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I love our author community as people are positive, helpful and just lovely in general. The guest post today is from George Hamilton who has been particularly helpful to me with my US tax. George is the author of Secrets From The Dust, a novel of outback Australia.
**Note: there are spoilers to John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath in this post.
For me, theme is a theory which the writer has about human relations with each other, their environment, or internally with themselves, and the writer tries to convince the reader of the validity of the theory/theme in scenes which demonstrate it through the actions and interactions of the characters. The theme should not be obviously stated, with the reader feeling they participated in the process by discovering it themselves. When I read, I am always searching for the theme, and I try to define it in a sentence or two, as I believe this will help me in developing themes for my own novels.
Theories are proved from observed repeating patterns, and this is no different for the theme/theory of a novel. There is another repeating pattern I have noticed in the novels which I have done this exercise with, which is the protagonist’s character flaw, and that is often linked to the repeating pattern of the theme.
Let’s look at how this works in a novel with one of the strongest themes I have ever read, John Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath’.
For me, the main theme in a sentence is: The richer people become, the more they fight to protect their wealth from the poor, using violence if necessary; but the poorer people become, the more they are willing to help their fellow poor. The writer must convince the reader of this through scenes:
The richer people become, the more they fight to protect their wealth from the poor, using violence if necessary.
- We meet the main protagonist, Tom Joad, returning home from a prison sentence for killing a man, and we learn he has a propensity for violence, his character flaw. As the Joad family travel from the Oklahoma dustbowl to California to find work, they will come across landowners who are increasingly violent towards them, fighting to protect their wealth, and Tom will struggle to keep his flaw in check.
- The former preacher, Jim Casy, with whom the family are travelling, attempts to set up unions on the farms on which they work on the way to California, to the annoyance of the landowners, who employ violent tactics to stop the workers unionising and demanding more money.
- When his friend Jim Casy is killed by a policeman, protecting the landowners’ property and profits, Tom is no longer able to keep his character flaw in check, and he in turn kills a policeman.
The poorer people become, the more they are willing to help their fellow poor.
- The Joad family have few resources when they set out on the journey to California, but they invite Jim Casy, who has even less, to accompany them.
- They meet a couple, the Wilsons, also heading for California, and both families assist each other in making the journey. When one of the Joad clan dies, the Wilsons lend them their precious quilt to wrap the body in. In turn, the Joads help to fix the Wilsons’ vehicle so that they can continue the journey.
- The Joads share food with other families on the journey even though they don’t have much themselves.
- The novel ends with the highest demonstration of this element of the theme. The Joads’ daughter Rose of Sharon’s husband has run off, and her first child is stillborn. At this point, she is as poor as any woman can become (I can hear many women saying good riddance to the runaway husband, but let’s remember that the novel is set in the 1930’s, and at that time a woman in her condition without a husband would have been considered poorer). The family are also split up due to unforeseen circumstances, and as Rose of Sharon and her mother walk down a rain sodden road, they come across a distraught boy whose father is dying of starvation in a barn. They have no food to offer him, but Rose of Sharon carries in her breasts the milk for her stillborn child… and I think you can guess the rest.
So theme in essence is a recurring pattern in the story which says something about the human condition.
How do you recommend illustrating the theme of your book?
George Hamilton is author of Secrets From The Dust, a novel set in Australia, which charts the coming of age and cultural identity crisis of an Aboriginal girl, who is snatched from her birth family and brought up by a European foster family under the government sponsored assimilation policies in the 1960s.
Top image is my own Flickr CC.