#580…sci, relig, ETC: “Literature’s 3 Themes”


Yes, we still think about lit.

And we still like to keep things simple.

There are only two themes in literature, declared


John Cheever.


(1)  Love and

(2)  Death


   Not a bad analysis, we contend.

   But we contend he missed one theme, and that’s reflected in his, still talented, work.


For more use the DOOR.




   He neglected “(3)  Duty.”


   I surrender the “we” above to the more honest “I.” I cannot easily source this statement by the American novelist, short story writer John Cheever (1912-1982), who some referred to as “the Chekhov of the suburbs.” But I remember he said this sometime at the university I taught at in the late 1970’s. (So my  word is my source here.) Somewhere I have a signed paperback collection of his short stories.

   Let me blue sky a moment about theme: Love is the pleasure or amusement we look forgo in a story. Death, of course, is the undeniable stop sign, that signals everything is over. We must get in everything we’re after before we reach it. And we must consider, one way or another, the risks and dangers along the way. (These are my definitions, btw.)

   A story, then, showcases no purpose or “oughtness” because that would smell of being didactic, or “preachy.” Authors often say, or imply, “Who am I to tell anyone how to think or act?” or “Here’s my story, what came out of me, and all I ask of you is to laugh, cry, enjoy the scenery and sound.”

   Now, here, I’m not talking about smarmy political correct, “message,” stories. Let’s set them away on their own shelf.

   In just few words, let’s consider the several views and attitudes that rise above man-is-the highest-animal scientific naturalism, and that death just might not end everything, and that we may have serious responsibilities to how we live and the people around us.

   It seems to me that nearly all stories are didactic. Those who resist this branding may say or imply (1) well, there is nothing more; or (2) all people are no more than scarecrows filled with only straw; or (3) there is nothing beyond my stage and the people on it, other than the similar stages created by others, or (4) there is nothing of “higher” or value that exists, or that I’m interested in or capable of writing about.

   Many serious contemporary writers fear the “happy ever after” because either (a) that never happens, or (b) it’s not trendy, or (c) if I wire it in, I won’t be taken seriously.

   Still, I contend there’s a third theme, duty, is often alive and well–though sometimes hiding–that should be recognized, and sometimes underlined, not just with openly religious stories. And with analyzing or critiquing literature, the “oughtness” of characters’ actions should often be recognized and evaluated.

Author: John Knapp