I never thought I was a writer who focused on theme in a story. I studied them, certainly, in high school English and also in university. In classes, I analyzed symbolism and motifs in lots of literary classics, and wrote essays about it. But for some reason, I didn’t consciously think about applying a theme to my own work.
What is theme? It’s a pretty broad question, and can have a lot of thoughtful answers. In essence, it’s the heart of the story. It’s the underlying thread that ties all of the big plot events and character arcs together. It might not always be obvious, but I think every story has a theme. Even if unintentional, which is what happened to me with The Wardrobe Mistress.
I chose the setting of the French Revolution because it matched one of my key criteria for historical inspiration – the setting was a unique situation in history, which presented unexpected opportunities and dilemmas for my characters. It sparked an idea in my head; I wanted to write about people struggling to adapt to a rapidly changing political landscape, one that started out as a rather exciting herald for change and escalated into the violence and unpredictability of The Terror. I wrote my book, (she says casually, as if it didn’t involve hours and hours of research and slaving away over a keyboard), and that was that, or so I thought.
When I first read through an early draft of The Wardrobe Mistress, the theme of loyalty leaped out of the pages at me. My main character, Giselle, works in Marie Antoinette’s household as one of her wardrobe women. In the early days of the revolution, she spies on the Queen, but as it escalates, she finds herself torn between her loyalty to Marie Antoinette, as well as the revolutionaries in her life, including her Léon, the man she loves. Internally, she also struggles with loyalty to herself, to being true to what she believes is right against the pressures of conforming to the revolutionary or royalist ideals of others.
Loyalty unintentionally became a visual cue throughout the novel, mostly due to my research into fashions of the time period (as Giselle would be interested in, given her role in the household). As patriotism increased during the revolution, people wore rosettes made of red, white, and blue ribbons. Tricolour became a symbol of the revolution – fervent revolutionaries might wear almost garishly decorated outfits, heavily displaying the red, white, and blue of the revolution. As revolutionary fervour increased, and it became dangerous to be seen as a royalist, people would wear tricolour cockades perfunctorily, even if they didn’t truly support the cause. Indeed, by September 21 of 1793, women were legally required to wear a tricolour ribbon, the insignia of the republic.
Other colours in clothing were factors as well. During the Women’s March on Versailles in October of 1789, Marie Antoinette went outside to address the rioters. She made the grave error of wearing a black and yellow dress. To the rioters, these colours symbolized the colours of Austrian royalty. Since the people of France had never quite trusted Marie Antoinette, suspecting her of having greater loyalty to her home country of Austria instead of to her new one of France, her wardrobe choice almost seemed proof of it, creating yet another reason to loathe her.
My accidental theme isn’t as overarching as some, but it’s still there. I’d argue that every story has some kind of theme. It doesn’t have to be epic, like good versus evil. This is one of the themes of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, as well as that of the hero’s journey. In Lord of the Rings, almost no one can go against evil and come out of it untainted. Though he destroys the Ring, Frodo is never the same again. Boromir finds his heroism, but not after nearly succumbing to the Ring’s dark power. Sam is perhaps the only character who emerges whole, and stronger, after all the dark events.
Pride and Prejudice is another classic, well-known novel with a strong theme. It’s right there in the title; Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet embody the two qualities, and provide the book with its theme of the dangers of excessive pride and of judging people without knowing them.
One of my favourite themes in a book is in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, because it slowly builds over the entire series. The idea of ‘home’ is a strong theme in the novel. Through his entire childhood, Harry longed for a home, for the idea of belonging. He finally found a sense of belonging at Hogwarts, but he struggles during the holidays when everyone else has a home to go to. During his search for the Horcruxes, Harry visits the homes of other characters – some of them which were also substitute homes during his childhood, like The Burrow. It’s this that helps him understand that he must make the ultimate sacrifice to defeat Voldemort and defend Hogwarts (his home, and a home for others, too). He understands he needs to protect the people and places he holds dear, and that is the true belonging.
What themes have resonated with you in a book? Can you think of a book to challenge my theory that every single one does have a theme? Please share!