I remember during my first year of teaching being rather terrified of students asking me to help them, because I wasn’t sure that I could.
I distinctly remember the sinking feeling in my stomach when one of my seniors asked if he could stop by during lunch and get help on his first essay for my class. “Sure!” I said cheerfully, as dismay and tension settled into my shoulders.
Fast forward to this afternoon during my planning block in the library of my new school. Another senior had asked for help on her first in-class essay. I’m teaching the AP classes how to write the dreaded “Open Prompt” essay in preparation for the exam— where, in roughly 40 minutes, you need to choose a play or novel “of literary merit” with which to respond to a thought-provoking prompt about life and literature. (See this link for all the prompts on AP Literature exams from 1970-2017. They’re really worth reading– some of them are fascinating to ponder.)
My student is writing about the motif of blindness in King Lear, but was having trouble formulating a theme statement, what the AP exam usually calls “the meaning of a work as a whole”. In other words, what is Shakespeare trying to say to us about blindness?
As often as high school English teachers talk about theme, I’ve realized it’s actually a very difficult concept to teach well. In fact, I never used to teach it ostensibly because I agreed with O’Connor that trying to “find the theme” of a story is actually the wrong way to go about reading literature in the first place:
The result of the proper study of a novel should be contemplation of the mystery embodied in it, but this is a contemplation of the mystery in the whole work and not or some proposition or paraphrase. It is not the tracking down of an expressible moral or a statement about life. (O’Connor, “The Teaching of Literature,” Mystery and Manners 129).
Yet theme is a statement about life–some kind of claim, the theory goes, that a novel or play makes without ever coming out and spelling the idea out for you word for word. People often mistake the theme of a work for a mere topic like “revenge” or “ambition” or “the role of women”–but a full-fledged theme is a sentence with a subject and a predicate.
Flannery goes on to say in the very next sentence, “An English teacher I knew once asked her students what the moral of The Scarlet Letter was, and one answer she got as that the moral of The Scarlet Letter was, think twice before you commit adultery” (Ibid).
Okay, Flannery, but you could (with some fear and trembling) argue that a theme in The Violent Bear It Away is that “spiritual hunger is, for all its pain, a kind of poverty that makes way for satiety.” Or something like that. Couldn’t you?
I prefer to talk about the meaning in a story rather than the theme of a story. People talk about the theme of a story as if the theme were like the string that a sack of chicken feed is tied with. They think that if you can pick out the theme, the way you pick the right thread in the chicken-feed sack, you can rip the story open and feed the chickens. But this is not the way meaning works in fiction.
When you can state the theme of a story, when you can separate it from the story itself, then you can be sure the story is not a very good one. The meaning of a story has to be embodied in it, has to be made concrete in it. A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate. When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story. The meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning, and the purpose of making statements about the meaning of a story is only to help you experience that meaning more fully. (“Writing Short Stories,” Mystery and Manners 96)
I mean, I do plan to share that quote with my AP kids… but not until they have more confidence in developing themes and have written some good ones in a bunch of essays.
I’m essentially teaching them how to do something I plan on un-teaching them later.
Alas, the depths to which prepping kids for the AP exams will make one descend.
But my feelings about theme have softened over time through repetitive exposure and also through the private (perhaps naive) hope that I’m teaching in a way that does not encourage merely the “tracking down” of morals, cliches, or definitive life lessons.
So I’m sitting in the library, listening to this new student describe how hard it is for her to “come up with” a theme for King Lear that will “work” in this revised version of her essay. (I sense O’Connor’s non-plussed gaze–not on her, on me.) The good thing is, my student, like Socrates, knows that she doesn’t know– she sees that her essay can’t really go anywhere without a real thesis, without some kind of guess as to what Shakespeare is up to, but the reality is she simply doesn’t know what to say. “I don’t just want to say X is the theme,” she explains, “because that’s not what’s really going on.” Bravo. She cares about saying something true. (Another student I had spoken with earlier, after she had finally come up with a theme statement about undergoing trials in order to mature, when asked if she thought Cormac McCarthy was actually trying to convey that theme in his novel, replied that she didn’t care. She could write an essay about it, and that’s what mattered, and now, I suppose, she could go “feed the chickens”. Yikes.)
“I tried last night to come up with a theme, but they all just didn’t sound right,” my current student explained, gazing at her laptop screen with its strikethroughs and different colored fonts and other fragments of her labor.
As I listened, I realized, in the back of my mind, that I didn’t know how to help her.
That is, how to really help her. I could pretty easily come up with a theme statement and just give it to her, or ask her extremely leading questions that would help her to think of something rather similar to what I had in mind–but how to help her discover a central theme in King Lear on her own? I recalled, momentarily, that sinking feeling I got during my first year of teaching.
Flannery O’Connor says somewhere, probably in one of her letters, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say” (source).
It’s an idea I try to share with my students, especially those that feel like they have to have everything planned out before they can start writing. Although I fully support outlines if they are helpful, I do think kids need to learn that so often we only get to discover the deeper riches and beauty and meaning in a work while we write about it– not before.
Flannery says elsewhere, “I write to discover what I know.” Perhaps her preference for an organic meaning over a formulaic theme comes from her experience of what writing is really like. She knows that real writers don’t plant themes in stories like trophies to be dug up once you’ve cleared away enough of the distracting dirt of the plot. In fact, this is impossible. All they have is the dirt–the plot, I mean. There are no trophies to hide. Meaning simmers in the words themselves. The author only really knows what the work is going to mean after she has written it–and even then, not completely.
This rambling blog post itself, which has moved from a distant memory to an event in the library today to some musings on theme and the act of teaching illustrates her point too. I didn’t know, exactly, what I was going to write about until I began writing. (This post also highlights the importance of editing, and how once you DO discover what you want to say, you should probably go back through your work and delete all the irrelevant parts, if you have the time or inclination…)
I find O’Connor’s experience of writing in order to find out what she wants to say to be true of teaching as well. When I was a student I had this notion that teachers walked into a classroom with all of their thoughts carefully planned out–almost like a speech. And, perhaps, some teachers do teach this way, especially if they are giving a lecture of some kind. But there is so much in teaching high school kids that cannot work that way, that is unexpected, that cannot be planned ahead of time. The conversation comes and goes where it wills and often seems to have a plan of its own that you never could have anticipated. That definitely happened today.
So, back in the library, I paused for a moment, cleared my throat, and—gathering some confidence in the Holy Spirit who also likes to come and go when He wills and “who intercedes for us with sighs to deep for words” when we pray, but also, hopefully, when we teach—I said,
“Tell me more about the first time you saw Shakespeare mention blindness in the play. What did you notice?”