In Anderson’s novel Speak, the protagonist’s English teacher remarks: ‘‘It’s all about SYMBOLISM.’’ The teacher is referring to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s work. However, because of the stress placed on the word symbolism (placing the word in all capitals), one might question whether Anderson is referring to her own writing as well. If she is, what symbols does she create and how does she use them?
Literary symbolism is the use of a person, object, image, word, or event that suggests a deeper meaning beyond its literal one. For example, the snowstorms through which the protagonist of this novel must walk are both literal storms and a symbol of conditions in Melinda’s life. The snow blots out much of the landscape, exemplifying Melinda’s feelings of isolation. The harsh coldness of the blizzard symbolizes Melinda’s struggle to find warmth in her personal relationships. The snowstorm is just one of the many symbols that the author uses to give more depth to her story. Symbols help readers to become more involved in what the characters are experiencing emotionally. The word isolation, for instance, is very abstract or intangible. Readers might grasp the meaning on a rational level but not know what it feels like to be isolated. The symbol of a person walking through ice and blowing snow provides a more physical expression, something the reader can latch on to.
As readers examine the text of Anderson’s novel, they will come across many symbols, but three stand out. First, there is the animal symbol. A turkey appears on Thanksgiving Day. The Thanksgiving holiday itself is a symbol. In American culture, Thanksgiving is a day of family reunions. For Melinda, though, the day is anything but. For this family, whose normal mode of daily communication consists of notes to one another left in the kitchen, Thanksgiving is much like any other day. Mother is called away in the middle of preparing the meal and abandons the family. Dad steps in as cook but botches the meal so badly that the turkey must be thrown in the trash. All of this symbolizes the dysfunction of Melinda’s family.
However disastrous Thanksgiving Day is, Melinda attempts to salvage a part of it. She gathers the bones from the trash and takes them into her art class. She wants to make something out of the carcass, the main structure of the turkey. She also finds a small doll and pops the head off. She smacks a piece of tape across the doll’s mouth and places the head on top of the bones. She attaches a plastic knife and fork to the doll’s head to make them look like legs. With the tape across the mouth, the doll obviously is a symbol of Melinda. She feels she cannot speak about what has happened to her. Does she also feel that her flesh has been stripped away as the turkey’s has? She has been raped, which means her body has been violated. She might also be feeling that she has little protection between her outer and inner self. Her emotions are so strong that she is constantly feeling like she might burst open. So the turkey skeleton could be a reflection of how she sees herself emotionally. It is through this symbol of the bones and the doll head that the author expresses Melinda’s pain. Using this symbol, readers can grasp a better understanding of how that pain feels.
A second strong symbol in this story is the abandoned janitor’s closet. Melinda needs a refuge, a place to hide, a tiny room where she does not have to be anyone. She does not have to be a student, a daughter, or an ex-friend. She can just be a nobody. She does not have to define herself for those few minutes or hours that she hides in the closet. She does not have to think. The closet symbolizes a space between her present mental anguish as she faces the world and her memories of what happened to her. Or it might be a respite between who she was and who she is yet to be. It is a place void of anything that isMelinda except for the things she chooses to bring into that place.
Melinda claims this small space by cleaning out the cobwebs and bringing in some personal objects. One of the main objects is a poster of the author and poet Maya Angelou. But there may be something other than Angelou’s literary accomplishments that attracts Melinda to her. There also may be a symbolic reason why the author chose Angelou over so many other female authors. The reason could be something that Melinda and Angelou have in common. In 1970, Angelou published her autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. In this book, Angelou recounts the rape that occurred when she was eight years old. The rapist was an acquaintance, who was later murdered by a gang of men. The effect of the rape and the murder, which Angelou felt she had caused, led to the author’s inability to speak. Thus Angelou is likely to have become a symbol of the terror Melinda is experiencing. Melinda might be using the poster of Angelou to give her hope. Angelou, despite the trauma in her early life, was able to not only move past the experience but to excel in life. Angelou could be Melinda’s symbol of inspiration.
Into this closet, Melinda also brings her art pieces. It is through her art that Melinda attempts to reclaim herself. As her art teacher has expressed it, his students have the opportunity to find their souls through art. Melinda has so many questions about herself that she no longer knows who she is. Did she do something wrong to bring on the sexual assault? Why did she not run away? Why did she not scream? Is she just as guilty as her assailant is? Was she misguided when she called the police? Should she tell someone what really happened? Would they believe her? The creation of art and the source of emotions both come from the same place, the subconscious. Though she might not consciously understand how her art projects are helping her, her teacher does. He continues to encourage her. Slowly she begins to feel an emotional reaction to the art pieces she creates and starts gaining confidence. She brings these works into the closet so she can look at them, as if to read them. It is possible that there in the closet, where she does not have to define herself through other people’s perceptions, she can see her art more clearly. She is free to explore her artistic expressions with new eyes.
The third major symbol in this novel is the tree. In art class, Mr. Freeman has told his students that each must blindly pull a piece of paper out of a container. On the pieces of paper are the names of some random objects. The paper that Melinda chooses has the word tree on it. She believes, at first, that this object is too simple. But when she tries to draw a tree, to make a work of art that stirs the emotions, it is not as easy as she first perceived. Her initial attempts at drawing a tree remind her of how she drew in elementary school. Regressing into an earlier, more innocent time of her life, she draws stick-figure type trees, which Mr. Freeman criticizes for not being very realistic. Melinda’s trees are too perfect, he tells her. Real trees have crooked limbs, blemished leaves, and decayed spots on them. The difference between Melinda’s perception of a tree and Mr. Freeman’s creates part of the meaning behind this symbol. Melinda is trying to live in a fantasy world, drawing perfectly formed trees, as a child imagines them. Like her trees, Melinda would like to return to that place where she was still innocent. The sexual assault, however, will not allow this. Her innocence has been stolen. Mr. Freeman is telling her that she must draw a tree from the place where she is now. She must look at trees from a different, more realistic place. She is moving into an adult space and must no longer look at things so naively.
As Melinda ponders this, she notices a tree in her front yard. A portion of the tree is rotting. If the rot is not cut out, the tree could die. A tree doctor is called in, and the diseased portion of the tree is removed. At another point in the novel, Melinda wishes that a doctor could go into her brain and cut out her memories, her damaged parts. So it is through the tree in her yard that Melinda realizes that she must cut out her memories by facing them rather than trying to repress them or run away from them.
In the end, after many attempts at creating an emotionally moving depiction of a tree, Melinda finds success. ‘‘My tree is definitely breathing,’’ she says. ‘‘This one is not perfectly symmetrical. The bark is rough.’’ She adds, ‘‘One of the lower branches is sick.’’ She tells herself that the sick branch will have to drop some day in order for the rest of the tree to get stronger. Then she continues, ‘‘The new growth is the best part.’’ It is obvious, with these statements, that the author has used the tree to symbolize her protagonist. Melinda has faced her demons in her confrontation with her assailant. She fought him off. Afterward, she senses her own new growth through the tree she is creating. ‘‘And I’m not going to let it kill me,’’ she says, referring to the rape. ‘‘I can grow.’’
The author has created symbols for her protagonist to learn from. In the process, readers will learn from them too. Anderson has thus created depth, enabling readers to relate more closely to Melinda and giving them something to take with them. The story therefore becomes more than just words on a page. Through the use of symbolism, readers feel as if they take away a shared experience.
Sara Constantakis (Editor), Novels for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Volume 31, Laurie Halse Anderson, Published by Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.
Joyce M. Hart, Critical Essay on Speak, in Novels for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.