A friend of mine told me about the great themes of literature. The idea is that most great books, movies, etc. all have at least one of the following themes. She and another friend had come up with two of them–they suspected there was a third, and I’ve included the suggestion I cooked up. Here are the categories:
- “Love Conquers All”–Pretty much all happy endings fall into this category. The Harry Potter series practically had this embossed on every page. In Star Wars it’s a little less obvious, but it’s still there. It can be different kinds of love–romantic, familial, platonic. I’d say To Kill a Mockingbird is a “love conquers all”, in the sense of a sort of universal, fraternal love between all people (Yeah, that makes the book sound way more gooey than it really is.) Jane Eyre also falls into this category as an example of romantic love conquering all. And for the record, every Gilbert and Sullivan operetta except Yeomen of the Guard and The Grand Duke is in this category also. I’m not sure how bittersweet love stories like Casablanca fit in here–the love story doesn’t wind up exactly where the leads get what they want, but it’s not really a tragedy, either.
- “Ya Can’t Fight City Hall”–This is the category for tragedies. In Greek tragedy, “The Gods” or “Fate” are “City Hall”, and the stories end badly when people try to fight against their will. Chinatown, one of my favorite movies, is almost the epitome of the “ya can’t fight city hall” genre (e.g. the line ‘He owns the police!” at the end.) Dystopian novels like Nineteen Eighty-Four usually end up being in this category as well. I think your really good horror stories–like Lovecraft’s best–fall into this as well, with unexplainable, powerful supernatural forces standing filling the role of “city hall.” But the concept can be extended psychologically–in Macbeth, city hall could be either the supernatural forces of the witches or Macbeth’s own failings as a person. I guess this is because tragic stories have a feeling of inevitability about them, and that’s what makes them feel tragic. Most of Thomas Hardy’s novels fall into this category.
- “The Cake is a Lie”. Most thrillers and twist endings fall into this category by default. (I took the name from the famous line in the video game Portal.) This is the category for stories where things aren’t as they seem. The Repairer of Reputations, as well as most unreliable narrator stories–e.g. The Turn of the Screw–are in this. But also any story where a major element is that characters are deceiving others, or themselves. This is where I think The Grand Duke fits as well, because everyone is pretending to be something else. Most “meta” narratives fall into this category, because they are about illusion and deception. I’d argue that the game Spec Ops: The Line has one foot in this camp, and one in the “ya can’t fight city hall” camp. Works with ambiguity and room for multiple interpretations fit in this category as well.
What do you think, readers? Any suggestions for things that fit these categories? Anything that doesn’t fit any of these categories? Are the categories themselves nonsensical?