On Theme and Meaning

On the topic of theme and meaning in stories, Flannery O’Conner said: “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 to experience that meaning more fully.”

I might differ in that I believe it’s  entirely possible to describe the meaning of a story and the themes you perceived while reading it, and that fact in no way diminishes the excellence of the tale. Yet in the end, a well-done theme cannot achieve the same influence when detached from the story itself.

I think of books that conveyed great meaning to me, and I could attempt to distill the impact down to a single line. For example, The Last Battle revealed to me the beauty of heaven and eternity. Yet to really delve deeper into theme and meaning, I would need to pull from the story itself–to explain how the unfolding of events, the adventures of Tirian and Jewel, Jill and Eustace, Aslan and other long beloved characters, and the wild and lovely setting of Narnia itself engaged my heart and caused me to consider the life to come in a true and meaningful way.

As I read, I experienced moments of impact–the bittersweetness when night falls on Narnia for the final time or the thrill of the Unicorn’s cry “further up and further in” and these things still stir my heart at the very thought. Thus meaning conveyed in any story has greatest life not in the statement of it, but in context of the tale and the remembrance of experiences there.

A story capable of eliciting this sort of emotional impact must have themes integrated with such excellence that they are part of the fabric of story itself, not an overbearing declaration of author’s views or a cattle prod designed to force a conclusion. As a reader, that’s what I appreciate, and as a writer, that’s what I hope to achieve.

What books have had a lasting impact on you? Do you agree with O’Connor’s view?

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8 Responses to On Theme and Meaning

  1. Very profound. I’m afraid that many writers who had the misfortune to pay attention in English class believe that a REAL writers decides on a theme/message, and then concocts a story to fit it.

    Leading to a lot of weak stories. I think the key to writing a story with a good theme is concentrating on storytelling. A strong theme is likely to be a part of it whether you planned on it or not.

    • Sarah Sawyer says:

      Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts, Nissa! A story that exists only to serve a message will be weak, I think, because little attention goes into other areas of craft.

      Some people may naturally come up with theme first, like others of us see characters or settings or plot elements, and that doesn’t necessarily mean a weak story–it’s just that care and attention need to go into all the areas of storytelling, not just one or two. At least that’s my perspective. 🙂

  2. Mary says:

    I agree with Flannery O’Connor’s opinion to some extent. I definitely agree that a story’s theme is much more powerful when delivered within the context of the story itself.
    But, like you said, Sarah, the fact that the theme of a story can be stated apart from the story doesn’t necessarily mean the story is weak or poorly written. I can state that the theme of the Bible is God’s holiness, grace, mercy, and love, without reciting the entire book. That doesn’t make the Bible’s story weak. But that theme does take on worlds of meaning and impact when you actually read the book and discover what holiness really means, and just how deep God’s grace and mercy actually run.
    The Last Battle is a very moving book with a big impact for me, too. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read it, and I still can’t get through it without at least a few tears. 🙂

    • Sarah Sawyer says:

      The Bible is a perfect example…well said.

      And I don’t know how anyone could read The Last Battle without being impacted by the story. It never grows old for me!

  3. Yes, I agree with Flannery the same way you agree with her, I think. Theme can be stated but is worth much more when it’s experienced in the context of the story.

    Jonathan Rogers has a biography of Flannery O’Connor coming out…I’m not sure when, but I think it’s soon. Your post here reminds me of his wonderful post on How Stories Do Their Work On Us. Have you read it? He’s not only brilliant, he’s accessible and engaging.

    Thanks for the link. 🙂

    • Sarah Sawyer says:

      Thanks for sharing Jonathan’s post, Sally. That’s powerful stuff. I’ve enjoyed every one of his novels, so I may have to pick up the Flannery O’Connor biography as well. I’ll keep an eye out for it.

  4. Thanks for the link, Sarah.

    I think O’Conner was right in that stating a theme strips it of its emotional impact. Good stories put the dynamic and the thematic together, as the commenter I quoted said. I think there are times we need to do that, though. How else are we to discern if the story is truth filled or not? At some point we ought to step back from the emotion of the story experience and say, What does it mean, and does it agree with Scripture?

    I’ve said before, dirty jokes make people laugh, but the emotional experience does not validate them as OK.

    We need to do that separation if we are to think critically.

    Becky

    • Sarah Sawyer says:

      Great point about the need for discernment, Becky. If we allow ourselves to be carried indefinitely on the emotional tides of the story, it’s easy to miss what’s actually being said–and whether or not the themes convey truth or error. What “feels” good, isn’t necessarily so.

      So I agree there are times when stating perceived themes outright are necessary, simply for the purpose of discernment, discussion, or review. It won’t have the same impact that reading the story would, but it can lend insight and provoke additional thought.

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