What’s a theme? Searching for meaning in Hannah Kent’s ‘Burial Rites’

When I was in high school I thought themes were mysterious secrets locked inside novels, short stories, poems. Discovering them was like solving a cryptic crossword clue – finding a word to fit the boxes but never being exactly sure of the connection between the answer and the question. For a while I relied on teachers or Google to reveal the themes of a novel to me. It has taken probably ten years to wrap my head around what I really mean when I talk about themes – and it has taken teaching ‘theme’ to finally allow me to articulate it.

So. Articulate away then, Carly. What’s a theme?

Theme

  • A theme is a big idea in a novel (or short story, film, poem, play etc).

  • It is a big idea that recurs throughout a novel. Not just once or twice.

  • It is a big idea in the sense that it is broad and abstract: something universal (experienced by everyone) and yet subjective (experienced differently by everyone).

  • It is a big idea in the sense that everyone would – if they had to draw the idea – create a slightly different picture.

  • Some examples of big ideas (i.e. themes) are: love, identity, death.

  • It is a big idea PLUS the author’s interpretation/opinion of that idea. For example: love PLUS/+ takes many different forms and changes over time.

  • A novel is itself a specific example of a theme. A novel is a picture of the big idea. One person’s (the author’s) drawing of what this idea is about.

  • Novels have themes (big, over-arching ideas) and characters, narrative, setting (small, specific examples of themes).

  • Themes are found by looking at these examples (characters, narrative etc) and thinking about what keeps coming up. What are the characters preoccupied with, for example? In Burial Rites, why are there so many mentions of ravens? What sort of theme (big idea) might this be an example of?

Another way of thinking about – and figuring out – theme is to look at plot structure. I like to think about plot as a mountain shape – the story begins at the bottom of the mountain, a problem starts the climb, rising action is the climb, the climax sits at the top, and falling action is the descent. However, when a story comes back down its mountain it doesn’t end up at exactly the same level as it did when it began. This is because, although things go back to normal for the protagonist, it is a new normal. Something has changed – permanently – because of the story, because of the journey she or he has taken.

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In order to decide on the major theme of a novel it is sometimes useful to think about the following equation:

what has changed for the protagonist

+

why

=

theme

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

I first read Burial Rites last year, based on a friend’s recommendation. It was very different to what I was expecting. I think, because Hannah Kent is an Australian author, I was imagining something set in the bush, the outback, the Aussie suburbs. Needless to say, 1820s Iceland was a surprise.

20170326_152622I liked Burial Rites after the first read. I thought the story was interesting, well-paced; I thought the writing was beautiful and crisp. I liked it, but I was not really invested in it. I felt like there was more to it, and that it warranted a second read. I wasn’t, however, planning to read it again. There are so many books on my shelf that haven’t had a first read. In a perfect world, I would love to read every book twice. There is something so different about a second read, but I just don’t have time.

Burial Rites is a Year 12 text, and I happen to be tutoring a few Year 12 students. So it was out of necessity, rather than choice, that I came to read Burial Rites a second time. And after the second read things really started to seep into me. So much so that by the end – knowing exactly how it would end – I was moved almost to tears.

The second read of a novel is where theme really starts to come into focus. Because you know the story you can concentrate on the details – on the description, the characters, the repeated moments, the structure of the narrative. You can highlight and scribble notes in the margins, and begin to see the symbolic shape of the novel rather than just its events.

One of the big ideas that recurs throughout Burial Rites – that starts to become clear during a second read – is identity. The very structure of the novel – told in third person from a number of different points of view – hints at this. So does the main character’s – Agnes – need to tell her story, to let people know who she is, to confirm her own identity.

Identity is a universal idea. Everyone has an identity, and everyone attempts to understand the identities of people around them. It is also a specific, subjective idea. Everyone thinks differently about how to define themselves and those around them. Do we understand identity by looking at physical appearance, by listening to what people say about themselves, or what others say about them?

Trying to understand what Hannah Kent thinks about the theme of identity (her opinion or the value she places on it) is a little trickier. To find out, we can look at how she presents the journeys of her main characters. How they are changed through the course of the story, and what this says about who they are.

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Let’s focus on Agnes. How is she different by the end of the novel to the beginning? Most obviously, she is alive at the beginning and dead at the end. Her physical state has changed. But what about her mental state?

Burial Rites is – in a very large sense – the story of a woman trying to come to terms with the fact that she is going to die. She is preparing for death, getting ready. At the beginning of the novel she is not ready to die. At the end – though she is still terrified of her execution – something has changed. She has made some peace, she has found people who support her, who don’t believe she deserves to die. She has gone from being alone in her death, to being with others.

Why? What was it that changed these circumstances for Agnes?

I would argue that it was the fact that she was able to tell her own story. To show people who she was through action (her hard work on the farm, her care for others) but also through her own words.

So – what has changed? Agnes is accepted, supported, has her identity confirmed by others.

+

Why? Because she was allowed to demonstrate her identity through words and actions.

=

Theme: True identity is discovered through being given the freedom to express ourselves through how we tell our own stories, and through what we do.

Of course, all this is open to interpretation. There is no fixed rule about how to find themes in texts – this post is an illustration of my own personal approach, of an approach that works for me. As long as you can support your own thematic opinions with evidence from the text, anything you say is valid.

Some people feel that by analysing novels we destroy them, draining all the pleasure out of a good story by picking away too closely at the details. For me, however, looking closely at a text (reading it again, highlighting, note-taking, discussing, thinking) adds another layer to my experience that is so much richer. I like analysing novels for the same reason I write about them here on this blog – because it gets me to think deeper, and in thinking deeper I inevitably find something that surprises, inspires or simply changes my ideas. This is a process that I find both enjoyable and important to the way I grow as a person, the way I interact with the world. Searching for meaning in a novel like Burial Rites adds another thread of meaning to my own life. It’s a search that enriches, engrosses, and lasts a lifetime.

Burial Rites is Hannah Kent’s first novel, and is based on the true story of Agnes Magnusdottir, the last person to be executed in Iceland. Kent’s latest novel – The Good People – was published in 2016.

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