Sunday, November 07, 2010

Could I Pass Junior High?

I'm the go to person for some sorts of questions for different kids I know.

Tonight, I got a call from a junior high student wanting help figuring out the "theme" of a book.

I'm lousy at this sort of thing. You think I'd be good at it, eh? But I'm not quite sure what the junior high teacher means by "theme."

What do they mean by "theme"? Any ideas?

The kid didn't seem to know what the teacher meant by "theme." That may be because the teacher didn't really explain (because it's obvious, right?) or the kid may have zoned out during that part of class. (It's a kid, after all. Surely they zone out as often as college students?)

I talked to the kid a bit. There must be some special skill I've never developed to understanding kids with braces. (I know, I was a kid with braces, and no one could understand me.)

To me as an adult, it sounded like one of those books that's supposed to be all "even girls can be main characters" but at the end the prince has taken a liking to the main girl character. But I didn't think that the teacher would really go for a half-baked feminist critique, and I sure can't explain the whole of feminism to a junior high student before bedtime.

It also sounded like one of those books where the kids are sent away for their own good, to be raised elsewhere, but the kid I was talking to really didn't know why, or seem to think it was important. But if someone's sending a kid away to be raised, I figure there must be a good reason, right?


  1. I remember our high school English teacher was really into "themes" too. I think she saw them as "morals" or similar. She insisted that a theme always had to start with "That..." so you weren't allowed "vague" answers, like saying that the theme of the novel was "death" or "nature vs technology". Rather you had to say the theme was "that death is permanent" or "that nature and technology are at war with each other in modern society."

    I found it kind of silly, really, because who says that novelists all have a "that" theme in mind when writing a novel. Surely some of the best novels are explorations rather than diatribes!

  2. Oh, I also think she used the term "themes" where I would usually rather talk about "motifs" - with the above exmaples, in order to claim they were the "theme" you had to show how they came through in many different ways in many different places in the novel. I think the formula she gave us for answering "theme" questions on exams was something like "The theme is that... The plot of the novel portrays this theme by... The theme comes through in the characterisation because... The theme also comes through in the style of the novel, e.g... The setting of the novel reflects the theme in the following ways..."

    God, I hated high school English.

  3. I also vaguely recall "themes" as a lazy-ass way of teaching literature in high school. StyleyGeek nails the annoying, artless way we were taught to explain such things in papers. Through my haze of memories, I seem to recall reaching a point at which I could not longer participate quietly in such things, and began writing reaction papers as surrealist scripts.

    I hated most of high school English, but most of my high school English teachers probably weren't thrilled with me, either. :)

  4. Nonsense, people. Themes are totally what we use to analyze literature. To quote from the Introduction to Narrative: "A theme is a subject (issue, question) that recurs in a narrative through implicit or explicit reference. With motif, theme is one of the two commonest forms of narrative repetition. Where motifs tend to be concrete, themes are abstract."

    And motif: "A discrete thing, image, or phrase that is repeated in a narrative. Theme, by contrast, is a more generalized or abstract concept that is suggested by, among other things, motifs. A coin can be a motif, greed is a theme."

    Until you can get kids to abstract themes from a text all you're going to get from them about what a text is about is "these two people were walking, and then they came upon this other person, but the other person didn't like them, so they shot him, and then, and then, and then" ad infinitum.

  5. Sisyphus, you are my hero! Thank you! So, an abstract concept that comes through the text. I can see why that would be hard for a junior high teacher to explain.

    Thank you!

  6. No, Sisyphus. My English teacher would fail you for claiming "greed" is a theme. It has to start with "That..."

    ("That greed is an example of a theme" is presumably the theme of your comment here :) )

  7. To add to this conversation late, a theme is usually an argument the text makes, so greed can't be a theme, but "that greed leads to personal ruin and loneliness" is, hence my understanding of StyleyGeek's English teacher.