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?