Speak Characters

Themes and Characters

Secrets and alienation are the dominant themes in thirteen- going on fourteen-yearold Melinda Sordino's account of her miserable freshman year in high school. Silence dominates her life. Due to a recent traumatic experience and subsequent ostracism based on uninformed perceptions, Melinda publicly is almost completely mute. When she begins school, her pain is fresh and "My throat squeezes shut, as if two hands of black fingernails are clamped on my windpipe." She lives in solitude and isolation both at school and home. Privately, she engages in a dynamic inner monologue in which she generates a constant commentary about the people and situations that she encounters, though her interactions with these characters and events are minimal and unsatisfactory.

Melinda's thoughts vocalize her observations about the hypocrisy and lies of both students and adults and reinforces her desire to be mute. Her monologue varies from being serious to sarcastic or humorous and reveals ideas and opinions that she would not dare to divulge publicly. She cynically wonders if there really is a "Permanent Record" which follows students and faculty throughout their lives, perhaps showing her unspoken worry that her rape has ruined her reputation. She laments, "Sometimes I think high school is one long hazing activity: if you are tough enough to survive this, they'll let you become an adult. I hope it's worth it." Melinda is intelligent and witty, calling school orientation "indoctrination," but is disenfranchised. No one appreciates her except for her art teacher.

Melinda hints of having previously led a normal teenage life, mall crawling, socializing at the lake and pool, and talking on the phone. In contrast, after she made a panic stricken 911 call which abruptly ended a party and was a catalyst for her peers' wrath, she walked home alone initiating her exile, showered until the hot water was depleted to purge physical remnants of the rape, then cloistered herself inside her house and watched "bad cartoons," which represents her withdrawal due to being in shock. Melinda is blamed for bringing law enforcement to a party where most of the teenagers were illegally drinking and some were arrested. The insecure Melinda passively accepts others' cruel decision to punitively make her an outcast within her high school society while quietly guarding her secret. Perhaps she feels guilty for being drunk and somewhat responsible for the attack occurring. She loses confidence in herself and exhibits self-hatred. While her thoughts have clarity, when Melinda does talk aloud, her words are often disconnected and incoherent. She epitomizes how most of the novel's characters are inarticulate in some way. "It is easier not to say anything," Melinda explains because "Nobody really wants to hear what you have to say."

Instead of making her problems disappear, silence perpetuates hostility and exclusion. At a pep rally, a student whose brother was arrested at the party obscenely demeans Melinda. Unable to cope with this constant assault, in addition to the normal academic and social pressures of high school, Melinda ignores hygiene, not bathing and wearing unwashed clothes. She bites her lip until its bleeds and sometimes needs stitches as if to prevent herself from speaking and saying something wrong or inappropriate. Melinda's grades drastically drop because she cuts classes and does not complete assignments. Physical ailments plague Melinda. She suffers a stomachache on her first day of school. By keeping her secret, her pain intensifies. Melinda reveals that, "It's getting harder to talk. My throat is always sore, my lips raw. When I wake up in the morning, my jaws are clenched so tight I have a headache." She wishes she could be wrapped in a new skin like a burn victim.

Emotionally, she is depressed because she represses her anger, and she has unseen psychological wounds and scars. Melinda views most males as "predators" and considers herself a "wounded zebra." She is listless, disorganized, and cannot concentrate. She says there are two Melindas, one who wants to participate and the other who is afraid of the world because, "You can never tell when people are lying. Assume the worst. Plan for disaster." She yearns to confide her secret but distrusts authority figures whom she fear will not believe her accusations. Melinda's world seems surreal, and she criticizes herself for her situation, saying, "Every time I try to talk to my parents or a teacher, I sputter or freeze. What is wrong with me?"

Vulnerability and loss of innocence are significant themes. Melinda identifies with seeds which face many hazards that threaten their survival. She names the phases of her art project, the "Confused Period," "Spaz Period," and "Dead Period," which suggests how she perceives herself. Melinda carves linoleum blocks like she chips away at her insecurities. Relying on non-verbal communication, Melinda states, "I am getting better at smiling when people expect it" and "I am a good actor." Ultimately, after several months, Melinda's conscious nightmare and thoughts are so uncomfortable that she cannot avoid thinking about her rape any longer. When she confronts the truth, the resilient Melinda is able to regain her voice, stand up for herself, and express her rage. She saves herself, triumphs, and is vindicated. Melinda becomes empowered and no longer exists on the periphery. Her estrangement from life begins to end as people realize the truth. Melinda's experiences emphasize the need for the community, whether a school or town, to address and help resolve problems.

The theme of immaturity permeates the novel as evidenced by students' behavior. A variety of adolescent girls were Melinda's friends prior to the party. When Melinda most needs supportive friends, they abandon her, and she feels betrayed. Without asking Melinda to explain why she called the police, these former friends subtly and blatantly shun her. Nobody new except Heather, not even the foreign exchange students, befriends Melinda.

When her former best friend, Rachel Bruin, begins dating the boy who raped her, Melinda is motivated to talk. Melinda values her past with Rachel "who suffered through Brownies with me, who taught me how to swim, who understood about my parents, who didn't make fun of my bed- room." Melinda declares, "If there is anyone in the entire galaxy I am dying to tell what really happened, it's Rachel." Rachel removes herself from her immediate past by renaming herself Rachelle to express her European heritage. She spends most of her time with the exchange students, learning to curse in foreign languages. Melinda not only cannot understand these students, she also cannot communicate with them just as she is unable to talk with Rachel. Melinda went to the party with Rachel and her older brother Jimmy, who both are furious with Melinda. When she sees Rachelle kissing Andy, Melinda says, "I can only see thirdgrade Rachel" who "braided pink embroidery thread into my hair that I wore for months until my mom made me cut it out." Melinda finally speaks with Rachelle, but is forced to write notes when the librarian shushes them. While Rachelle is empathetic when Melinda confides her rape, she becomes angered when Melinda accuses Andy. Later, in contrast to Melinda, and perhaps empowered by her information, Rachelle is able to powerfully express herself to stop Andy's plans to victimize her.

Melinda's two other former friends are more approachable and help her when she most needs them. Ivy, who is artistic, praises Melinda's bone sculpture with an abrupt "Good job, Mel." Scared of clowns because of a traumatic experience, Ivy refers to therapy, suggesting that she might be attuned to Melinda's need for counseling. They talk about Andy, and Ivy hints that she knows he has done some bad things. Ivy encourages Melinda's graffiti expression and urges her to look at the responses. Melinda calls Nicole, an athletic girl, a "Warrior Princess" who is friendly to everyone but Melinda and is adored by teachers and teammates. She admits "Nicole is just not a [b——]. It would be so much easier to hate her if she were." Nicole and the lacrosse team rescue Melinda from Andy and spread the word about the attack.

Heather is an energetic new student "packing at least five grand worth of orthodontia" who has transferred from an Ohio school. She is eager to make friends and does not realize that Melinda has become a social pariah. Heather is shallow, a conformist, and easily swayed....

(The entire section is 3467 words.)