Theme and Variation

Moby Dick is an exploration of humanity's relation to the infinite and the eternal. Hamlet has been characterized by Lawrence Olivier as being about indecision. A Christmas Carol is about the cost of a selfish alienation from humanity.

In some stories, a single essential concept appears in a variety of forms and is demonstrated in successive situations. While plot can and often does help organize that demonstration, a strong enough theme can sustain a story by itself.

The subject being examined and revealed isn't a character or a setting or a mood. It's a cluster of related ideas.

Faulkner's The Bear illustrates the method. This novelette presents a spectrum of attitudes concerning Nature, maturity, and manhood in the context of a boy's experiences when he is taken hunting by assorted adult kinfolk. As is the case with the conch and the Beast in Golding's Lord of the Flies, each character is defined by his relationship with the story's main totem, the bear, and the ideas of wildness which the bear gradually, through successive and layered detail, comes to represent. And that spectrum of gradually developed and revealed attitudes— each of them static and unchanging, except the boy's—constitute the story's structure.

As with the other kinds of mosaic, careful selection of scene, character, and detail are crucial. What doesn't fit the theme doesn't belong.

Faulkner's story doesn't include anybody who thinks bear hunting is a waste of time, anybody interested in electronics or gourmet cooking or European politics. The setting is the time less forest, though civilization and urbanization have begun to have an impact on both place and people. Everything in the story contributes to the central theme and the recurring limited spectrum of attitudes, developed piece by piece as the boy interacts with the various characters. Things that don't relate to that spectrum are deliberately excluded. But the range of characters is so rich, the almost mystical rapport with Nature so intense, that the other things aren't missed. They're not part of this story's presentation of a particular way of seeing the world and humankind's place in it.

If you intend your story to be taken as a credible, albeit heavily edited and arranged, version of everyday reality, it will be important that characters not make obvious speeches spelling out the theme to one another. If everybody in your story is suffering through some phase of divorce, the story's implicit subject will show itself, just by what's included and what's kept out. The larger picture will form, from the individual parts chosen.

To the degree that your story is surrealistic, it's shading into the next category, allegory, and the appropriate caveats discussed there will apply.

Theme stories are difficult to carry off without plot, because the story's essential subject, being abstract, intangible, and often highly intellectual (as well as static), is hard to make immediate and involving for a reader.

Again, melodrama to the rescue.

Vivid, exaggerated happenings can hold the eye and the interest while the meaning penetrates more subtly. And credibility can be maintained using some of the techniques discussed in Chapter 7.

Remember, Moby Dick is also an adventure story; Hamlet has duels and murders galore, as well as a semitragic love story; A Christmas Carol has ghosts, a sudden transformation, and judicious tear-jerking; The Bear has the excitements and tensions of the hunt, a first hunt seen through the eyes of a boy. Even without plot, melodrama can compensate and help bring theme to effective life.

But the extremes of melodrama aren't the only answer. There's also the solid middle-ground of human imperfection and everyday experience: drama.

As theme stories shade toward plot, toward a pattern of meaningful cause and effect, a story's essential conflict will often be cast in terms of opposite forces contrasting and colliding. Polarities. Notjust simplistic, unmixed Good against absolute Evil, but more subtle shadings of two essential principles each with some claim to validity. One partial Good, as it were, contrasted with another partial Good—individuality and self-fulfillment against responsibility to family or community, for instance, or the conflicting demands, on a parent, of helping two very different children.

The closer such polarities are, the finer the distinction that can be made between what a given story presents as better or worse modes of action or being, and the emotional cost of each. For instance, in the overall field of Charity, can you imagine two conflicting ways of helping people—both well intentioned, but one basically arrogant and humiliating, the other more compassionate but perhaps less effective? Can you imagine two genuine loves—one of which dominates the loved one, the other of which liberates but ends in the lovers' separating?

Some of the most profound stories aren't about absolute right and wrong, the melodramatic extremes, but about forces nearly alike, both credibly strong, valid, and humanly imperfect, distinguished by one crucial difference. Does it begin to sound at all like the control and the experimental group and the one variable, discussed in Chapter 8? Because that's what it is, only on a grander scale.

It's been said that no one knowingly does Wrong: people always think they have a Good reason for what they do. Those who make wrong choices generally aren't monsters, freaks, or dev-ils—they're only people, sharing the flaws we all possess. Thus, battles between blatant Good and obvious Evil often aren't the most persuasive or involving ones—it's the battles between rival Goods that lead to the special insights and the really hard choices that are the basis of drama.

