Copyright 2020 Melanie Spiller. All rights reserved.
Themes in Fiction
MelanieSpiller and Coloratura Consulting
In most long works of fiction and a fair number of short works, you’ll find a theme or two lurking behind the plot. There’s a secondary topic or some action, use of certain language, or a color scheme that keeps popping up, providing a string of continuity from the beginning to the end. Bringing disjointed sections of a story together is harder in fiction than in non-fiction. In non-fiction, you’re building something, whether you’re documenting how an application works, describing an event in history, or providing steps for baking, painting, or gardening. The whole way through the piece, you’ve got that central theme of the point you’re trying to make. In fiction, you can’t give your plot or theme away at the beginning or there’s no reason for your readers to continue through to the end: you have to bury interesting tidbits to lead an enticing trail. Themes are not plotlines: the plot might be two young men rebuilding an engine, a little girl’s vision of her grandmother’s past, or a murder mystery. The plot is primary and the theme is secondary. Some generic fictional themes include renewal of hope, redemption, internal strength, love’s mysterious ways, deception for fun and profit, or the symbolism of certain colors or shapes. When you sit down to write a piece of fiction, you might have these kinds of themes in mind or you might not. In fact, it’s most likely that you’ll discover a theme while you’re revising the first draft. Once you can see it, you can elaborate on it, and really tighten up the story line.Let’s look at an example. Read, if you will, Edgar Allen Poe’s short story “The Cask of Amontillado.” If you don’t have a book of Poe’s work’s hanging around, go get one right away. Really. Go. You shouldn't be without one for a minute longer. Now that you have one or are waiting for it to be delivered, here’s a link to an online version of the story:https://www.poemuseum.org/the-cask-of-amontillado. Give it a quick read. Go ahead. I’ll wait. It’s only a few pages long.The story is a first-person narrative, addressing the reader as if he or she were a known intimate of all parties concerned. Assuming intimacy is a pretty unique way to step into a story. This narrator immediately assumes that the reader will be sympathetic to his side of a high-society figurative scuffle about some unknown slight or insult, and approve the narrator’s case for revenge. In the first paragraph, you can see several themes: the narrator assumes the reader’s sympathy, the reader is presumed to know someone called Fortunado and agree that he is a bounder, and the narrator assumes that you know what slight he’s talking about. Poe deliberately uses circuitous language to draw us in. It’s human nature not to admit that we’re not familiar with someone or something and Poe preys on that. Next, the narrator tells us how clever he was to deceive Fortunado, again dependent on the assumed sympathy of the reader. The narrator goes on to insult Italians in general and Fortunado in particular, in an effort to gain sympathy. We already know that the narrator is about to do something nasty, but now we see the rationalization. The narrator has set the stage. He’s set himself up as some sort of wine connoisseur, he’s set Fortunado up as a pretentious guy with some admittedly good taste in wine, and he continues to assume the sympathy of the reader. It’s time to get on with the plot, and we’re only three paragraphs deep.The initial encounter is described as sincerely jovial, and the narrator invites the despised Fortunado to examine a questionable delivery of Amontillado wine. A dialog ensues wherein Fortunado does not come off as particularly intelligent and the narrator taunts him by suggesting that another person’s expertise might suffice. The narrator reveals Fortunado’s ignorance when he quotes him as saying that the other person can’t tell the difference between Amontillado and sherry—Amontillado IS sherry; it’s a nice dry sherry from Spain.Next, the narrator disguises himself (it is carnival, after all), comments that no one is at home, and then leads Fortunado into the badly lit and cave-like cellar. He points out that Fortunado is both very drunk and has an incapacitating mold allergy. He offers more alcohol as a comfort. He also points out that his coat of arms is a foot squashing a serpent who is biting the foot and that his motto is Nemo me impune lacessit (no one provokes me with impunity).The narrator takes firm control of Fortunado by grasping his arm and giving him more wine. He leads Fortunado into the catacombs beneath the cellar and is insulted by him when he points out that the narrator is not in the secret society of masons. The narrator says he is a mason, in point of fact, and produces a trowel. Fortunado seems shocked, but they continue deeper into the labarynth. They come upon a small room, and the dank is such that their lights flicker and nearly die. Suddenly, Fortunado is fettered to the wall. In his astonishment, he demands the Amontillado rather than his freedom. Our narrator begins to wall up the enclosure as Fortunado realizes his difficulties. The narrator rests and enjoys listening to Fortunado’s struggles to free himself. He even contributes his own yells to add to the fear of the entombed Fortunado, who starts to laugh, at first as if at a good practical joke, and then with hysteria. Finally, all is silent. We are told that all this happened fifty years before the tale is told, and all are encouraged to rest in peace. All right, I’ve pretty much narrated the whole thing for you, but let’s look at the themes. It may be easier to pick them out of my retelling than the original: try both.The narrator reveals himself as emotionally distant and coldly calculating. This distance is responsible in large part for why the story is so creepy. Okay, it’s true that bricking an enemy up to die of mold allergies, starvation, and lack of oxygen is pretty creepy on its own, but the self-justification and cool with which the story is told leaves the readers unsympathetic to either character. There is a third character, the competing wine expert Luchesi, but Poe uses you, the reader, as his real third character. He has the narrator assume sympathy on your part to despising Fortunado and toward revenge. That’s the main theme of the whole piece, the assumed sympathy for a cold and calculating revenge. (The plot is leading Fortunado by his vanity to his own death. The theme is the way we get from point A to point B without leaping ahead to point C, in this case.) The narrator tells the tale almost as if it were a good joke. Being lost is another theme. The history of the location, the catacombs filled with bones beneath a partying city, is reminiscent of the Paris catacombs—not a place you’d want to be drunk and with someone who hates you. The story takes place in Italy somewhere, but you aren’t really told where; you already know that’s another thing assumed by the narrator. That feeling of being lost is continued as you wander, empathetically drunk, with Fortunado. You don’t need to know any of the finer details—not where you are, not what Amontillado is, and not what other wrongs Fortunado has committed against the narrator. The wandering underground is enough. Everyone is lost in this story except the narrator.Another theme is ego. Fortunado is blinded by his ego to natural suspicion or caution. The narrator’s ego has allowed him to justify plotting, preparing, and committing this murder, and he assumes that anyone who listens to the tale will be sympathetic. Even the reader’s ego is taken into account, as the story begins with a little flattery and some pandering to human nature not to admit ignorance. Imagine who the reader might be assumed to be and see whether the themes change in any way. What if it’s a deathbed confession, and you are the priest? What about some Fortunado family member trying to find out whatever became of uncle So-and-So, or perhaps it’s the narrator’s family member, come to hear the story that has been passed down for two generations. Could it be a prison cellmate that is told the tale? Or maybe it’s just the delusions of a madman trying to pump himself up before his peers? What about someone who found the bricked up room and bones and came to ask about its history? If changing the audience doesn’t change the plot particularly, you’ve got yourself a theme. See if you can find any more themes in this story, and then read another. Hemingway and Fitzgerald are also good for planting themes, and I think you’ll find that other classic stories are laden with them. Is anyone thinking that there’s a theme to both the fictional stories I’ve analyzed in this blog (the previous one was Hemingway’s story, back in May 2004)? Both have surprise deaths in the plot. And snooty protagonists. And foreign locations by American authors. Food for thought, my friends. How much of MY fiction have you read? <insert creepy music> Happy Halloween.