Themes Are Cool

I was trying to come up with a theme for this month’s column when it hit me, quivering with its obvious nature:  theme!

Per the Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms & Literary Theory (which lazy author girl renames to the PDoLT), "the theme of a work is not its subject but rather its central idea, which may be stated directly or indirectly."

For instance, one could argue that the theme for Questionable Content by Jeph Jacques is human relationships. Not a lot actually happens in QC — the characters get coffee, eat food, listen to music, watch TV, and (perhaps most importantly) they talk. What comes through is a focus on the facets of each individual’s character. This includes what they want to reveal as well as what is revealed by the small situations and their interactions, especially by the humor each character brings to a given scenario.

By contrast, the theme of Ursula Vernon’s Digger is more about being lost and perhaps what it means to be found. (Sorry, it’s behind a subscription wall, but well worth the money; I tried to pick free pages for examples.) The eponymous main character has lost her way and finds herself in a strange place. Neither we nor she know whether she’s on another world, in another time, or on the other side of her own planet. Among many other people and creatures, she finds a hyena-like creature who has lost his name, a priest who has half lost her mind, and a shadow child who has lost its context. But Digger never loses her sense of self.

Because of the episodic nature of some webcomics, the theme might shift from storyline to storyline. Some creators may consciously choose their theme (or themes) while others create them accidentally, while following the characters or telling their stories. Different storytellers have different styles. Figuring out the theme of a webcomic might be useful in helping a reader bring a sense of cohesiveness to a story that’s been coming in one-page-at-a-time updates for years. As with popular literature, the quest theme is pretty common. The get-yourself-out-of-trouble theme is also well-known. There’s the rescue theme, the get-laid theme, the family theme, the crazy college roommates theme, and so on. Feel free to list more.

Concepts related to theme include leitmotif and motif.

Leitmotif or "leading motif" is a term coined by Hans von Wolzugen. (Of course, because you gotta have your Baron von German dude for proper litcrit cred; but I think the PDoLT got his name wrong — everyone else seems to think that it is von Wolzogen). His original usage was "to designate a musical theme associated throughout a whole work with a particular object, character or emotion, as so often in Wagner’s operas." He wrote a bunch of guides to Wagner’s later work, which is when he coined the original term. Within this tradition, a more modern and familiar leitmotif is the Imperial March music played whenever Darth Vader appears in the original Star Wars films. Or the Jaws theme played whenever the shark is about to make an appearance. But the term has evolved other meanings.

Thomas Mann used it as a literary term to denote a recurrent theme (q.v.) or unit. It is occasionally used as a literary term in the same sense that Mann intended, and also in a broader sense to refer to an author’s favourite themes: for example, the hunted man and betrayal in the novels of Graham Greene. – PDoLT

What the hell is q.v.? Glad you asked! It stands for "quod vide." That is Latin for "which see," meaning that you can find further information in another part of the work you are reading, ala cross-reference, on the word or phrase right before the q.v. citation. Yeah, I looked it up.

So we could say that indie rock is a leitmotif in Jaques’ QC and we’d be right on multiple counts! Ha ha! Criticism is fun!

Motif: "One of the dominant ideas in a work of literature; a part of the main theme. It may consist of a character, a recurrent image or a verbal pattern."

Sinfest by Tatsuya Ishida is an excellent example of a webcomic with many motifs. I’ll argue that Ishida uses two sets of characters: set one consisting of Slick, Monique, Squigley, Criminy, Seymour, God, the Devil, the little devil, the Dragon, Ezekiel, plus Ariel and set two consisting of Pooch, Percival, and "The Master" (or at least his legs). I’ll argue that it’s just two sets instead of several sets because the world of Pooch and Percival never really overlaps with the first set. They occasionally present cameos in each other’s reality, but they do not interact. Admittedly, the first set is usually on stage in some subset: Slick and Monique; Slick, Criminiy, and Squigley; God and the Devil; Ezekiel, Ariel and the Devil; Seymour and the little devil; God and the Dragon. However, nearly every character in set one has spoken to or yelled at or danced for every other character in set one at some point or another. They all interact within the subset.

Motifs or subthemes in Sinfest include the railings of man against God; the confusing realm of male/female human relations; the nature of evil; friendship; domesticity. I could go on. It’s difficult to pick out an overarching theme for Sinfest, but if I had to, I might argue that it’s mockery. Everybody makes fun of everybody, no matter which motif governs the strip’s plot.

Why are these motifs rather than leitmotifs? I’m going to argue that they’re motifs because they fit within the realm of the overall theme rather than just being recurrent themes. Most of the motifs are approached with mockery as the goal.

Am I making this up? Well, yes with a qualification. I’m trying to make an educated guess based on the information I have. I could be wrong.

Per an excellent essay by Gerhard P. Knapp called "Leitmotiv, Leitmotif" (The Literary Encyclopedia, 29 Jan. 2004), the leitmotif has traditionally been something smaller than a theme. It’s more of an association � the fury of Achilles, the symbolic color of a particular character, the tools of a given trade appearing as shorthand for the tradesman. This idea was popular with Charles Dickens, many of whose characters’ primary trait could be summed up in one word: Scrooge, Pecksniff, Slyme, Heep. Per Knapp, leitmotif has evolved into something on par with motif and other evidence suggests that the words have come to be used interchangeably.

But coming from a historical perspective, I suspect it would be easier to say that motif and leitmotif are different points on a spectrum of theme-related concepts. It would be more useful to have two separate words, instead of the interchangeable blended idea, so that we can address things like the Devil’s suit or Slick’s hair as leitmotifs and God’s mockery of the Devil as a recurring motif.

And what have I learned? Themes are cool. Themes help with critical reading. A character, an object, a symbol, a plotline, a story — any or all can have themes. Some themes can be musical, others foreshadowy, and still others can be the backbone supporting the whole structure of the tale. Excellent.


Special Note: I utterly failed to give props and thanks to Bill Duncan for the marvelous icon he made for this column. Thanks Bill! I’d also like to thank Wednesday White and Eric A. Burns. If they hadn’t said "That sounds cool!" when I proposed the column idea I probably wouldn’t have had the courage to write these. And thanks to Phil Sandifer, my sekret litcrit smarty-pants. And a final thanks to Xaviar Xerexes for kicking my ass until I came up with a column idea then kicking my ass to meet some sort of deadline. Thanks X! Ouch.