Perhaps the most prevalent theme in Thirteen Reasons Whyis the theme of repercussions, or cause and effect. In her tapes, Hannah constantly reminds her baker’s dozen that their actions had reverberating, pervasive effects on her life and the lives of others. For example, Justin’s seemingly harmless embellishment of what really happened during his kiss with Hannah led to Alex including Hannah on his list. This in turn led to Bryce and other boys feeling entitled to Hannah’s body, and so and so forth. Another example is Jenny driving drunk and knocking over the stop sign. Just as no one could have foreseen the end result of Justin’s lies, no one would have thought that Jenny’s lapse in judgment could cause a death. And yet, these incongruous actions had devastating results. These repercussions are why Hannah tells her peers again and again that they must be vigilant and thoughtful with their actions.
To Hannah, the gossip and rumors circulated about her, oftentimes by the people she trusted and considered friends, is another form of betrayal. Time and time again she opened up to people, sharing with them her secrets, her inner thoughts, and her emotions, and they just became fodder for the school. The first of these betrayals came from Justin Foley, Hannah’s first kiss. Hannah placed so much significance and importance in this kiss. She imagined for days what it would be like, and made herself emotionally vulnerable to Justin. He repaid her trust in him by spreading rumors about what happened between them, thus beginning the snowball of lies that bulldozed through Hannah’s life. Zach and Jessica, Hannah’s first friends in Crestmont, also betrayed her. Zach used her to get revenge on Jessica, and Jessica slapped Hannah in Monet’s, thus changing a former safe haven for Hannah into a place of pain.
Though Hannah’s peers frequently betrayed her, she is not only a victim. She and Justin betrayed Jessica when they did not stop Bryce from raping her. Hannah’s culpability in Jessica’s rape weighed heavily on her consciousness, and is one of the reasons why she decided to commit suicide. Hannah’s betrayal also demonstrates that no one in Thirteen Reasons Why is completely innocent and safe from blame. All of the characters, even Hannah and Clay, play a role in the circumstances leading to Hannah’s choice.
Gossip and Reputation
The dominating factors in Hannah’s decision to commit suicide are the gossip her peers spread about her, and the reputation that formed as result. New to Crestmont, Hannah was looking forward to being in control of how people perceived her. It seems as if at her old school, she was also victim to gossip and bullying, and Crestmont was her second chance (31). Unfortunately for Hannah, Justin Foley embellished the story of their first kiss, and the first seeds of Hannah’s reputation as a promiscuous girl were planted. As school years passed, the gossip surrounding Hannah impacted her interactions with the boys of Crestmont, and those interactions in turn contributed to her unsavory reputation. This vicious cycle continued until it spirals out of control, taking Hannah’s self-confidence, self-love, and peace with it.
The sequence of events Hannah presents in her tapes shows readers the influence of rumors, reputation, and public opinion, especially during high school and the adolescent years. At a time when your personality and body are in constant flux, how other people view and treat you can be of utmost importance. As Hannah says when she found out about Alex’s list, “there’s just something about having everyone agree on something—something about you—that opens a cage of butterflies in your stomach” (63). For Hannah, a young girl whose reputation was formed before people could get to know her truly, the rumors made her reputation a cage she couldn’t escape from. All she wanted was for her peers to know her. “Not the stuff they thought they knew about [her],” but the real her (212). Sadly, as Hannah claims, “you can’t disprove a rumor,” and the ones about her send her to the grave (49).
One of the most tragic elements of Hannah’s story is how oblivious her parents were to her situation. Preoccupied with running their store, Hannah’s parents had no idea she was bullied by her peers, or that terrible rumors were being spread about their daughter. They were also unaware that Hannah had suicide ideation and depression. Their cluelessness persisted until the very end of Hannah’s life. They knew nothing when Tony called and asked them about Hannah’s whereabouts after she gave him the second set of tapes. It is safe to assume that Hannah’s parents were blindsided by their daughter’s death.
