Let’s talk about theme

One of my favorite things–and one of the most important things to me–in fiction is theme.

If the themes a story explores don’t interest me, I’m not interested. The book might be a classic work of literature, beautifully written, and I might read it on that account, and appreciate it on that account, and be grateful for it. But I won’t be interested in it on a personal, visceral level.

This is one reason why I was never fond of Hemingway. His view of life is very different from mine. And the themes that interested him aren’t what I like to read about.

Here are some of the themes that most interest me:

  • FEAR AND COURAGE. So much human evil that affects and afflicts us all is the result of catering to fear. So fiction that explores physical or moral courage as a crucial dilemma or struggle grip me. (Great example: In Les Miserables, when Valjean hears that a man who looks like him has been arrested as him. What will Valjean do? Will he turn himself in to save the innocent man? Will he try to justify letting that man take the fall?)
  • PROVIDENCE. The ways that God has providently acted in my life are incredible. I love literature that explores (subtler is better) the providence of God. The reality that God is in control, and can “write straight with our crooked lines,” as they say, is beautiful. Romans 8:28 says “We know that God works all things for good for those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.” To see good come from evil, even if it can’t erase the evil or its effects, is beautiful. I love nothing more.
  • REDEMPTION. I love redemption stories, largely because of the links to courage (above) and hope (below). It take moral courage to admit to ourselves when we have done wrong or believed wrongly. It takes even more courage to actively change course after the realization, which amounts to a public renunciation of our past. Stories of redemption also give hope that redemption is possible for me and for you.
  • HOPE. I have a strong melancholic temperament, so hope doesn’t come easy to me. I am always very aware of what the problems are and what is likely to go wrong. So I love examples of people finding reasons to be grateful and joyful in the midst of suffering. As G. K. Chesterton once said, “Hope means hoping when things are hopeless, or it is no virtue at all… As long as matters are really hopeful, hope is mere flattery or platitude; it is only when everything is hopeless that hope begins to be a strength.”
  • COMING OF AGE. Is there anything more human, more relatable, or more heartwarming than joining someone young and unexperienced as they learn what it means to be a real woman or a real man? Responsibility. Accountability. Courage in the midst of failure or uncertainty. Disappointment and temptations to jadedness. Isn’t all that difficult, raw, and real?

What are your favorite themes in fiction (or nonfiction?)

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