Eighteen years ago, when my son, Walt, was one he received a plastic barn for his birthday. The barn came with a farmer, a tractor, and some brightly colored shaped pieces: a blue triangle, an orange square, and a yellow circle. The red roof had cutouts matched to the shapes, a convenient tool for learning. Once my son figured out which shapes went in which holes, the pieces stayed in the bottom of the toy box, but thanks to the sturdy white handle on the top of the barn, it moved all around the house.
Over the next several weeks, Walt spent hours assessing nearly every toy in the house — using not only the cutout holes in the roof but also the barn doors that slid apart, a roof that lifted like a lid, and an open-topped silo. To complete each assessment he would try to fit the toy through each shape hole, inside the barn doors (and allow the doors to close), under the roof and then down the silo. On some occasions a toy would get stuck; sometimes he could shake it out and sometimes he’d seek help.
The image of his toy assessments has remained in my memory, and my husband’s and mother’s, all these years. For me it is the image of the basic elements of story theme. The barn is the theme, the constant being tested, the toys aspects of plot and characterization that explore and reveal the flexibilities and limitations of theme, and the stuck toys, conflicts to be resolved. John Gardner’s definition of theme echoes my image.
By theme…we mean not “message”—a word no good writer like applied to his work—but the general subject. Given his choice of theme…the writer sharpens and clarifies his ideas, or finds out exactly what it is that he must say, testing his beliefs against reality as the story represents it, by examining every element in the story for its possible implications with regard to his theme. (p70, The Art of Fiction)
Janet Burroway indicates that theme runs throughout every aspect of a novel: actions, characters, setting, dialogue, objects, pace, metaphors and symbols, viewpoint, atmosphere, style, even syntax and punctuation, and even in some cases typography. (p17, Writing Fiction) She continues to note that theme is not “truth” but a point of reference for possible truth.
"The value of the literary experience is that it allows us to judge an idea at two levels of consciousness, the rational and the emotional, simultaneously. The kind of ‘truth’ that can be told through thematic resonance is many-faceted and can acknowledge the competing of many truths, exploring paradox and contradictions."(pp358-359)