Hannah's parents were not the only ones oblivious to the lives of their children. Most of the parents in the story were either willfully uninvolved in their children’s lives, or lied to by their children. One of the recurring jokes of the novel is the go-to-excuse for teens when their parents ask about their activities: “school project” (16). For example, when Clay’s mother sees him listening to Hannah’s tape and asks what he’s doing, he quickly tells her it’s a friend’s school project. Another prime example of this theme is Tyler and his parents. When Clay sees Tyler’s broken window, the window that Marcus and Alex threw rocks at, he wonders if Tyler told his parents about stalking Hannah or her tapes. While keeping secrets from one's parents is a typical, cliché part of adolescence, in Thirteen Reasons Why those secrets have deadly results.
Subjugation of the Female Body
Subjugation is defined as the act or process of bringing something under your complete control, of conquering or mastering something or someone. Countless times in Thirteen Reasons Why, boys attempt to control and abuse the bodies of Hannah and the other girls. Hannah first mentions this treatment during the incident with Bryce at Blue Spot Liquor, when he smacked her butt. Because Alex named her "Best Ass in the Freshman Class," Bryce felt entitled to touch and control Hannah’s body. When Hannah rejected him, Bryce forcibly grabbed her arm and told her, “I’m only playing, Hannah” (80). To Hannah, this demonstrated that Bryce saw her as his play toy, an object for his amusement.
Of course, the most egregious example of subjugation of the female body in Thirteen Reasons Why is Jessica’s rape. When Bryce sexually abused Jessica, he once again showcased his chauvinism and misogyny. He clearly has no respect for woman’s autonomy and the human right to say no. His encounter with Hannah in the hot tub, where he persisted with his sexual advances even as Hannah began to cry, further solidifies these points.
While Bryce’s actions towards women are amongst the worst in Thirteen Reasons Why, they certainly are not the only ones. Zach, Alex, Tyler, and Marcus all tried to subjugate, control, and manipulate Hannah and her body in various ways throughout the novel. For example, Tyler didn’t try to physically touch Hannah, but he did invade her privacy at home by being a Peeping Tom. Tyler’s actions were on par with those of the other boys in Hannah’s mind because he took away one of her few remaining safe havens. Furthermore, by taking intimate photos of Hannah without her permission, Tyler showed that he also considered her as something under his control, an object for his consumption and enjoyment. With all of these boys subjugating and manipulating her, Hannah felt like a stranger in her own body. Their treatment is partly why Hannah decided to end her life.
Hannah’s tapes serve as more than just her suicide note. They are part of a cautionary tale for her baker’s dozen, showing them how they contributed to someone’s death and warning them to stop their current ways of life before they do this to someone else.
They also act as part of Hannah’s revenge. While revenge might not have been Hannah’s conscious intention with her tapes, it is definitely a side effect. Hearing about their role in Hannah’s death, and having their peers privy to that role, has a devastating impact on the baker’s dozen. In addition to tarnishing their reputations and messing with their minds, the tapes have a visceral and physical impact on their bodies. Those that have heard the tapes appear physically battered and strained at school. Even Clay, who Hannah declares doesn’t belong on her list, experiences a severe migraine while listening to the tapes. That is how powerful and painful the tapes are. After enduring alone the pain and loneliness her peers caused, Hannah takes her revenge by leveling those sensations onto them.
Exposing the Truth
Central to Thirteen Reasons Why are the secrets and lies that drove Hannah to commit suicide. One of the main functions of Hannah’s tapes is to bring these secrets to light, and to expose the truth. As she (ironically) says during Ryan’s tape, “the truth shall set you free” (288). Of course, exposing the truth is easier said than done. As Hannah reveals the secrets of her classmates and debunks their lies, readers experience mental and physical anguish. For example, Clay begins to question everything he knew about his school and his classmates. When he listens to Marcus sexually assaulting Hannah, he thinks, “It’s too much. Too much to handle,” and grips his stomach in pain (222). And later on, in reaction to hearing about Bryce’s rape of Jessica, Clay vomits.
Clearly, exposing the truth comes at a price, and could have far-reaching repercussions beyond ruining reputations. For example, while Courtney stands to lose her status as a popular girl because of the role she played in Hannah’s death, Bryce could face prison time for his atrocious acts, and Mr. Porter could lose his job. For various reasons, the baker’s dozen all have an investment in making sure the truth stays buried. Unfortunately for them, Hannah refuses to continue being the sole bearer of her classmates’ secrets and lies, and exposes them for others to see.
Thirteen Reasons Why Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Thirteen Reasons Why is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.