Nothing but the Truth: A Documentary Novel

by Avi

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What is the theme of Nothing But the Truth?

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One could argue that the book's abiding theme is the power of lies. We like to think that the truth is more powerful than its opposite, and yet, as the story ably demonstrates, the reverse is quite often the case. As the old saying goes, a lie can travel halfway round the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes. And even when the truth finally does come out, so much damage has already been done by lies that it's almost too late for it to make much of an impact.

That certainly seems to be the case in Nothing But the Truth. Philip's lie—that he was prevented by a vindictive teacher from singing the national anthem—has been seized upon by a sensation-hungry media and blown out of all proportion, with the result that the reputation of a perfectly good teacher, Miss Narwin, is ruined by all the adverse publicity.

Some basic research would've shown that Philip's story was completely false. But because so many people, especially those in the media, wanted to believe in it, it was never seriously challenged. This demonstrates that when the maintenance of a lie is in the interests of powerful groups and individuals, then the power of falsehood can become almost unstoppable, taking on a terrible momentum all of its own and destroying everything in its path, including the truth.

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The central theme of Avi’s novel is the difficulty of establishing the truth because of human subjectivity. Each of the participants in the incidents presented are convinced of the validity of their point of view.

Even Philip, whose version of events could easily be disproved by witnesses, clings to the idea that he is telling the truth. While it may be apparent to the reader that Philip has a tendency to lie, he does not see reality that way. Philip's understanding of “truth” is that is something to be manipulated to help him achieve his goals.

In addition, the author explores the idea that one person’s version of an event can take on a life of its own; people tend to believe what they read or hear in the media and, once that version is established, it becomes more difficult to challenge it.

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The theme of Nothing But the Truth is self-evident in its title. The novel is focused on the role that the truth can play in upholding—or destroying—our personal values, the lives of those around us, and the societal structures that are meant to better our lives.

The message conveyed within this text is that truth is singular; there are no "versions" of the truth, as truth in "multiplicity" would imply that the truth can somehow be altered or subjective. In reality, there is only objective truth: the facts of a situation. When we attempt to insert perspective into truth, we convolute it.

We see the ramifications of twisting the truth through Philip's choice to tell his father that he was "singing" the National Anthem rather...

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than "humming" it. This simple decision ends up dramatically harming the people around Philip, as well as Philip himself. Once this lie goes public, it eventually spells the demise of Philip's teacher's career, ends up shifting the outcome of a public election, results in the loss of school funding, and permanently damages Philip's reputation and his peers' attitude toward him—so much so that he must transfer to a different school.

Thus, Nothing But the Truth largely seems like a cautionary tale about exaggeration. When we approach the truth hyperbolically, we assume a great risk. We risk our integrity and the trust that others place in us to do the right thing. By telling a convoluted "version" of the truth (in other words, a "lie"), Philip loses his integrity and that trust.

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The central theme of Nothing But the Truth is, as indicated in the title, truth and the destructive power of its opposite, lies.  By spreading cruel and unfounded lies about a good teacher, Miss Narwin, who rightfully does not give him a good grade on an important assignment which he did not approach seriously, Philip Malloy does irreparable damage both to his teacher and to himself.  When his parents hear his outrageous and completely untrue allegations, they believe him, and take his concerns to the school board and the press.  These entities are more than willing to further exploit these lies for their own purposes, reinforcing Philip's decision to take the moral low road, and resulting in a chain of events that ruin both the teacher's career and Philip's own aspirations of Olympic glory.

A second theme that is important in the book is responsibility, as it relates to both the student and the teacher.  Philip refuses to take responsibility for his mistakes.  He essentially expects something for nothing, and is angry because his flippant performance on an assignment earned him a grade he did not like.  Instead of taking responsibility and trying to do better, he responds in exactly the opposite manner, attacking his teacher with deeply damaging lies.  Miss Narwin, on her part, has responsibility for her students' well-being, but, despite perceptions to the contrary, little actual authority to hold them accountable.  She is responsible for enforcing rules which are handed down to her by the administration and earning the students' cooperation in her classroom, but when all is said and done, the power to make her students toe the line does not really lie with her.

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