If your theme story is going to be developed at least in part in terms of plot, you may want to identify for yourself the story's essential dynamic, the polarity working itself out through the principal characters, and then strengthen it and eliminate clutter. That will clarify not only the terms of the characters' choices, but the value placed on those choices in your story's special world, among the alternatives you show to be possible and available.

If you do, you may find that you've constructed, not just drama, but literature.


Like a theme story, allegory has a subtext, a pattern of meaning beyond what's evident on the surface. Just more so. Allegory involves creating a fairly thoroughgoing pattern of symbolism in which all major events and characters in a story have a meaning beyond themselves and those meanings can be put together to make some sort of overall sense.

In its simplest forms, allegory can be a fable like that of the dog in the manger or the fox and the grapes, in which dog, fox, grapes and manger stand for some reality of human experience—that some people who can't use a thing nevertheless are reluctant to let others enjoy it; that some people rationalize their disappointment at being unable to get something by claiming the thing is no good anyway.

Lord oftheFlies is, in large measure, a fable of this sort. Each of the major characters represents one particular facet of human possibility as Golding conceives it. The characters are stranded on an island to limit them to their own resources. They're schoolboys (some are choirboys) to underline that they're as close to innocence as human beings are apt to get. And all are male, I assume, to keep any question of sex from muddling the experiment, since it's not part of what Golding wants to examine.

They're boys. But boys plus. Simon, for example, is a fully realized individual. But he also stands for and demonstrates the mystical and hopeful tendencies in all people. He's the only mystic on the island, just as Piggy is the only intellectual, Jack the only natural hunter, Roger the only sadist, and so on.

Other fables are more complex, and whole groups of characters stand for some concept or idea beyond their role purely as characters. Consider the pigs in Orwell's fable, Animal Farm— capitalists and totalitarians. Consider the great lion, Asian, in C. S. Lewis' Narnia stories.

This kind of structural symbolism lends itself to social satire, political polemics, fantasy, and religious fiction. There are innumerable examples of each. Some are plotted; some derive their energy from the tension between symbol and reality, the character and what the character stands for, the gradual revelation of larger meanings.

Allegory can also be the basis of surreal and absurdist fiction, in which the literal meaning (characters living in trashcans or turning overnight into insects) isn't at all realistic but, through its bizarre unlikeliness, strikingly portrays some equivalent real situation.

Hardly anybody lives in trashcans; but people live in slums, and we speak of "throwaway children," those who are unwanted by society. And isn't living in a trashcan a reasonable equivalent or image for either of those real situations? And which of us, at some time, hasn't felt completely alien within our family, as though we were of some entirely different species—say, an insect? As with Roderick Usher's anthropomorphic house, the surreal elements, if well chosen, can become a metaphor demonstrating a core truth by exaggerating and making literal its essential emotional dynamic.

There are two main dangers with this kind of fiction. One is that the message, the larger meaning, will take over, making the characters seem like lifeless puppets and the story, however organized, a mechanical thing determined by forces imposed from outside—a political stance, a religious or social ideology. The fiction has a blatant ulterior motive. In extreme cases, the events and people of the story, as presented, make no surface sense at all. Only what they stand for is of any significance; and that's not enough to make the story readable or coherent.

The second difficulty is establishing the system of symbols itself. The pattern must make sense, rather than seeming an arbitrary authorial whim (umbrella = ambition; galoshes = pas sionate love; fish = space travel). The symbols chosen must be appropriate both to what they represent and to one another. The connections should be valid and reasonable in a plain literal sense as well as a metaphorical one, and be consistent through the whole story. A knife can be a symbol; but it also better be able to cut string. And if it represents cutting free, cutting loose, in the story's beginning, it better not be used to prop up a bookcase and then forgotten, later on.

In practice, this makes characterization and plotting doubly hard, since each element of the story carries an added weight of meaning and invites interpretation, as though it were a code to be broken rather than a story to be enjoyed.

Both difficulties, combined with allegory's tendency to become preachy and polemic and its requirement that the reader put in extra work discerning the second level of meaning, have diminished its popularity over the centuries. Strict allegory, in which virtually every word must support a double meaning and fit into a coherent interpretation, has produced few examples since the Middle Ages. But loose allegory, in which only major events and characters must fit the chosen ideological pattern, still appears with fair frequency and is a staple of experimental, literary fiction, and fantasy.

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