Confessions of an English Teacher

If a work has an underlying meaning, a large broad meaning, isn’t that a theme? I thought so. But in an online literary dictionary, it is defined as an image that appears in a work. And in Wikipedia themes in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll are listed as “puns, parodies, inside jokes.”

So, what is a theme? How is it different from a motif (which is the word I used for the second definition above)? And are word plays really themes? (I don’t really believe so, but that’s what Wikipedia, amazingly accurate in other ways, says.) And is there some other way to describe word play as besides that?

Then, with genre, I couldn’t find any English presentation of genre discussion on Google in the first four pages of searches. I did find a fascinating discussion of film genre, with genre theory, but that isn’t really helping me with what I am trying to do.

I did a huge genre study for my dissertation, but I don’t think it will be helpful at the level my students need.

So here’s the problem with genre. Let’s take Frankenstein by Mary Shelley for our example. The novel was written in the 1800s. It was during the Romantic movement and is written stylistically (meaning in regard to its language) in what might be called the tradition of romanticism.

In terms of setting, it is a gothic novel.

In terms of motif it is definitely a work of speculative fiction, but whether this is science fiction, fantasy, or horror depends on your approach to the work.

In addition, it is most commonly discussed through feminist criticism, using childbirth, nurturing, and other “woman” points of view.

Now… I would say that it is a romantic gothic novel whose genre is speculative fiction and sub-genre is xxx. (I don’t have a strong feeling on this.) What does saying it is a romantic novel and a gothic novel add to the discussion? And what are the other kinds of works in these groupings? (For example, movement and tradition include realism. I don’t know what others there are off the top of my head. And I don’t even know what the differentiation of gothic is called, much less what other types of it would be.)

And, far more important in terms of what I am trying to accomplish, how do I present this to my students so it makes sense?

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