Feeling as Meaning

I have never been fond of the exercise that asks students to identify a story’s theme.  Most writers, I suspect, share my view.  In fact, I once heard a Newbery medalist tell about her grandson receiving such an assignment about her book. Having access to the source, he called to ask.

She thought for a moment, then said, “Well, I guess the theme is . . . ” and she spelled it out for him.

He called her again a few days later to report.  His teacher had given his answer a D.

I’ve seen some educator-produced materials designed to support On My Honor that explained the “theme” of my novel in ways I barely recognized.  And though most of my grandchildren read On My Honor as a class assignment, I’ve been glad none of them ever called to ask me to explain its theme.  I probably would have gotten a D on the assignment, too.

It’s not that stories don’t have meaning.  They do.  Always.  A story could be saying, “Isn’t life a lark?”  It might be, “Life is a dirty deal.”   Perhaps it’s “Crime doesn’t pay.”  Or maybe “Seems like we’re all in this mess together.”  A story reveals its writer in the most intimate way by holding up her world view.  Sometimes a story can reveal more of her world than the writer herself understands.

Stories—at least well-written, deeply conceived stories—are not intended to stamp a lesson in the middle of a reader’s forehead, no matter how young and stampable that reader might be.  What stories are meant to do, more than anything else, is to make us feel.

The meaning of a story, any story, emerges through the feelings the story engenders, and feelings are difficult to explicate on an exam.

On My Honor

So what do I want my readers to feel when they read On My Honor?  First, I want them to feel Tony’s sudden, unexpected death, the shock of it, the finality of it.

Then I want them to feel Joel’s misplaced guilt, the way he takes responsibility for Tony’s brash actions, the way he blames himself for daring Tony to swim to the sandbar.  (It’s curious that my readers, even my readers’ teachers, rarely seem to notice that the guilt is misplaced.  Joel made the dare because he was trying to prevent Tony from going on his own to climb the bluffs, something he assumed would have been even more dangerous than messing around in the river.)

I want them to feel the way Joel’s guilt becomes blame, becomes fury against his father.  I want them to feel the hopelessness of that blame, of that fury, whether directed inward or onto another.

And finally, I want them to feel the solidness of Joel’s father.  Like so many of us parents, Joel’s father has been trying so hard throughout the story to do the right thing that he has been  wavering and uncertain.  But when Joel needs him most, that man’s love is a rock.

“Will you stay?” [Joel] asked, reaching a hand out tentatively to touch his father’s knee.  “Will you sit with me until I fall asleep?”

“Of course,” his father said.

I want my readers to understand in their bones that love doesn’t have to be perfect to be wholly, solidly, reliably there.  And that it is love’s thereness that redeems.

When they feel that, it doesn’t matter whether they can wrap that feeling in words and call it theme or not.  They understand.

10 thoughts on “Feeling as Meaning

  1. Norma Gaffron

    Hurrah! According to the internet, Junior Great Books is still offered. My son Tim said the kind of thinking he did in those sessions was the most valuable thing he took to classes at college…

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  2. Norma Gaffron

    Years ago when I, as a (former teacher) volunteer, led Jr. Great Books sessions, at our elementary school, we had wonderful discussions of the books we were assigned to read. With no letter grades involved, we were free to probe (or not), exchange feelings, ideas, and opinions. A great program, I wonder if it still exists…

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  3. lindenmcneilly

    I read this with interest, after having taught literature many years and often asking students about theme. I have a slightly different take, though. Asking about theme is asking students to probe deeper than the usual “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it.” So often kids just have an opinion rather than a stated emotional reaction. If I asked, “What emotions did you feel after/while reading this?” I would get simple things like “Happiness” or “Sadness.” But asking about theme could get kids to think more complexly. If I asked, “Why do you think the author wrote this story? What message is in there? What does this story tell us about human beings/relationships/love/grief?” I could get more interesting and thoughtful answers that were more in the “theme” category than the “emotion” category. I was often surprised by their answers, too, and never have a single theme in mind or a single answer that I could grade like the teachers you’ve mentioned. So I just want to ask that you don’t throw out the idea of theme altogether.

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    1. Marion Dane Bauer Post author

      I hear you, Linda. And clearly when a teacher asks about theme in a nuanced way, the question sets off a nuanced discussion. I’m not recommending that the concept of theme be thrown out entirely, only that any piece of fiction be examined as more than a right or wrong message. When teachers themselves think in right-or-wrong terms, they can’t lead their students to think with complexity and more individual commitment to the process of thinking. You sound like a fine teacher.

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  4. Deb Miller

    Wonderful post—helpful to this writer—your comments on theme.
    Also, for the record, you can be sure that On My Honor evokes feeling. I remember sobbing when I read it the first time (as a fully grown adult and teacher), then tearing up again later when I described and recommended it to our school librarian for the fourth grade reading list. And this morning, over twenty years later, I choked up again, re-reading the passage you quoted, remembering the emotion of that moment between Joel and his father. If I didn’t have a busy day ahead of me, I’d choose to curl up in a chair with On My Honor right now. Maybe tomorrow—because there’s much to be learned from reading the masters—

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  5. Sheri Murphy

    Having taught ON MY HONOR many times, I never asked for theme, but my classes had many in depth discussions about how they felt about the story. I like to think that many of my students went away with an entirely different perspective on the issues in the story than they had previously. That to me was far more important than theme.

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