The once cutting-edge nineteenth-century novel Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo, uses a technique that French literary historian and editor Paul Bénicou described as one the Romantic writers preferred above all others: "the development of an idea by means of a story."
Today, this approach couldn't be less popular. The mere thought of an idea fueling a story, especially through an intrusive narrator, as in Les Mis, flies in the face of an organic approach — a story that is plot-driven or character-driven, but certainly not idea-driven. Though who could blame anyone for avoiding this concept like contagion: witness the current legislature.
Yet, a story without some underlying meaning, without symbols, without an idea or a concept that drives it—a theme—is like a beautifully wrapped gift box with an elegant bow that for all its attraction is nonetheless empty. The recipient may not be certain there's something inside, but expects it and feels cheated, betrayed, and rightly so, since the giver knew what the other did not, yet let him go on believing.
Novelist and essayist Roger Rosenblatt, author of the craft book on writing called Unless It Moves the Human Heart, also believes in the importance of theme. Rosenblatt wrote the book as a composite of his classroom teaching experiences at Stony Brook University, yet what makes Human Heart worthwhile is not the variety of classroom experiences Rosenblatt describes, but the pearl he sends his students via email once the course is over. "For your writing to be great—I mean great, not clever or even brilliant, or most misleading of all, beautiful—it must be useful to the world." Not an original thought, since the premise of the book is encapsulated in a quote from the poet A.D. Hope, "Nothing you write will matter unless it moves the human heart," but well-said.
The underlying purpose of theme in general, and a theme that moves the human heart in particular, even in its ugliness, is that a work of greater depth, greater truth, has greater beauty and, thus, has the possibility of becoming art. Author and art historian H.R. Rookmaaker in Modern Art and the Death of a Culture said, "Beauty and truth are closely related. It is precisely in the truth of the portrayal of the demonic as demonic in, for instance, Grunewald's picture of the Temptation of St. Anthony … that we appreciate beauty." In the hands of masters, says Rookmaaker, "even ugly subjects became beautiful because of their love for it." Thus, "Love and beauty are closely related, just as love and freedom belong together—a forced love is not love, as many works of literature and poetry (if not life itself) have shown."
What theme are you developing in your current work?