“The themes of love and death are littered all over the work.”

That must be why it’s called “literature,” right? (ba-da-BING!)

If he had said “littered all through the work,” I would have just considered this an unfortunate word choice, perhaps. But we don’t actually talk about “themes” as discrete objects separately placed in a work of literature, as I realized when I tried simply to suggest another word for the sentence: intangible, they need the vocabulary of air rather than the vocabulary of things. Themes can inspire, suffuse, pervade, inform, reverberate, underlie, resonate. Sometimes, like airy spirits, they can be embodied. Most of the time we let them just be: “Love is one of the major themes of the work.”

For my student, though, themes are evidently things. In fact, in this sentence the work itself is a thing, a surface over which other things can be strewn. Follow that concept and the “themes of love and death littered all over the work” become so much confetti on Fifth Avenue after the parade; or empty cups and torn posters on the ground after the rally is over; or all sorts of unsavory jetsam on the shoulder of the road; or, more poetically, leaves on the autumn lawn.

Or bits of colored paper scattered across a larger piece of perhaps white paper. Is that what literature is for him—just paper? He sounds like the student who envisioned Tennyson’s response to poetic inspiration thus: “The death of his father brought out emotions which Tennyson had never experienced before, so he wrote them on a piece of paper.”

I suppose the themes of love and death were littered all over it.

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About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

2 responses to ““The themes of love and death are littered all over the work.”

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