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Dark Classics and Theme Layers

Cuckoos, Rhinoceri, and Miss L 

I admit a weakness for those darker novels of my youth, ones I pull from the shelf every ten years or so and reread, only to be fascinated and profoundly affected all over again. Three of favorites below, and each is a very good example of the intentional and methodical application of theme in the novel.

"One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"

Author Ken Kesey's primary theme may be expressed by the following statement:
All human beings possesses a right to freedom and dignity, but they must struggle for this right in a society which relentlessly seeks conformity.
Theme is represented in more than one way and can be found in nearly all novel elements. The characters are constructed to symbolize the extremes of freedom and conformity, especially the protagonist, McMurphy, and the antagonist, The Big Nurse. Each have minions or followers as well. The nurse commands her orderlies and McMurphy influences the patients. The major complication of the novel pits the two extremes against one another in a struggle for control of the social sphere in which they inhabit, and on a tangible level, for the very souls of the patients themselves.

The protagonist, McMurphy, a "n'er do well" of sorts, is arrested and rather than go to prison opts for a mild mental hospital he believes will go easy on him. The ward he inhabits at the institution is operated efficiently and mercilessly by The Big Nurse and her staff. The nurse and staff absolutely dominate the inhabitants of the ward. McMurphy, being a raucous personality, conflicts with the regime almost immediately. As the story progresses, McMurphy earns the respect of the inmates and struggles daily to recapture their lost dignity and humanity. The story is told by Chief Bromden, a mute inmate pressed into broom service by the hospital.

The narrator, Chief Bromden, supports the theme on his own level also, one that runs parallel to the major complication and manifests itself throughout the novel. He has a fantasy of an enormous and powerful controlling force he refers to as "The Combine," and he reacts to the environment in such a manner as to instill the evidence of domination.

From Litcharts.Com:  
    "The Combine is what Chief Bromden calls society at large, a giant force that exists to oppress the people within it. The hospital ward is a mere factory for remedying mistakes made within The Combine (within neighborhoods and churches), to re-set peoples’ behavior into the “correct” behavior. The ward is a mechanized extension of The Combine, but more importantly The Combine represents the increasingly mechanized structure of all of nature and society. Bromden's ideas about The Combine arise in part from his own history as a Native American—his ancestral land, on which his people lived and fished, was taken from him and his family for the purposes of building a hydroelectric dam.

    Chief Bromden sees The Combine as a taming force against human nature: it devastated his homeland and, in doing so, stripped him of his human nature. He becomes what others believe to be deaf and dumb, much like an automaton—tasked with cleaning up the ward on schedule like a robot. His existence for years on the ward is without humanity; he exists only to complete tasks... the novel also suggests that the ward functions as a metaphor for the world at large, which grounds down its people into mindless drones, disconnected from themselves and from nature."

Eugene Ionesco's "Rhinoceros"

Ionesco lived in Vichy France during WW II and witnessed Nazi infiltration into the minds and culture of the French people. In his play, Rhinoceros, the characters transmogrify one by one into a rhinoceros, the world itself climaxing into a storm of poundings and herd-like groans.

The transmogrification of human into beast was a surreal metaphor Ionesco chose to reveal his bewildering and frightening experience in Vichy France. Many of those he knew, some of them friends, and despite their initial opposition, gravitated towards accepting the fascist point of view, till finally they lost all sense and value, even betrayed their country in many cases. 

Ionesco's theme can therefore be stated as follows: 
Given the necessary social circumstance and stimulus, most human beings will eventually adopt a new set of beliefs or way of defining reality, even if this means ignoring obvious injustice and harm done to others.
Quite the subject of intellectual speculation, no? 
Recommend reading more about Rhinoceros here

Miss Lonelyhearts 

Nathaniel West's novel, "Miss Lonelyhearts," centers around the desperate life of a ghost-writer columnist, Miss Lonelyhearts. Each day, letters of detailed human suffering are sent to the newspaper's ML column. However, in struggling to cope with the substance of the letters in a meaningful way, ML not only fails but succeeds in progressively ruining his own life. Meanwhile, his antagonist, Editor Shrike, attempts to demoralize and defeat ML at every turn. 

West's theme in Miss Lonelyhearts may be summarized as follows: 
There exists a level of human suffering that is both incurable and pervasive, and the individual, in the midst of this suffering, can only find happiness by remaining ignorant of it.
Miss L's inner conflict at his inability to solve the suffering of others is evident as the novel moves forward:

“The Miss Lonelyhearts of the New York Post-Dispatch (Are you in trouble? Do you need advice? Write to Miss Lonelyhearts and she will help you) sat at his desk and stared at a piece of white carboard. On it a prayer had been printed by Shrike, the feature editor.
    "Soul of Miss L, glorify me.
    Body of Miss L, nourish me.
    Blood of Miss L, intoxicate me.
    Tears of Miss L, wash me.
    Oh good Miss L, excuse my plea.
    And hide me in your heart.
    And defend me from mine enemies.
    Help me, Miss L, help me, help me .
    In saecula saeculorum. Amen."
Although the deadline was less than a quarter of an hour away, he was still working on his leader. He had gone as far as: "Life is worth while, for it is full of dreams and peace, gentleness and ecstasy, and faith that burns like a clear white flame on a grim dark altar. " But he found it impossible to continue. The letters were no longer funny. He could not go on finding the same joke funny thirty times day for months on end. And on most days he received more than thirty letters, all of them alike, stamped from the dough of suffering with a heartshaped cookie knife.

On his desk were piled those he has received this morning. He started through them again, searching for some clue to a sincere answer.
    Dear Miss Lonelyhearts--

    I am in such pain I don't know what to do sometimes I think I will kill myself my kidneys hurt so much. My husband thinks no woman can be a good catholic and not have children regardless of the pain. I was married honorable from our church but I never knew what married life meant as I never was told about man and wife. My grandmother never told me and she was the only mother I had but made a big mistake by not telling me as it don't pay to be innocent and is only a big disappointment.

    I have 7 children in 12 years and ever since the last 2 I have been so sick. I was operated on twice and my husband promised no more children on the doctors advice as he said I might die but when I got back from the hospital he broke his promise and now I am going to have a baby and I don't think I can stand it my kidneys hurts so much. I am so sick and scared because I can't have an abortion on account of being a catholic and my husband so religious. I cry all the time it hurts so much and I don't know what to do.

    Yours respectfully,

    Sick of it all

Yours respectfully, Sick of it all... What more needs to be said?

Consider, can you now write a theme statement for your own work?


  1. And then... there was light. I immediately took to the idea of writing a theme statement for my work. Lo-and-behold, it was there all along, waiting for the perfect moment of enlightenment. What a very layered and nuanced work RHINOCEROS is. Quite brilliant.

  2. I'll take that compliment! Thank you.


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