Remember how lots of stories ended with the phrase, “and the moral of the story is…”
We don’t hear much of that anymore. But the moral was the thing you were supposed to remember, the thing that gave the story its deeper meaning.
That’s what themes do for stories and novels.
How Theme Adds Meaning and Depth
The theme another layer of meaning to the story, similar to the way the moral added a layer to the children’s stories.
For example, Dorothy Sayers’ novel Gaudy Night explored themes of choosing career over family, and personal loyalty over anything else, and the consequences of these choices.
In the novel, one character is shown to have sacrificed her career for a family. She chose to elevate personal considerations over academic success.
Another character chose academic honesty over any personal concerns, even though it led to tragic results.
The contrast of people’s choices helps deepen the theme. It makes the reader wonder how he or she would decide in similar circumstances.
But that’s not all theme can do.
How Theme Builds the World
Some novels start with a character. Others a place.
Mine started with a theme.
Or rather, a bit of irritation.
I’d become aware of all the laws and regulations that are supposed to make us safe. But the reality is that disaster will strike or accidents will happen, regardless of the rules.
But some people don’t seem to get that. So they keep pushing for more restraints on our lives, all in the name of “Safety” or “Protection.”
Blech. Some of these laws I get, others are just silly or intrusive with little actual benefit.
So I started to imagine a world that traded all freedom for safely. What would that look like?
High wooden walls surround each village. The capital and regional centers employ stone as well. Guard towers are placed at intervals along the wall. Small villages like my heroine’s might only have one in the center.
The purpose of these tower is to watch for bandit or risker attacks, (as the residents all know these people are prone to attack the village at any time). Or to watch for fire, or any unsafe behavior. Unsafe people are called to court to explain themselves.
All must help preserve the safe environment, so once a month there is a volunteer day that all must volunteer for. Children are put to work sweeping streets. Adults repair streets and village buildings, surrounding roads, or to the village wall.
Regulations about Travel
To leave the village area residents need to get permission from the village Ephor, who is the mayor and head of security. Overnight stays out of the village must be applied for and approved.
People can’t leave the village often, unless it is part of their job. This would include traders, guardsmen and road workers.
Traders need to inform the traders’ Guild Master of their planned route.
Regulations about Dress
Everyone the same, with occupation marked on sleeve. Helps indicate if people are in a place they should be. For example, the judge’s clerks shouldn’t be in the market in the middle of the day. Monitor people’s movements cuts down on crowds, which are a potential source of danger in the form of accidents.
Regulations about Hair
Only professional barbers and hair cutters can use the sharp instruments needed. Everyone goes for the regulation haircuts as the prescribed intervals.
Regulations about Cooking
Only professional cooks and bakers can use the sharp instruments needed. The only bread baked in loaves is for public consumption in inns or at village events and is sliced by the professional bakers. Bread sold to be eaten elsewhere, at home or work, is baked in small rounds that can be bitten into or broken into pieces.
Regulations about Sewing
Most women learn enough during their schooling to do simple emergency repairs, such as replacing a button or mending a small tear. All other tailoring must be done by professionals, who are the only ones who can use the sharp implements needed.
Regulations about Marriage
Mates are suggested, but people don’t have much veto power. The idea to is ostensibly to create the most stable unions. In reality, it’s a way to exercise more control over the people.
Regulations about Schooling
All get a basic education (reading , writing, and minimal math.) They do learn much of the history of the country and the importance of safety, fairness and prosperity. As time goes on, each generation more fearful, as the emphasis on safety and avoiding danger becomes more ingrained.
Regulations about Occupation
Jobs are assigned, to maximize one’s usefulness to village and to control the unruly (big punishment to have unsafe jobs, like blacksmith or cook, worse to have job that takes outside like road worker or agriculture, or construction on heights.) Guardsmen are well-compensated with extra perks. One of the village elders carefully selects the bold for this job.
Over and over the village leaders emphasize that only highly trained professionals can do certain “dangerous” occupations.
Regulations about Housing
Only small fires are allowed in homes for heating. People are only permitted to heat water for tea, possibly broth in case of illness. No knives are allowed at home, except a tiny one as needed to cut thread or other minor jobs.
The lessons my exploration of this theme taught me could be summed up in two thoughts.
When you are afraid of something, you’re in bondage to it.
It’s impossible to keep everyone safe all the time through rules or laws.
Think about novels you’ve loved. Chances are, they had a theme that resonated with you. Share which ones they were in the comments!