The staircase (concluded): Themes & Ideas

January 25, 2016

I suppose, in terms of my teaching, the themes and ideas were the optional extra, as I explained in that introductory post: there don’t actually have to be any, and plenty of novels are successful enough without them. It’s where works of fiction become more complex and demanding of their readers, and novels which are set for examination or other kinds of study will normally be chosen because they contain ideas and issues for the student to explore.

Clearly, it’s possible to read a novel and ignore or skate over the ideas because what you are interested in is the plot or the characters, particularly in that first reading; maybe they are not particularly noticeable or evident; perhaps you will deliberately look for them later. I’ve always enjoyed and responded to what I call the literature of ideas, not that I don’t enjoy fiction to relax and unwind with, like my collection of science fiction and detective novels. But – and I don’t know whether this came about because I turned into a student of literature – writers have usually made me think, at the same time as entertaining me.

Here I realise we come on to another idea which isn’t perhaps widely considered, that once an author has published a book, it is public; that is, the author no longer has sole ownership of it and what it says or contains. A reader may find something, interpret something in a way that the author didn’t originally intend, or didn’t think of when writing: that is a valid idea, or interpretation nenetheless. So, these themes or ideas that I’ve been writing about may be deliberately intended to form part of the work by an author, or they may be accidental, and this is not always clear; it has seemed to me that the more time that elapses since the first publication of a novel, the more open it becomes to a wider range of interpretations and meanings than the author may originally have intended. Her or his novel is in the public domain (I’m not meaning the legal sense of the term here), in the wild, as it were, with an existence and potential for understanding that are its own. Some authors openly acknowldege this, some may have not even thought of this possibility…

I’ve written theoretically thus far about the concept of themes and ideas, the third step of my staircase; now I’ll consider two texts in the light of the theory, by way of illustration.

To Kill A Mockingbird is a story. A brother and sister grow up, in a single-parent family, with their father who is a lawyer and who undertakes a particularly challenging defence of a black man accused of raping a white woman, in the racist society of 1930s Deep South USA. He loses the case. That’s the novel, and yet we can look at it from a number of other angles: it’s about growing up in a racist society and the different ways people respond to this; it’s about parenting and how parents shape your life; it’s about the relations between parents and children; it’s about adults and children; it’s about growing up and how you change in the way you see and respond to the world. All of those are the bigger ideas or themes lurking in the novel, and surely there cannot be many readers who have not noticed some of them.

Birdsong is a story of the First World War, the horrors of the trenches and how men survive or not, set against he background of the Battle of the Somme. And yet… it’s a novel about comradeship; it’s a novel about how men react when pushed to the absolute limits, when any minute might be their last, living amongst unspeakable horrors; it’s a novel about the power of memory, across the generations, and the power of memory to shape lives. Faulks very carefully weaves a number of different threads together to bring out each of these key ideas and more…

My reading of fiction has always seemed the richer for being able to see such connections, and an even broader picture than just those of the plot and the characters; if students are encouraged to look more widely, they will surely enhance their understanding of a text, write more intelligently about it, and glean higher grades.

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