Theme

The first and foremost task of the analysis and interpretation of literature is to find out in some way or other what the text is about, to discover its theme, the abstract concept a text presents or deals with. On the face of it, this may seem silly. It would appear that all one has to do is read the text and then say what it is about. Why go through all this rigmarole of analysis with complicated terminology?

On a very general level one can of course simply read a text and then say something like: This text is about a woman who falls in love with the wrong sort of man and who dies in the end. But this sort of response leaves a great many questions unanswered: What then is the difference between Shakespeare's play Romeo and Juliet and Tennyson's poem The Lady of Shalott and Dickens' novel Bleak House? All of these texts are in some way about a woman who falls in love with the wrong sort of man and dies. And how are all these texts different from last week's police report about the same problem? How is one to account for the different degree of sympathy and compassion one feels for Shakespeare's Juliet, Tennyson's fairy Lady of Shalott and Dickens' Lady Dedlock? Why do we derive different kinds of aesthetic pleasure from these texts? Why do we derive pleasure at all since they deal with a sad event? Such questions make it necessary to examine how a text creates meaning, since the difference between texts lies not simply in their topic but also in their way of presenting this topic. In fact, it is the modern critical position that the use of formal elements is part of the text’s meaning (see esp. the relation of form and meaning in poetry).

The question that is of interest here is how to analyse a text, how to unravel its formal and linguistic code in interpretation. Much of the meaning and effect of literary texts depend on patterns of repetition or contrast (which is a sort of negative repetition). This is particularly pronounced in poetry, but it is a phenomenon of all literary texts. These patterns can be created on all levels: rhythmic, metrical, phonological, morphological, syntactical, semantic. It is these patterns that need to be uncovered and understood. The ability to decode and understand the use of form enables us to make certain aesthetic judgements, it enables us to explain to a certain extent why some texts have a notable impact on readers and other texts have not.

Once these patterns and especially their functions have been analysed separately, it usually becomes apparent that all the separate patterns of repetition taken together form new and larger patterns of thematic coherence. A useful concept for establishing such patterns of thematic coherence is the concept of isotopy, introduced by the French critic A.J. Greimas (Greimas 1966, see also Jahn 2002: P3.6). An isotopy is a sequence of expressions joined by a common 'semantic denominator'. Thus a series of expressions or formal elements in a text might relate to the contrast between life and death, or a development from despair to consolation, or an end and a new beginning and so on. Patterns of rhythm, sound or syntax aid or highlight thematic patterns. This is why it is worth analysing them. (see Form and Meaning in Poetry for a practical demonstration of how this might work).

Literary texts usually develop their theme within a certain structure. Such structures can be created through plot developments, a change of setting, a change of narrative voice, or with rhyme patterns or stanzas in poetry. A sonnet for instance might describe a problem in the octet and a solution in the sestet. Other poems might have a three-part structure cutting across stanzas. This could be, for instance: description of an event – reflection on the event – moral drawn from it. In the analysis of texts it is helpful to first of all decide on the general structure of the development that takes place within the text.

Related to theme and structure is the motif. This is a concept which derives from music and it forms a sub-unit of a text’s overall theme; a motif can be the frequent repetition of one significant phrase, description or image within one work or it can be a type of situation or formula that occurs again and again in literature (see Abrams 1999: 169), such as the carpe diem motif or the enchanted prince. An older term, deriving from classical rhetoric, for the repetition of certain formulas in literature is topos (commonplace), such as for instance the ‘modesty-topos’, where the speaker or narrator claims to be incapable of doing his task well but promises to try his or her best (for a discussion of topoi see Curtius 1990).

 


Key-Terms:


theme
isotopy
structure and development
motif
topos