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Archive for April 5th, 2010

Here is an analysis of Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson.

SPOILER ALERT!

The theme of Laurie Halse Anderson’s novel Speak is explicitly expressed through imagery, plot and character development.  The theme of the novel is silence, struggling towards self-expression.  Melinda Sordino was raped in the summer before her freshman year of high school (1999, 135).  She is silenced by fear and shame, unable to tell anyone about what happened to her.  Throughout the story, Anderson uses imagery of being silenced, choked and gagged to describe Melinda’s character.  She bites and chews her lips until they bleed (5, 17).  She tries to speak, but the words will not come out (25).  Her “throat squeezes shut,” cutting off her explanations (28).  Pulling her lower lip in between her teeth, Melinda wishes she could swallow herself (39).  She imagines her lips are stitched together (46).  Her throat is perpetually sore, and when she wakes up in the morning, her jaws are clenched so tight it gives her a headache (50).  Melinda thinks her mouth looks like it “belongs to someone else,” someone she does not know (17).  She takes her mirror down from her bedroom wall and hides it in her closet (17).  Melinda does not recognize herself after being raped, and she is in denial of her identity now that it has been shaped by trauma.  In the bathroom after school, Melinda washes her face until she imagines “there is nothing left of it, no eyes, no nose, no mouth” (45).  She wants to wash away the trauma and her sense of being a victim, but she can’t.

Melinda’s classmates blame her for breaking up their party by calling the police, which resulted in at least one student being arrested and others getting in trouble (28).  Although her friends do not know what happened to Melinda at the party, their blame and anger makes her feel that she was wrong to call for help.  Melinda’s parents did not know she attended the party; she was supposed to be spending the night at her friend Rachel’s house (133).  Melinda struggles with the sense that her rape is partly her own fault because she went to the party.  Anderson emphasizes Melinda’s silence in her interchanges with teachers, students and her parents by writing one-sided conversations, where Melinda’s parts are preceded with “Me:” and followed by nothing but a blank space on the page (9, 21, 61, 88).  Melinda tells herself, “Nobody really wants to hear what you have to say” (9).  Her friends have their own conceptions of what happened at the party.  They already dislike her for calling the cops, and Melinda believes that her friends do not want to hear her explanations.  Besides, talking about what happened requires reliving the trauma, confronting the trauma and admitting it really happened to her.

At the beginning of the book, Melinda and her parents primarily communicate through notes on the kitchen counter (14).  Melinda explains, “I write when I need school supplies or a ride to the mall.  They write what time they’ll be home from work and if I should thaw anything.  What else is there to say?” (14).  The theme of obstructed communication is also expressed through the character of Melinda’s Spanish teacher, who tries to speak only Spanish to her students and is never understood (13-14).  These elements contribute to the theme of being silenced, unable to communicate complex thoughts and feelings.

Melinda wants to sleep most of the time, but she has trouble sleeping at home.  She lingers for hours in a “halfway place, a rest stop on the road to sleep” where she does not have to close her eyes but can “just stay safe under the covers and breathe” (16).  Many individuals who suffer from depression and post traumatic stress disorder have sleeping disorders, such as insomnia or hypersomnia.  Sleep blots out the pain of living as a social outcast and the awareness of what happened to her, but nightmares can force her to relive the terror.

Melinda feels that her identity as a victim is glaringly apparent.  She describes herself as “a wounded zebra” and her social studies teacher, Mr. Neck, as a predator, “hired to coach a blood sport” (5).  When her parents find out about her failing grades, Melinda describes the scene as dinner theater, “with Dad doing his Arnold Schwarzenegger imitation and Mom playing Glenn Close in one of her psycho roles” (35).  Meanwhile, Melinda plays the role of “the Victim” (35).  Melinda does not want to be defined as a victim, but she feels trapped in this role by Mr. Neck, her parents and IT.

Anderson draws attention to the duality of surface appearances and the reality underneath.  Melinda wonders how the cheerleaders can sleep with the football team and then be reborn as “virginal goddesses” the next day (29).  Even the Sordino’s couch has unspoken secrets.  Melinda turns the messy side of the cushions up while she eats dinner on the couch, then flips them over “to show their pretty white cheeks” before her parents come home (15).  Melinda’s school is also having an identity crisis as their mascot is changed from Trojans to Devils to Tigers to Hornets.  These details reflect Melinda’s facade of silent placidity while something dark and painful boils beneath the surface.

Art class helps Melinda begin to confront her trauma and begin to heal.  Melinda is excited by her art assignment to make her subject “say something, express an emotion, speak to every person who looks at it” (12).  Melinda is desperate to express herself, and art provides an outlet for her pain.  She starts painting watercolors of trees that have been struck by lightning, so they appear nearly, but not completely dead (30-31).  These paintings show Melinda’s first efforts to express her feelings about her trauma and the damage that her spirit has suffered.  She has difficulty drawing a healthy, normal tree (32), probably because she is unable to imagine feeling normal ever again.  By the end of Anderson’s novel, Melinda is able to draw a beautiful, breathing tree in which “one of the lower branches is sick” (196).  She hopes that the branch drops soon, so the sickness does not kill the tree (196).  Her tree is a metaphor for her own survival as she accepts and lets go of her trauma and moves on with her life.  By finally speaking her secret, she transforms herself from a victim into a survivor.

Work Cited: 

Anderson, Laurie Halse.  1999.  Speak.  New York: Puffin Books.

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