Two classes of fifteen juniors in high school read the same story and come up with completely different themes for the story. What truth about theme could this possibly prove?
Read on if you haven’t already guesses the answer. (Or scroll to the end if you’re THAT person.)
As an author, I think about theme. I don’t generally think about theme when I’m first drafting a story. At least not in the concrete way English teachers try to teach it.
Since I prefer reading plot driven stories, those are the kind I generally write. Of course, they involve interesting and relatable (I hope) characters who will change, learn and/or grow by the time the plot culminates.
During my rewriting phase is when I ask myself, “What do I want readers to take away from this story?” For me, that is the essence of theme. In the language arts classroom, theme was said to be “the central idea or meaning of a story.”
Doesn’t my definition sound like something a person would actually say? (Could be because I said it.)
On this particular Wednesday, I read the short story “Love in LA” by Dagoberto Gilb (an award winning short story author) to (or with) two different classes of 11th-grade students (mostly girls, by the way).
Jake rear-ends a cute, young babe with his ‘58 Buick. Her brand new (‘93) Toyota doesn’t fare so well. You might think this is a story about these two hitting it off and ending up in love, but this is “Love in L(os) A(ngeles)” so that’s not what happens at all. Instead, she tries to get the information she needs to get her car fixed while Jake tries to get her phone number.
The lesson for the day was a Socratic Seminar around this story. As the substitute teacher, I was the facilitator, and I had to insert a few more ideas during this class period. It was before 9am, so most teenagers lack full cognitive functioning.
I read the first paragraph (the longest one in the story) and one of the students read the rest. She had a difficult time keeping her eye rolls at bay in some areas. Jake fancies himself to be quite the charmer, but even his target realizes he’s more of a con man.
The first and last paragraphs refer to freedom in contrast to the sticky situation in Los Angeles at that moment, a traffic jam.
After more than 40 minutes of discussing Gilb’s methods of characterization and what the title had to do with the story, the students were asked to write what they believed the theme was. It was like pulling teeth to get someone to have the courage to share theirs.
“Freedom doesn’t come without a price.”
Examples from the text supported this idea. Since the first and last paragraphs reiterated the pursuit of freedom as Jake’s main goal, it seemed like a good bet that could have been the “central idea or meaning of the story.”
This group of all girls came in, energized from the lunch break they’d just had. They were chatty, but not disrespectful and happy to discuss the literature at hand.
After I read the story to them, that is.
This class judged Jake to me having a mid-life crisis (while first period thought he couldn’t have been older than 35). They saw his reliable, old classic car as a symbol for his “old life” as a younger man. His flirtations with a girl they felt was maybe 22 were really his attempt to return to “the good old days.”
In fact, the word freedom was never mentioned until, at the end of class bell, when I told the class what theme first period came up with. And I could hardly contain my grin.
“Sometimes dreams are beyond reach.”
“Sometimes it’s too late to go back to what once was.”
“If you want to reach a goal, you need to do more than dream about it.”
All of these were themes the students tossed around toward the end of our discussion. Furthermore, the evidence they cited in the text supported these as the central idea of the story.
The Truth about Theme
Theme in literature might not be subjective (since the text must prove it) but it is open to interpretation.
At the end of that second great discussion, I wished for Gilb’s phone number or email address. I wanted to ask him if one (or all) of these themes where indeed the meaning he intended to convey with this short story.
Not that it matters. The students had already proven what I’ve always know to be true:
Theme is the meaning the reader gleans from the story.
Yep, it’s not about the author’s intentions at all. Sometimes, readers might discover the truth an author buried in plain sight within a text. Other times, their personal experiences and worldview might glean unintended ideas and meanings.
The long introduction to theme in the lesson plans said, “Although readers may differ in their interpretations of a story that does not mean that any interpretation is valid.” They support this by saying that the statement of theme “should be responsive to the details of the story.” Meaning a reader’s experiences can’t outweigh the actual statements of the text.
One of the girls in the second class said, “Well, that line shoots down my idea.” This when I read one sentence from the text which stated the opposite of what she was sure the author intended to say.
Which of these themes was the one Gilb intended? Or did he have an entirely different meaning behind the writing?
Truthfully, themes are an amazing way to concentrate analysis on a text. However, even in a short tale, there is the possibility that readers will have a takeaway that the writer never intended. Conversely, they might not “get” the point the author hoped to convey.
Is it true that theme is open to interpretation (and thus subject to misinterpretation)?