Subject and Theme (tip 71) Reply

Following on from tip 70, D.D. Johnston makes some distinctions between a story’s subject and its theme, with reference to James Purdy’s “Cutting Edge” and David Foster Wallace’s “Forever Overhead.”

In our last video, I argued that the theme of a story is a generalisation that can make the story relevant to a reader who has no experience of the story’s specific subject matter. I mentioned David Foster Wallace’s story “Forever Overhead” in which a boy decides to dive from the top board at a swimming pool in Arizona. Why should we care? We don’t know the kid. Most likely we’ve never been to that pool and couldn’t care less what happens there. But while the subject matter is beautifully portrayed – the way, for instance, that exclamation point of foam shoots up when a man dive bombs into the water – it’s the thematic significance that makes it relevant to us. Because the story is also about the irreversibility of time, about getting older, about the death of childhood. And these are universals. They are general truths that none of us can escape.

In this video, I want to have a look at some of the differences between the subject and theme of a story.

The subject is something that matters to the characters. Whatever it is, it really matters to the people in the story – even if it’s just diving from the top board; even if, as in James Purdy’s story “Cutting Edge”, it’s just whether or not the son shaves off his beard. But it’s something that isn’t necessarily important to the readers. What do we care whether some guy shaves his beard or not?

The theme, on the other hand, may be something the characters aren’t consciously aware of, but it’s something universal that’s relevant to us. The thirteen-year-old boy isn’t consciously planning to approach the symbolic precipice of adulthood as he ascends the ladder to the diving board. But we have all had to lose our childish innocence, we all must face the irreversible march of time.

The subject matter is told in concrete terms – it is comprised of physical details that one can touch and hear and smell and taste. It is the exclamation point of foam, the sun setting behind the mountains like an EKG of the dying day, the chlorine smell of the water, the thin chill of the breeze, the slow ballet of movement in the water below.

But the theme is something abstract, something you can’t touch or hear. You cannot see loss of innocence or smell the power of love or taste the meaninglessness of existence.

The subject matter is specific. It happens in a particular place to particular people at a particular time. It is about one unique boy on one specific diving board in a particular pool in Tucson, Arizona.

But the theme is something general – it applies equally to readers in Aragon as it does to readers in Arizona.

The subject is explicit and clear. If at the end of a story we can’t agree what happened then probably the writer has failed to communicate clearly. “Wait? You thought he was on a diving board in the sunshine? I thought he was sledging in the snow?” That’s a sign of bad writing.

But the theme is subtle and ambiguous. If we all read the same piece of fiction then we might come up with different ideas about what themes it conveyed. You might find a message about transcendent importance of art, and I might find a theme of exploitation, and someone else might think it was about the power of love. That’s usually a sign of good writing.

So while the subject should usually be completely obvious, the theme is usually debatable – and that’s a lot of the fun of discussing literature.

Finally, remember that the theme can exist only through the subject – it emerges from the concrete details of your specific story. You can’t add it in on top, and in that sense it’s important to remember that there is no story except the subject matter. But, at the same time, there’s no reason for us to care about the subject matter unless it provokes reflection or stirs emotion around some universal theme.

Thanks for watching, and good luck with your writing.

The thumbnail for this video uses an image by Leanda Xavian. It is covered by a Creative Commons license, and you can find more of her work here: https://www.flickr.com/people/lxavian/

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