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Young woman in white top leaning toward shelves of books in a library, gazing at a shelf and smiling.

One of the pleasures of reading the Greats: spotting the Themes.

To Kill a Mockingbird, War and Peace, The Grapes of Wrath, The Lord of the Rings, Murder on the Orient Express, whatever your current and longtime favorite fiction may be: where do such great stories come from? Whether a story comes largely from the writer’s imagination or directly from true life experience, great works of fiction are never just raw reports of events, whether real-life or imagined. Every fiction is shaped by a multitude of artistic choices designed to give readers an experience, a sense of craft, or even beauty. Often, a great novel or short story shares a new way of thinking about life. In fact, most fiction we cherish as classic is shaped by interesting and weighty ideas. To enjoy these works to the fullest, be on the lookout for ideas that guide the narrative—in other words, its Themes.

Let’s look at one example to see how the Themes, the ideas, can shape an author’s true and raw experience into a great work of fiction.

Crane in a Lifeboat, both Real and Fictional

The True Story

Here’s the true story that lies beneath a famous work of fiction: In December of 1896, a young writer and newspaper reporter named Stephen Crane boarded the SS Commodore, a steamer bound for Cuba, intending to report on the Cuban insurrection, a conflict which led to the Spanish-American War. On January 2, 1897, the SS Commodore sank off the coast of Florida, leaving Crane and three members of the crew to spend 30 hours in a small boat on the open sea.

Finally, they managed to navigate the boat close to the shore where they were forced to swim to safety. One man perished before reaching the beach. Crane tried to save him, discarding his heavy money belt and thus losing a lot of money to make the effort. Afterwards, the ship captain, who was one of the four in the boat, praised Crane for his heroism and ingenuity throughout the ordeal, mentioning that at one point, Crane had figured out how to rig a makeshift sail for the boat using his own overcoat to give the men a rest from rowing.1

Picture of bow of wooden rowboat in sparkling green water.

Crane’s “Open Boat”: Indifferent Nature v. Humanity

The Fictional Version

This is quite a story even in its raw form, but Crane, being a literary artist, shaped this true experience into an even more powerful short story called “The Open Boat.” You can read it here.  The fictional story includes many realistic details that must have been a vivid part of Crane’s actual experience. But it is remarkable to see how Crane the writer has re-shaped aspects of his raw experience in his fictional tale.

For instance:

  • Characters are not described in detail to mark them as strong individuals, as of course Crane must have come to know them in his actual experience. Instead he focuses on portraying each character as more symbolic of “Everyman”: All but “Billie the oiler” have no names, designated just by their professions. Most of things said by one character could have been said by any of the others, to emphasize that they all think and feel exactly the same way about their harrowing experience.
  • Crane, known as the “correspondent” in the fictional story, suppresses accounts of his own actual heroism. He gives many of his actual feats to the Captain character, such as the idea to make a sail from the overcoat. Instead, Crane re-written as the correspondent echoes the same thoughts, fears, and struggles as all the others, again reinforcing what all the characters have in common.
  • Perhaps most startling of all, the story does not even begin with the actual shipwreck, but completely skips all the action most tellers would describe to begin the story—the ship hitting the sandbar, the tilting of the deck, the alarms, the frightened crew and passengers, the scramble for the boats, and so on. Instead, Crane doesn’t begin his story until the point beyond which the characters can do little but endure. This is an interesting choice of Scope—that is, where the writer begins the narrative, how much time he covers, and where the story ends. Why would a writer select the Scope of his story to exclude what a lot of readers would see as the most exciting action?

Signs of Themes at Work

All these choices show that Crane has shaped his fiction to allow his serious Themes to predominate in this re-telling. Readers can perceive Crane’s themes by noticing and pondering artistic choices, such as the way he describes his characters, and how he handles the dialogue. Crane is not interested shipwrecks; he is interested in people, particularly what happens to any regular guy when put at the mercy of the hostile yet impersonal forces of Nature.

In Crane’s writerly hands, the open boat becomes a microcosm of humanity’s situation within the universe. Crane depicts humanity as always on the verge of being overwhelmed; and yet, people face the worst with courage and camaraderie. Crane shapes the real details of his actual experience to craft a story to report something very important he learned in going through it, which he states outright in “The Open Boat”:

“It would be difficult to describe the subtle brotherhood of men that was here established on the seas. No one said that it was so. . . . But it dwelt in the boat, and each man felt it warm him. . . . [There] was this comradeship, that the correspondent, for instance, who had been taught to be cynical of men, knew even at the time was the best experience of his life.”

