As a coming of age novel, Speak has a strong focus on adolescence and the problems and desires associated with it. Despite Melinda's unusually traumatic experiences, almost every reader can connect to the world she lives in. Melinda lists the cliques that the ninth grade class has broken into: "Jocks, Country Clubbers, Idiot Savants, Cheerleaders, Human Waste, Eurotrash, Future Fascists of America, Big Hair Chix, the Marthas, Suffering Artists, Thespians, Goths, Shredders" (4), familiar high school groups. Many readers will also understand Melinda's feeling of adolescent social isolation. Her negative reactions to certain aspects of the school day, such as gym class ("Gym class should be illegal. It is humiliating" ) and lunch ("Nothing good ever happens at lunch. The cafeteria is a giant sound stage where they film daily segments of Teenage Humiliation Rituals. And it smells gross" ), are not unique to someone suffering from post-traumatic stress. Furthermore, Melinda exhibits a typical adolescent reaction to authority figures and rejects them by giving them ridiculous nicknames.
The theme of adolescence connects Melinda to the real world. Not only does it make her story easier to relate to, but it also makes it broadly applicable. Melinda's extraordinary circumstances just highlight the universal difficulties of adolescence--not just the social problems, but the conflicting pulls between the future adult self and the former child self. Melinda feels dismayed by the sexuality of her high school peers, largely because she is a victim of sexual violence, but also because she does not feel ready for this next phase of life. Coming to terms with what happened to her allows her to finally accept that she is entering this new stage, and look forward to her future.
Much of Melinda's life revolves around communication or lack thereof. In the novel, we witness various forms of communication: sticky notes on the kitchen counter, notebooks passed between students, letters left on school lockers, words on the chalkboard, recording devices, telephone calls, and spoken conversations. Melinda's communication is mostly non-verbal. She expresses anxiousness and fear by biting her lip or running away. She asks her parents for favors by writing them notes. Even when she speaks, she often does not say what she wants to. When Heather tells Melinda that they can no longer be friends, Melinda says, "I try to think of something bitchy, something wicked and cruel. I can't" (105). Of course, the most major communication conflict in the novel involves Melinda's need to tell someone about the rape. It is not until the Fourth Marking Period that Melinda finds the courage to say anything. Interestingly, however, in this initial confession of her secret, she still does not speak. Instead, she passes a note to Rachel explaining the night of the party. Even after her second attack, when the entire school learns of her history with Andy Evans, Melinda still has not spoken, the lacrosse team has. It is not until the very last line of the novel that we understand Melinda is going to finally tell her story out loud. The ultimate communication in the story is distinctly left out of the novel, making the theme even more apparent.
Laurie Halse Anderson once said in an interview, "I've learned that Speak is not just a book about rape. Speak is a book about depression." Depression is the unspoken theme that defines Melinda's behavior for much of the novel. While she does exhibit some obvious external signs, such as cutting her wrist with a paperclip, much of Melinda's depression is internal and is not fully understood by anyone, including herself. Her behavior issues stem from her depression and her lack of desire to actively engage in her life. Her lip chewing habit acts similarly to cutting her wrist: the physical pain from biting her lips helps her to temporarily forget her emotional pain and is a physical expression of her self-hatred. Because of Melinda's strong internal voice, it is clear that she is not a naturally weak person. To the contrary, she is witty and smart, astutely observing those around her. Thus Speak can be seen not as the story of a girl growing stronger, but of an already strong girl overcoming depression.
Anderson touches on the theme of female empowerment throughout the novel. Melinda chooses to do a report on suffragettes for extra credit in Mr. Neck's class. However, at the last minute, Mr. Neck informs Melinda that she must read her report in front of the entire class. Horrified at this prospect, Melinda devises a plan in which she likens herself to a suffragette and stands up for her right to not give speeches. In doing this, Anderson directly connects Melinda to the theme of female empowerment. More importantly, she distinguishes Melinda's behavior from those of strong female leaders. After Melinda receives a "D" on the report, David Petrakis says, "But you got it wrong. The suffragettes were all about speaking up, screaming for their rights. You can't speak up for your right to be silent. That's letting the bad guys win." Melinda's struggle to speak is a struggle to break free of female voicelessness, and to actually emulate these strong female role models, who gained a voice in politics for all women.
Speak frequently defines gender roles in the most obvious and traditional way. Melinda's mother, despite her lack of cooking abilities, insists on cooking Thanksgiving dinner to fulfill her role as a wife and mother. The Marthas are a group of girls who idolize Martha Stewart and engage in community service and homemaking activities. Heather plays into female sexuality by pursuing a job as a bathing suit model, with an adult male photographer encouraging her to be sexier. Melinda pays acute attention to these gender roles and to the idea of the female as a sexual object. For example, Melinda's janitor closet has been abandoned since the new janitor's lounge opened. Melinda says, "All the girls avoid [the new lounge] because of the way [the janitors] stare and whistle softly when we walk by" (26). In art class, she notices Picasso's proclivity for painting women in the nude and after concludes, "Naked women is art, naked men a no-no, I bet" (119). The fact that she thinks Rachel will only like Andy more if she calls him dangerous emphasizes how she associates these gender roles with sexual violence. It is thus understandable that her dislike of gender roles is stronger than the typical high school student. It also helps explain why she is so reluctant to grow up--if growing up means having to be encapsulated in the accepted female gender role, she isn't interested.
Memory and Melinda's inability to forget what happened in August feature prominently in Speak. Melinda continually talks about trying to erase her memory by being silent. Furthermore, throughout the novel, we witness Melinda reconstructing her memory of what happened at the party. She begins the novel unable to say Andy Evans' name. By the spring she is finally able to admit to herself that she was raped. Physical evidence of this memory reconstruction comes with Melinda's written confession to Rachel. She at first writes "hurt," but immediately crosses it out and replaces it with the word "rape." Thus when Melinda regains her voice, she is also finally ready to remember. She realizes that remembering, though painful--like cutting sick limbs off a tree--is necessary for healing and growth.
Plants are a major motif in the novel, used to symbolize the importance and the difficulty of growth. In art class, Melinda is assigned "tree" as the object with which she will be working for the remainder of the school year. Her connection with trees grows stronger near the end of the novel, when she begins obsessively raking leaves from her front yard. Her father calls the arborists to have dead branches removed from the family's oak tree. After hearing her father explain the purpose of this to a passerby, Melinda decides she needs to trim her own dead branches, which will be painful, but which will allow her to regain her health and to grow. Trees are not the only plant that play a role in Melinda's life--after using apples to study reproduction in biology class, Melinda studies and is fascinated by the botanic reproductive process, and specifically by how many obstacles and dangers seeds face in transitioning from seed to plant, as she does in turning from child to adult. Later in the novel, she asks her dad to buy her seeds so that she can garden in her yard, showing that she finally has a desire to grow.
Speak Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Speak is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
David: "But you got it wrong. The suffragettes were all about speaking up, screaming for their rights. You can't speak up for your right to be silent. That's letting the bad guys win. If the suffragettes did that, women wouldn't be...