As longtime readers of the blog know, I’m fascinated by the question of how theme actually works. Theme is often cited as one of the four essential elements in a good story, the other three being character, plot and setting. Those last three are easy to talk about. Most people agree on the basic principles of how you make ones that are good or bad. When it comes to theme, though, nobody really agrees, and many people say there is no good way to create a theme. Many say that artists have their own ideas about what their works mean, and audience members each have their own interpretations, and all of that is as it should be.
I recently had a breakthrough when I was reading this statement by Kina Grannis, one of my favorite independent musicians, “Of course, every song begins with some original meaning for the songwriter–that first idea that sparked it into existence and allowed it to be a cohesive thought to explore and write about. However, in my opinion, that original intent of the song, while certainly important, is not necessarily the point. For me, the point lies in whatever that song could potentially mean to anyone, anywhere, at any given time. Music is so adaptable, and that’s part of what makes it so powerful. If the song was written with love and sincerity and real feeling, those things–those genuine emotions in the song–are what people connect to.” It comes from her commentary on the song “Oh Father.” You can read the whole thing and watch the video here.
My breakthrough was the realization that when we talk about theme, we often conflate three distinct things; inspiration, meaning, and the themes embedded in the work itself.
Inspiration is whatever caused the writer to think of the ideas that made them write their story (or song) the way they did. Mary Shelley was inspired by, among other things, the eerie weather of 1816, the emergence of biology and scientific experimentation as a serious discipline, and her miscarried child. C. S. Lewis was inspired by Christian theology. Much of my writing is my experience growing up homeschooled and the resulting feelings of isolation. However, you shouldn’t have to know any of this kind of background to get something out of a work of art. It can be interesting, but the work should be able to stand on its own, apart from whatever inspired it.
While inspiration is that initial input, meaning is the final output. Just as events in the writer’s life informed what they put in, the life of the audience will influence what they took out. Suppose a writer, deeply interested in power dynamics and economics, wants to write about a woman struggling to move up the ranks in a big corporation. As they write, they realize their character needs a person outside of the job to support her, to give her someone to vent to and to generally act as a foil to the corporate environment. They create a younger brother who lives with his sister and works as a struggling hippie artist. Despite their personal differences they are quite close and talk frequently. I read this book, and while I am not particularly interested in the world of business, I am fascinated by families. I am extremely close to my big sister, so stories with prominent sibling dynamics tend to hit me hard. As I read, I notice that the protagonist has a male and female boss (originally put in because the author wanted to portray both powerful men and powerful women), and I see parallels between their relationships with the protagonist and parent-child dynamics. To me, the whole story becomes a metaphor for family, even though the author could have cared less about family and was inspired by business. What the audience takes away from the story might be very different from what got the writer to create the story in the first place, that doesn’t make these meanings wrong. Stories are not a “guess what I’m thinking” game played by authors, contrary to what many English teachers seem to think.
However, writers do have a role to play in creating these meanings in the minds of their readers. It isn’t their sole responsibility. The readers will contribute, using their own ideas and experiences, and they might even disagree with the author. The writer’s responsibility is to provide seeds for these meanings. It’s those seeds that are the actual themes. They take the form of recurring motifs, causes and effects, paradoxes, dialog between the characters, and so on.
In the song “Oh Father,” Kina Grannis describes perilous situations, juxtaposed with the refrain, “oh father.” The tone of the song is not exactly sad, not exactly happy, but beautifully wistful in a calm sort of way. You could put that together and conclude that the song is about letting go of the support your parents have given you, and striking out on your own, in which case your meaning and Kina’s inspiration would happen to coincide. On the other hand, maybe you had a dysfunctional relationship with your father, so perhaps its about accepting both the pain you were put through and the love you feel for him nonetheless. Or perhaps the person in a predicament is the father, instead of the singer. Perhaps the father is struggling with situations beyond what he can deal with, and the singer is offering sympathy and comfort to him. Maybe the father isn’t a literal father, but God, or a mentor, and so on.
All these interpretations are very different, but they are all connected. They are all tied to things that are really said in the song. The themes are bridges that connect the author’s inspiration to the reader’s meaning. In a sense they are subjective, but in another they aren’t. I can’t imagine taking a meaning away from “Oh Father” that doesn’t in some involve a father, or father figure. Father is right there in the title, after all, so clearly it is important.
Themes do not argue as straightforwardly as a treatise. They do not set out with a clear meaning that they must convince you of. When an author is clearly trying to do that, their story is generally mocked and discarded as heavy-handed and pretentious. Themes don’t preach ideas, lay out logical syllogisms, or tell you that you are right or wrong. They slip into you, with intermingled thoughts and emotions, carrying a message meant just for you.