Inferring and Analyzing Theme
Have you heard the expression, "You can't see the forest for the trees"? Sometimes it's easy to see the details but hard to make out the big picture. So far, you've taken a close look at details such as character and conflict as well as literary and poetic devices. Now you need to take a step back to see the larger pattern, or theme, contained within those details. Theme refers to the meaning of a work—what it says about life. Finding theme can be as challenging as seeing the forest, but you have multiple paths you can follow.
Just as every tree and creature is part of a given forest, so every character, description, action, conversation, and literary or poetic device in a work contributes to the theme of the work. The writer has chosen all parts purposely to create a larger meaning. So, you can follow any of these pathways to discover themes.
For example, note how analyzing the parts of "Their Eyes Were Watching God" can lead to discovering themes (in italics):
This rural Florida farm in the early 1900s is a halfway point between the world ruled by white men (where Joe Stark made his money) and the community that African Americans were setting up (where Joe Stark intends to become a "big voice"). Janie Mae can stay put on the farm, move to the white man's world to seek her fortune, or move to the black man's world to do so. The decision that faces her is not unlike that facing most modern people, whether to stay home in a familiar middle place or venture into a very different world.
- Character: How does this person represent people in general? How does this character change during the story and why?
Janie Mae is young and hardworking, with little experience beyond her farm outside of the family members who have variously passed her around as she came of age, and the man to whom she is married. Like all young people, she has dreams of exploring a larger world, dreams that will never be realized if she stays where she is. Perhaps she represents the theme that to find your true self, you must leave home and risk everything.
- Conflict: What sort of conflict is this (person vs. self, vs. other, vs. society, vs. nature, vs. supernatural, vs. machine)? What does this conflict tell us about life?
Janie Mae is torn between the security of her farm life and the possibilities presented by Joe Stark—money, fine clothes, leisure, and most importantly, having a "big voice." She can't make up her own mind (person vs. self) and also would face serious social consequences if she runs off with this stranger (person vs. society). Janie Mae would like to be someone rather than no one, and Joe promises to let her reap the benefits of his success. But Joe can't make her into someone. Like all of us, Janie Mae has to make herself whatever she will become.
- Setting: How does the place and time shape the characters? How does it shape the story? What does it say about our place and time?
- Plot: What does this sequence of events teach the main character?
Janie Mae's conversations with Joe Starks paint a picture of a larger world that she wishes to be part of. She imagines herself sitting on a porch, enjoying potatoes that someone else had planted for her. She imagines a life of prestige and ease that starkly contrasts the farm life she has. These conversations awaken in Janie Mae desires she didn't know she had. Perhaps the only way to eventually find herself is first to lose herself.
- Literary Devices: What symbols and metaphors does the writer use and why?
Joe Starks' clothing symbolizes his status, relative wealth, and ambition. The water pump that Janie Mae vigorously works to catch Joe's attention, symbolizes their conversation together. Janie and Joe mix the cool water with syrup from the barn and sit and sip and talk about the future. The sweetened water shows how simple social interchanges can lead to relationships, which can in turn lead to a whole world of other possibilities.
The setting of Janie Mae's farm is absolutely critical. It is halfway between the white'man's world where Joe has made his fortune and the new African-American community where he and she hope to become important. The farm is the world that Janie Mae knows, closely in contact with nature and hard labor and removed from the "far horizon" she dreams of. In this way, the setting represents the central conflict that she faces—whether to remain in the familiar confines of farm and family or to venture into the unknown with this slick-talking stranger.