Sunday, March 15, 2009

Howard: Theme vs. Thesis

According to Howard (2004) a story's theme is "the aspect of the 'human dilemma' that it will explore (p. 131). Two examples he gives are jealousy and ambition. We could also add hate as an example. He stresses that there are no verbs or value judgments in a theme as he defines it.

Howard makes a distinction between a theme and a thesis. "Once a verb is added, once value judgments are hung onto a theme, then it becomes a thesis that the story is obligedto prove." (p. 131, emphasis mine).

In an earlier post (
Theme According to Epstein) we covered the example "Hate kills". Note the verb and the value judgment here. Human dilemma + verb = value judgment.

Howard seems to preach against this verb/value judgment approach to theme. "This is a deadly, story-killing mistake. it skews the story away from art or entertainment and puts it squarely in the realm of propaganda.... A story saddled with the chore of proving a thesis relegates all its characters to 'positions.' Their words and actions are subordinate to the author's goal of proving this thesis to be true." (p. 131).

Howard does admit that there must be a resolution to the story (hate kills, greed destroys a community), a writer does eventually make a statement, but the "statement should be buried in the action, in the moment of the resolution. It is there to be discovered..." (p. 132).

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