Theme in a Cardboard Box

By Justin Jones

Within the realms of literature and poetry, the concept of theme never fails to be at the forefront of intellectual discussion. In any class that involves writing, you will most likely hear this word thrown around, and you will be encouraged to unravel its clandestine mechanisms. Theme—the main idea or underlying message of a piece—is not always easy to understand. It takes a careful eye to notice the various details within a story or poem, and it takes a creative mind to place these details into categories that begin to suggest multiple themes. Over the years, your teachers, professors, and peers have projected their interpretations of theme while you, to the best of your ability, tried to put all the pieces together. But have you ever wondered why theme is often difficult to assemble?

Theme is a jigsaw puzzle.

It is a collection of rounded and grooved wooden pieces sitting messily in a cardboard box. This is not to imply that theme is an enigma or a challenge of thought, but rather, it is a disassembled representation of a larger concept. As a reader your responsibility is to open the box, dump the pieces on the table (or floor if that’s what you prefer), and assemble the puzzle using the clues in front of you. As you read a story or poem the puzzle beckons to you and implores you to put it together, each piece providing a bit more context.

So you attempt to make sense of this mound of toothed, wooden shards.

You pick up the first piece of the puzzle, the feelings of the characters, and set it down. Then you notice another piece, the conversations between characters, whose edges fit together with the first. Next you take a third piece, the experiences of the characters, and piece it together with the others. This process continues until all of the pieces of your jigsaw puzzle are connected. You look at the completed puzzle and can see a clear picture, a clear theme. When you’re done putting it together you can place the pieces back into the cardboard box and rest comfortably with your newly ascertained understanding.

I must admit that theme is much more than a jigsaw puzzle, though. Theme lends itself to a variety of interpretations, and it cannot be represented as a universally consistent picture. In reality, the puzzle pieces can change shape, which is terrible for preserving the identity of a puzzle and great for benefiting the reader’s capacity for interpretation. Pablo Picasso once said that “if there were only one truth, you couldn’t paint a hundred canvases on the same theme.” Fortunately, we live in a world with many truths. Therefore, Picasso’s understanding of artistic theme can be applied to that of literature. Every story or poem that you encounter will be different in some way, and there will always be an array of themes from which you can make your own judgments and decisions.

So when you’re questioning whether a certain theme is a legitimate representation of a story or poem’s various details, know that the puzzle is only as put-together as you allow it to be.

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Mosaic Art & Literary Journal

Since 1959, Mosaic has connected readers and writers from across the world. Based on the campus of the University of California, Riverside, Mosaic is staffed by undergraduates who are passionate about writing and art.

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