Crane’s story, more than the average piece of fiction, has been shaped to feature important and weighty themes. That, among other wonders of the piece, is what makes it a classic.

Two Kinds of Themes

Since theme can become such a dominant element of storytelling, let’s take a minute to think more about what “Theme” means.

Themes are Ideas. Themes in fiction tend to take two forms: Statements and Questions. Authors tend to favor one type of theme over the other.

1. Statement Themes and Some Authors Who Love Them

Statement Themes present a specific observation or view of the world the author illustrates in action throughout the story. The statement theme can turn a fiction into an argument for a cause.

Painting showing scene from Oliver Twist--small boy in Victorian workman's clothing grasping cuff of rotund man in blue cape, white vest, and tricorn hat.

Oliver Twist with Bumble the Beadle: Exploited Child Exhibit A

Charles Dickens’s works are famous, if not notorious, for having this kind of theme. Oliver Twist shows how society is misunderstands and cruelly exploits children (as indeed, do most of Dickens’s works); Nicholas Nickleby attacks the so-called “ragged schools” where unwanted, maltreated children were sent to be out of the way; Martin Chuzzlewit explores the havoc created by all types of Selfishness; Bleak House attacks the Court of Chancery and social systems that oppress individuals; and so on.

John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath is another example of a work with this type of theme. Steinbeck thoroughly researched the plight of the Okies, tenant farmers who were run out of the farms in America’s Dust Bowl in the 1930s, migrating to California to seek new land to work, but not finding any. He fashioned the Joad family and their journey to illustrate what was happening to over half a million people at the time. The novel argues for a decided theme: these people are unjustly abandoned by a capitalist society that is no longer working for its people.

Thomas Hardy is a third classic author whose thematic view of human life as unavoidable tragedy resulted in plotlines with endless coincidences that always end badly for the main characters. To take just one example: poor Tess of the D’Urbervilles! If only the family horse Prince had not died, she would never have met her seducer! If only her written confession of her transgression to her true love Angel Clare had not slid under the rug, he would have forgiven her, and they could be happy together! If only her in-laws had been home when she went to them for help! I do enjoy reading Hardy, who knew how to tell a beautiful story about appealing characters who seem sharply real and true. However, his continual demonstrations of the relentlessness of fate can sometimes make painful reading.

B & W movie still--headshot of unshaven thin man wearing black hat with earnest expression.

John Carradine as Jim Casy: Steinbeck’s Mouthpiece?

The Perils of Statement Themes

This point about Hardy points up the perils that Statement Themes pose to fictional artistry. When the author’s observations are detailed and complex, as they are in much of Dickens and in Steinbeck, the simple Statement Theme can indeed be persuasive, speaking to readers of important causes. Dickens’s works, of course, helped lead the public to many excellent social reforms.

But if an author’s Theme or Idea dominates the fiction too much, characters, plot lines, even dialogue can become warped, fake, or untenable. Some readers get annoyed when writers like Dickens or Steinbeck turn one of their characters into the author’s mouthpiece. In Grapes of Wrath, the ex-preacher Jim Casy often seems to be lecturing in Steinbeck’s voice, relating Steinbeck’s exact opinions. Famous author Vladimir Nabokov disliked Dickens’s Esther Summerson in Bleak House for the same reason, believing that Dickens often slipped his own views directly into her little speeches, which Nabokov considered inartistic.

The so-called “Novel with a Purpose,” novels that were written specifically to persuade readers of a particular political or religious point of view, were very popular in Mid-Victorian England. Novel reviewers at the time had a big debate about whether this kind of novel could be artistic, enjoyable, and thought-provoking, or were usually just inept propaganda clothed in unrealistic characters and ludicrous situations. This type of novel has not disappeared from the modern day, so be on the lookout for fictions that allow their theme to damage the reality, truth, and artistry of their story-telling.

The Statement Theme can result in excellent fiction, if the theme is thought-provoking and weighty, and if characters and situations are vivid and realistically portrayed. Crane’s “The Open Boat,” which we discussed above, is one example.

2. Question Themes and Some Authors Who Ask Them.

Many great fictions don’t make Statements. Instead, they ask questions. Some novels even function as big Thought Experiments: the author asks some question about human life and sets the characters and situations in motion to work out the possible answers.

