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Theme and Motive in Fiction

by The Editor Company   


What constitutes a theme and how one may be formed are two vital points in the construction of the short story. There must also be some knowledge of the motive and its relation to the theme as well as its office in the story proper.

Themes taken at random from different sources are the following :

(1)  The law and its officers in hunting down criminals irrespective of any circumstances of extenuation, with vindictiveness alike to all, make the world at large a sympathizer with the hunted.

(2)   A man's convictions or intentions on a given line of contemplated action may be determined before he promulgates them, by watching his actions, comparing and tabulating these with reference to subsequent acts and using this code of his activities as a guide.

(3)   A man's mind may become so imbued with the idea of his duty to others that he loses sight of his own individuality until some occurrence brings it to light.

(4)   A leader in the social world with a knowledge of her power may also become a successful business woman.

(5)   A false estimate of the influence of wealth and power in the production of happiness may be educated out of the mind by love. (6)   A business proposition is best carried out by a mind unimpassioned by thoughts of love.

The theme does not appear in such concise form as herein given in every short story. Such an appearance might convey an impression of baldness or crudity. It is, in most cases, drawn from a consideration of the story as a whole; by analyzing the meaning and spirit; the reason for activity or the justification for a certain course of conduct. There are cases, however, even in the best written productions, where the theme appears in a fully expressed and almost tabulated statement.

It will be observed, even by a casual reading, that the themes given herein are not born of any religious or didactic parentage. They are, on the contrary, the progeny of experience with mother earth and the world, the great world of social beings. While they may be influenced by emotions kindred to those of religious sentiment, yet the theme itself, as it is presented to us in statement form, is a pure matter of experience, not individualized, but accepted by a sufficiently large number of intelligent and law-abiding people to make it worthy of consideration. A theme, then, is not a religious precept, but a business proposition.

By a slightly closer observation it will be seen that in each of the themes given there are two opposed points, thus in (1) there is the law vs. the world; in (2) a man's intentions vs. the reading of his intentions by his actions; in (3) the effaced vs. the revealed self; in (4) the unversed society mind vs. the shrewd business mind; in (5) the mind of self vs. the mind of love; in (6) the practical vs. the sentimental thinking. In these two points there lies the ground for action, the obstacle to be surmounted and the maintaining of the plot interest. The world with its sympathies is pitted against the law, the obstacle, and the special person whom it is inclined to protect in his perils from the rigors of the law, furnishes the interest of plot to the obstacle. In the others there will be found, likewise, the following obstacles: in reading intentions, in the revealing or uncovering of the real self, in the cultivation and practice of shrewdness in finance by a mind altogether unversed in such labors, in the conquest of selfishness by love, and so on. All of these when fitted with characters suitable for the proper staging of the theme will carry on the story proper to no small length; it.must, in fact, be able to do so, or it is not a theme.

By comparing the two dominant ideas in each theme, thus, the world and the law, the man's intentions, hidden, and the reading of them, the effaced and the revealed self, etc., there is a difference shown in the application of these terms, the one being applied to subjects that are real, tangible, almost visible, as the world, the man's actions as gauged by his intentions, the revealed self, the practical, active, capital-producing business mind, the all-doing, all-serving mind of love, and the open activities of the practical mind; all of which are in greater or less degree ideas of an objective character, as in contrast with those of a subjective nature in the law, being a rule of! action, the intentions, undiscovered and intangible in their analysis and reading, the unversed society mind, the self-centered and wholly undiscoverable mind of self as well as that of the sentimental thinking. While there is no very great psychological strain necessary in order to construct a theme, yet in order that the theme may become a question of moral activity, without which it is in no distinct sense a real theme, it must convey some idea of what relation the one engaged in the elucidation of the theme is toward some aspect or phase of the obstacle. To do this properly there must be some knowledge of the working of his mind in that direction.

A theme, then, while not conveying a religious precept must embody a moral intent in its inception. It must give opportunity for those great determining powers of circumstance and occurrence to bring to bear their forces on the mind of man. It must provide possibilities at the same time for that mind to give out hints of its own functioning, gleams of its coming volition, in order that the story may have something like spirit as well as fleshy covering.

