And it gets everywhere. In any given English class, middle school or high school or whatever, the students are going to be asked to identify the Theme of whatever they’re reading. Same goes for theatre classes, poetry classes, film classes, music classes, et cetera et cetera. Seriously, think back to the classes you’ve taken. If you haven’t ever had to answer that question, well, I’m sending my completely-hypothetical improbable future children to whatever school you went to.

But here’s where that question is treacherous. A good work of art- literature or film or music or whatever; just for the sake of example, I’m going to talk about books- is going to have more than one theme. Note the lowercase. A good book has a metric crapton of themes. They weave all around each other, relate to each other, diverge, converge, and if it’s a really good book, you don’t notice the themes until they’re already in your brain.

It’s like the way, back in ancient Greece, comedy was used to address social or political problems. If you’ve got an important thing to say, something you think your audience really needs to hear, you don’t bash them over the head with it. You wrap it up in other things, story, characters, humor, things that will carry your idea into people’s heads. Douglas Adams called it “stealth philosophy.” Your readers are laughing, being entertained, and suddenly they’re two-thirds of the way through the book and they realize there are all these thoughts in their heads. And I want to point out that this doesn’t just apply to comedy- with anything, if you’ve got a theme you want to get across, the way to go is subtlety.

But we seem to have all forgotten this. We’re overrun with Theme. And I’m going to postulate that it’s because of that question. Let’s say John Q. Aspiring-Novelist gets taught, all through middle school and high school and college, to identify the Singular Theme of everything he reads. When he finally sits down to write his novel, guess what? It’s going to have a Singular Theme, because that’s the framework he has to think about it. That’s what he’s been taught to think a novel is.

I’m also going to go ahead and say that this is why people don’t like reading. We don’t like being bashed over the head with Theme. We don’t like knowing we’re being told what to think. And when we have the good fortune to read a good book, one with a whole boatload of possible themes, we sure don’t like trying to hammer them into a Singular Theme. It feels forced, it feels unnatural, and if that’s what we’re being taught to think reading is like, of course we don’t like it!

So down with the Theme, I say, and up with themes, plural! Teachers, or aspiring teachers, if you’re reading this: please, I beseech you, teach multiple themes. Teach your students to pick out a whole bunch of them, compare them, talk about how they interact. Students, challenge your teachers. Start the debate. See how many themes you can come up with. And those of you who aren’t in school- read a book, watch a movie, listen to a song, and don’t bother yourself about themes at all. If the writer’s doing it right, they’ll get into your head anyway. I promise.

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One response to “An Essay on Theme, or, Ur Doin It Wrong

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