1920s B & W Photo of several men and women sitting at a cafe table wearing casual clothing from the period.

Hemingway with the people who became his characters in The Sun Also Rises.

Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises can be seen as this kind of novel. It poses the question, “How have the horrific experiences in the first World War affected the current generation?” The unfolding story, showing the aimlessness, failed loves, and endless drinking of Jake and his friends, illustrate possible answers to this question.

Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment is a famous novel that begins with a question: What happens when a person believes that his intelligence exempts him from ordinary morality? Does this freedom enable him to take actions that most people consider wrong to bring about a greater good? A poor half-starved but highly intelligent student Raskolnikov decides to test out this theory by murdering the nasty, evil-doing pawnbroker Lizaveta, on the grounds that her death will be a boon to the community, making Raskolnikov an underground hero. However, that’s not how this action plays out. From Lizaveta’s murder, the novel’s thought experiment unfolds, uncovering in detail the deleterious effects this act has on the young student, regardless of the purity of his motives, and on those around him.

Defoe’s Great Thought Experiment: Moll Flanders

B & W print of woodcut or engraving showing 18th century woman with fan. Farm workers and hanging men in background.

Moll Flanders, Defoe’s Thought Experiment

One of my favorite Thought Experiments in novel form is an early, and delightful, example of realistic fiction: Defoe’s Moll Flanders. In the first two decades of the 1700s, Defoe was witnessing the breakdown of the old feudal economy and class distinctions in England, watching the birth and establishment of the new capitalist culture, promising opportunity for people of every social strata.

As a business person who both succeeded and failed in the new economy, Defoe seemed skeptical of the new society. In the novel Moll Flanders, he poses a question: Just how fluid and full of opportunity is this new kind of society? Can anyone with talent and business smarts really succeed? Within his narrative, he runs a thought experiment to find the answer to his question.

To run the Thought Experiment he creates a character at the very bottom of the social class heap: Moll Flanders, his test subject. Moll has beauty, brains, talent, and energy, but her social position at the start of life could not be lower. In the first place, she is a woman. That’s strike one against her ability to rise under her own power in the early 18th century. But there’s more: she was born in Newgate Prison of a convicted thief; she is very poor; she is raised by Gypsies, abandoned, and then taken in by a foster charity, thus having no family connections, and not even a town or parish who will claim her as its own resident.

The novel begins with Moll announcing to her kind charity governess that she does not want to become a lowly servant but to become a “gentlewoman” instead. Her governess laughs at her naiveté, but Defoe asks, Why not? And if she is to accomplish her goal, how could she do it? His novel Moll Flanders is the story of all this character’s attempts to reach this goal. Defoe imagines and describes every possible up and down, including a long stint as the greatest pickpocket London has ever seen.

Along the way, Defoe tries out his talented heroine by placing her into every imaginable environment that a woman of her time and origins might find herself in. Does she make it to the top to become a gentlewoman as she sets out to do? Read the novel to find out how Defoe’s thought experiment comes out in the end, and what answers to his question he seems to decide.

In Classic Fiction Especially, Look for the Themes!

More than the average pop novel, fiction that is cherished as classic, or fiction that is destined to be, is infused with interesting, weighty, thoughtful ideas and questions about life. To really enjoy and appreciate classic works, start out from the first page expecting interesting ideas to be there, and look for them. As the story unfolds and the characters develop, what ideas does the author seem to be demonstrating, or what questions is she asking?

Looking for ideas in great fiction is one of the finest pleasures of reading it. Don’t miss it.

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 1Historical details from Allan Gurganus, “Stephen Crane’s ‘The Open Boat’”. The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction. Shorter 8/e. (W. W. Norton, 2015). 923-25.

Photo Credits:

Rowboat bow:  Photo by Chris Lawton on Unsplash.

Oliver Twist with Mr. Bumble: By Charles Edmund Brock (Sotheby’s) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

John Carradine as Jim Casy: By A Darryl F. Zanuck Production (trailer) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Hemingway with Friends: By Not specified, owned by John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Moll Flanders: See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Mary Jane is a longtime literature lover who lived in the Cincinnati area for many years, then in central Louisiana for three years (what a treat!), teaching literature classes at universities in both locations. Now back in the Cincinnati area, she pampers her grandchildren, experiments with cooking, and visits art museums as often as possible.

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