These, then, are some of the points about which it is best to be careful in the selection of a theme—they may also furnish a club for criticism of our ambitious rival's work—that a theme is (1) gained by summing up world experience, gathered by induction solely, and in no sense by a deductive method, that it is not a religious or a mathematical proposition, but a summing of experience and analogy, with all those frailties of chance and contingencies that such terms can convey; (2) that it furnishes a comparison of terms, a set of opposed or contrasted ideas for the better production of plot interest; (3) that after the obstacle has been illuminated a stricter analysis of terms will reveal the undercurrent of thoughtful planning in having the terms of contrasted interest in the theme bear the relation of subjective and objective, of visible or material, and invisible and immaterial, in order that they may show how the obstacle looks to the character to whom it shall loom in all its grim bearings. It must present the possibilities for activity of the invisible as well as the visible potentialities, and it must so link these as to make the mind of man stand out clearly in superiority over the lower powers.

It may be said, also, in a general way, along with the fact that a theme is drawn from the story as a whole and does not usually stand out in tabulated form, that the activity for which the theme prepares the possibility, must be of a worthy character. There must be something of importance depending upon the outcome of the controversy. The fact that the law is brutal in its lack of consideration would have but little power to raise the emotions of the reader were it not that upon this condition there hangs the fate of a human life. The situation becomes critical when the one who has it in her or his power to hand! over an unintentional murderer to the law is also turning over in mind the advisability of so doing.

Whatever motive prevents the turning of the action of the story into a catastrophe for the principal character furnishes the prevailing motive of the story, as in pity for the criminal, in a sense of his honesty in admitting the truth of his commission of the crime, any of these will give the dominant motive, although every story is as full of changing motive as a sparkling mountain stream is full of trout. These subordinate motives, however, do not alter the tenor of the story. They are merely aids to movement and furnish variety of situation. They should in no sense be allowed to rise to such importance as to conflict with the motive proper of the story. This appeals to the reader from the story as a whole and as a reason for the being of the creation. It is a strong appeal and one made directly to the emotions and through the emotions. It must carry the mind of the reader along with it in thorough harmony and rapport. As contrasted with theme, motive is considered only as an emotion and not as a judgment. It is not elaborated in the form of a statement or moral proposition, but is given only by its simple and natural name, as fear, anger, pity, love, jealousy, or whatever other emotion that it characterizes. The theme is stated in full sentence form. As to their functions in the short story, the motive moves the mind, and the theme directs the course of that motion, preserves it in a definite way and prepares for a logical conclusion.

There is a difference between the theme of the melodrama or ordinary short story and that of the tragedy. In the case of the one there is a statement of axiomatic truth, while in the other there is room for an argument. In the tragedy of Macbeth we have as a theme: An overweening ambition that strikes down every noble impulse of the soul is bound to bring ruin. This is not gained more by experience than by spiritual standards, it is always true, axiomatic, invariable, and inevitable in its consequence. There is no escaping from it.

The possibilities for action do not lie in the prospects of any success for the bad king, it is known from the start that he will be punished, but from the prodigious activities of this great warrior in his struggles to set aside the workings of this inevitable and invincible conclusion. These carry the mind in full force to the end.

Added to this force is the spectacle of the motive:—ungodly ambition or greed for power—which aids by placing a kindred feeling with the theme and thus gives terrific momentum to the climax. In the melodrama, on the other hand, the theme and the motive may not be linked only as the main characters choose that they shall be, and one does not form an integral part of the other. It is part of the business of the theme of the melodrama to educate the mind by direction of character and incident to a just appreciation of the truth of its statement of fact. In the tragedy that truth is self-evident.

Right here is where the beginner in fiction often stumbles. He takes for his theme a self-evident and religiously inclined principle, adds to it a motive of kindred character and expects to weave a story that will interest and hold the attention, when as a matter of fact, he who reads the first few lines will not need to read further. He should have written a tragedy first and waited until he has had sufficient experience in life to draw from to write a short story proper. Easy though it may seem to do, a short story written in pure style and with all the bearings and relation of theme and motive is a great undertaking. Tragedy is, no doubt, though of simpler mechanical construction, in real part of more difficult management, but the short story is a subject for deep analysis and much reflection, work, and study.

Tragedy has, of course, to do with the more exaggerated forms of emotion, unbalanced feeling as its motive and its ultimate declination and extinction, whereas melodrama deals with the lighter and more commonly experienced phases of feeling. It is for this reason that the theme and motive can be allied, being logic of experience combined with natural instincts of feeling, than as if the more exalted and commonplace were brought together. This might be added as a last essential of theme and motive construction in the writing of short fiction, that the motive should be tempered to the theme and no false feelings be elaborated as a result of the axioms of experience. In other words, do not start out with a tragedy in feeling and then have only a theme for a short story proper or melodrama. Such a course can not produce either good fiction or creditable tragedy. If, on the other hand, the story is held together by a creditable consideration of theme and motive, there will be, at least, some good grounds for its construction and a possibility that it may reach a well-merited distinction.