Understanding “Theme” as Paraphrase

By Jennifer Fletcher

Getting the “They Say” right of an academic conversation (see Graff and Birkenstein’s perennially popular book “They Say, I Say) starts with a willingness to understand a text on its own terms. This involves listening for the questions a text asks and answers and not just mapping a familiar idea or “universal” theme onto the text.

Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein talk about the problem of “the closest cliché syndrome” (35): an inaccurate summary that “is not the view the author in question has actually expressed but a familiar cliché that the [summary] writer mistakes for the author’s view” (35). We see this during literary analysis work when students reach for a well-known platitude to describe what a novelist or poet is saying, such as “love is blind” or “power corrupts.”

As in any conversation, a responsible paraphrase of a literary text starts with listening (or reading) with the purpose of understanding.

Avoiding the Closest Cliché in Literary Analysis

“Theme” is the “they say” of a literary text. The process of trying to understand the central claim or message of a short story, play, or poem is similar to the work we do when we try to understand an argument in a persuasive essay. And yet we often teach these processes in vastly different ways. Most of us would never give our students lists of ready-made arguments to pin on the nonfiction texts they read, but I’ve seen lots of canned lists of thematic statements to use with literary texts.

See if any of the following sound familiar to you from your own experiences with literature classes:

  • Growing up is difficult.
  • Personal freedom is more/less important than social stability.
  • Love involves suffering.
  • Appearances can be deceptive.
  • Money can’t buy happiness.

Broadly defined, theme can be studied this way. And, of course, literary texts don’t usually state their meanings explicitly, so a paraphrase of the text’s meaning is often an interpretive claim. This can be challenging work for novice literary analysts. It makes sense that some kind of scaffolding would be helpful.

But if we only teach theme through a set list of stock options for what a text could mean, we discourage students from paying close attention to the peculiarities of what individual texts say. While Charles Dickens, Junot Diaz, Leo Tolstoy, and Toni Morrison all have something to say about the pain of childhood and the complexities of parental love, it is unlikely that four writers from such different historical and cultural contexts are saying exactly the same thing about these subjects. Writers may respond to similar questions about human experience, but their answers will vary. 

Giving students a drop-down menu of literary themes and telling them to choose the one that best fits the novel they just read encourages the closest cliché syndrome. Instead of helping students to postpone their judgment, this approach treats literary analysis as an exercise in confirmation bias. When students only look for the textual evidence that matches a familiar theme, textual inconsistencies and ambiguities that contradict that theme are often ignored.

Working to Understand a Text on Its Own Terms

What’s more, if a thematic statement is so general that it can apply to any work, it likely won’t capture the nuances of an individual text. Sweeping thematic generalizations substitute a simple idea for a complex one.

While we can argue that Shakespeare expresses some version of the idea that power corrupts in Julius Caesar, MacBeth and King Lear, we can also dig into the specifics of each play. What else does Shakespeare say besides “power corrupts”? The three dramas are highly individualized and convey their own messages about how power works and what it does to people.

Working to understand a text on its own terms requires setting aside our preconceptions and trying to see the issues from the writer’s perspective.

So I Hear You Saying…

Imagine being in a conversation with someone who repeatedly oversimplifies what you say:

YOU: I'M FEELING REALLY CONFLICTED ABOUT MY PROMOTION. I APPRECIATE THE RECOGNITION BUT AM WORRIED ABOUT THE NEW RESPONSIBILITIES.
THEM: SO YOU'RE SAYING THAT POWER CORRUPTS.
YOU: NO, I'M SAYING I HAVE MIXED FEELINGS ABOUT THE JOB.
THEM: OH, YOU MEAN ABSOLUTE POWER CORRUPTS ABSOLUTELY.
YOU: GRRR...

I wonder how many writers of the literary texts we teach might similarly want to say, “You’re not listening to me.”

Putting an Interpretation to the Test

Fact checking our interpretive claims makes us better critical thinkers and more careful listeners. Sometimes what we think a literary text is saying doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny. For instance, when I teach Shakespeare’s Sonnet 138, my students often paraphrase Shakespeare as saying “love is blind” in this poem. So we put this interpretation to the test by asking critical questions:

  • What other readings are plausible?
  • What does the evidence suggest?
  • What do others say?

We can also fact-check our paraphrase by putting it into direct dialogue with lines from the text. This is what this kind of “doubting game” questioning looks like for the opening and closing lines of this poem:

When we practice active listening in face-to-face conversations, we often check our understanding by mirroring back what we’ve heard to the person we’re talking to. Readers can similarly check their understanding of written texts by testing their interpretation against the original work. This is how we say to a poem or novel, “Let me see if I’ve got this right.”

Negotiating Different Textual Voices

One of the challenges of paraphrasing a literary writer’s meaning is that writers often say very different things from what their characters, narrators, or speakers say. While we can grab a character’s words right off the page, we have to make an inference about the writer’s meaning. Learning to paraphrase what is unsaid but implied is an essential critical reading skill.

To help students visualize how these different voices can be negotiated by a text’s reader, I invite students to compare writer and character messages through a graphic organizer:

By synthesizing what both the writer and their characters are saying, students can start to build a hypothesis about the text’s meaning.

Recursive Hypothesizing

The practice of constructing–and then testing–a hypothesis about a text’s meaning is a characteristic of expert readers. In their comparison of the different ways novice and experienced literary readers interact with texts, researchers Todd Reynolds and Leslie S. Rush identify “recursive hypothesizing” (213) as a special mark of expertise. Whereas novices tend to stop short in their analysis, experts engage in an ongoing “maybe this, maybe that” dialogue with themselves and others about a text’s potential meanings. If students are looking for (and not beyond) the closest cliche that fits the text, there’s no need for recursive hypothesizing and extended dialogue. Reynolds and Rush describe the back-and-forth process of meaning making as occurring over multiple stages of reading:

“Interpretation and comprehension do not come at the end of the text, but are formulated and reformulated while reading the text and after reading the text.”

(Reynolds and Rush 213)

Picking a theme from a list of universal truths doesn’t give students the chance to formulate and reformulate their own hypotheses about what a text means. We have to trust our students’ ability to build their own interpretations.

Teaching Literature for Transfer

The opportunity to cultivate ethical and empathic listening skills through literary reading is too important to pass by. Why teach students to jump to conclusions when we can teach them to understand a perspective on its own terms instead? This is the learning that has the most value for our students–and our communities–today and tomorrow.

Louise Rosenblatt’s landmark Literature as Exploration praises literature’s power to develop empathy in readers, calling “the capacity to sympathize or to identify with the experiences of others” a “most precious human attribute” (1965, 37). This gift of empathy isn’t conferred automatically. Literary reading won’t enhance our ability to understand other people if we don’t first set aside our assumptions and biases.

Jennifer Fletcher is a professor of English at California State University, Monterey Bay and a former high school teacher.

Works Cited

Graff, Gerald and Cathy Birkenstein. They Say, I Say. W.W. Norton, 2021.

Reynolds, Todd and Leslie S. Rush. “Experts and Novices Reading Literature: An Analysis of Disciplinary Literacy in English Language Arts.” Literacy Research and Instruction. 56.3, 199-216.

Rosenblatt, Louise. Literature as Exploration. 1938. Modern Language Association, 1995.

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