Last Updated on May 17, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1213
Speak, which was first published in 1999, was Laurie Halse Anderson’s first novel for young adults, though she had previously written two children’s books and worked as a journalist. Although Anderson has written many subsequent books, Speak remains her best-known and most controversial work. In 2000, the book was selected as one of the American Library Association’s “Best Books for Young Adults,” but it has also regularly featured on the ALA’s list of 100 most banned and challenged books in the United States, reaching fourth place in 2020.
Given its heavy subject matter, it is scarcely surprising that Speak has proved controversial, forcing teachers and adolescent readers to consider the uncomfortable reality that there may well be rapists and rape survivors sitting with them in the classroom. However, Speak’s unflinching examination of these difficult topics is also the source of its enduring popularity, and many readers will find themselves relating to Melinda as she experiences the everyday trials and humiliations of high school and confronts more serious issues like trauma, depression, and bullying.
Since writing Speak, Laurie Halse Anderson has revealed that the book is based on her own experiences, which she detailed in a poetic memoir called Shout, published in 2019. Shout, which reflects on the author’s own rape at the age of thirteen, may be regarded as a nonfiction companion-piece to Speak. One of the points Anderson makes in Shout is that the toxic culture of silence surrounding sexual assault places the burden on the victim and allows sexual assaults to take place and go unpunished. Silence is a major theme in Speak as well, as Melinda’s inability to vocalize what has happened to her leaves her unable to confront and process her trauma.
In Speak, the exact depth and nature of Melinda’s trauma is revealed gradually, and due to her lively narration and internal monologue, it may be some time before the reader registers how silent she is outwardly. Melinda’s narration is episodic in nature, and her conversations with others are often represented as dialogue from a script or screenplay. This creative stylistic choice calls further attention to Melinda’s reluctance to speak, as there’s often a blank space where her line of dialogue ought to be. Melinda silence is accompanied by physical symptoms of anxiety as well: she bites her lips hard enough to draw blood and often feels as though her throat is burning or closing up. She refers to her “chewed-up horror of a mouth,” which looks to her as though it belongs to another person, someone she does not know. Her status as an outcast is connected with her mouth and her lack of a voice, as seen when she contrasts herself with the popular girls:
These are our role models—the Girls Who Have It All. I bet none of them ever stutter or screw up or feel like their brains are dissolving into marshmallow fluff. They all have beautiful lips, carefully outlined in red and polished to a shine.
Speak may be scathing about high school students, with their bullying, cliques, and cruelty, but its depiction of most adults and authority figures as callous and aloof is even more damning. As she develops as an artist and begins to heal from her trauma, Melinda has only one real adult role model: Mr. Freeman, her art teacher. Mr. Freeman is a flawed human being who often seems to be struggling to cope with his own disappointments. Despite this, he genuinely cares about his students and proves to be the most honest, likeable, and trustworthy adult in the book. He...
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is the only adult who seems to sense or care that Melinda is dealing with a significant trauma, and in the end, he is the first adult Melinda confides in when she is ready to talk about her assault.
By contrast, Melinda’s parents are constantly bickering and seem to have little time for their daughter. Melinda and her parents remain disconnected and distant for most of the book, interacting minimally. Though her parents notice that Melinda’s behavior has changed in the last year, they don’t take it seriously and don’t attempt to determine the cause of her depression. When Melinda starts to pick at her wrist with a paperclip, for example, her mother simply tells her that she has no time for this and buys Melinda a book about suicide. Though Melinda’s parents struggle to understand her, their family dynamic seems to be improving slightly by the end of the novel, leaving hope that Melinda will one day be able to open up to them.
Aside from Mr. Freeman’s art class, Melinda’s life at school is fairly miserable. She is shunned by her peers and misunderstood by her teachers. Mr. Neck, her social studies teacher, is vicious, ill-mannered, and grossly unprofessional, using his class as an opportunity to bully the weak and air his xenophobic views on immigration. The teenage Andy Evans is clearly the villain of the piece, not only raping Melinda, but sadistically torturing her afterwards. However, the lack of empathy extended to Melinda by her peers and teachers only isolates her further, showing how survivors are often re-traumatized by the culture of silence that surrounds sexual assault. At the same time, Speak shows how understanding and empathy can contribute to healing, as when the graffiti in the girls’ bathroom shows Melinda that she is not alone.
Throughout her freshman year at high school, Melinda struggles to make progress as a student, an artist, and a human being because she turns the violence of her rape, which she can hardly bear to acknowledge, against herself. She does not regard the rape primarily as a crime which has been committed against her, for which the criminal should be punished, but as a burden she must bear in silence and solitude, with a variety of pathological consequences for herself. Bereft of friends, Melinda draws strength from other sources, often imagining conversations in which trusted authority figures offer her the advice and comfort she yearns for. When she questions whether she truly was raped, Melinda imagines talk show hosts Oprah Winfrey and Sally Jessy assuring her that the rape wasn’t her fault. When she debates whether or not to confide in Rachel, she imagines Maya Angelou encouraging her to tell her friend the truth. These exchanges highlight Melinda’s loneliness but also show her inner strength as she tries to come to terms with her assault.
Melinda’s personal growth is also spurred on by her art projects, which are themed around trees. Over the course of the year, Melinda comes to see the tree as a symbol of herself, applying what she learns about trees, seeds, and gardening to her own healing process. Melinda ultimately realizes that the trauma from her assault is like a diseased branch on a tree: if left alone and untreated, it will eventually poison and consume her entirely. By the end of the novel, Melinda is resolved to not let this happen. As she finishes her final art piece—a picture of a tree that is damaged and imperfect yet still branching up toward the sun—Melinda finally acknowledges what has happened to her, declaring, “I can grow.”
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1685
Anderson set Speak in her hometown, Syracuse, New York. Although a specific date is not given, her popular culture references and jargon suggest that the novel's events occur in the late 1990s. Most of the action in Speak occurs in Melinda's mind. Readers have more access to Melinda's thoughts and perceptions regarding her actions after she was assaulted than her family, teachers, and peers. This mental setting reveals as much as Melinda is willing to face emotionally, becoming larger as she begins to accept what happened and then cope with her anger.
School is the primary setting. We first encounter Melinda as she rides the school bus on her first day in high school. The first student picked up, she strategically sits near the front in hopes of establishing eye contact with people she considers friends but remains alone because former "lab partners or gym buddies" use their eyes to "glare" and condemn her for calling the police to a party just days before. Melinda calls attention to being ignored, stating, "As we leave the last stop, I am the only person sitting alone." Entering the auditorium for freshman orientation, Melinda is aware that students are grouped in "clans" based on superficial social stereotypes and identities such as "Jocks," "Country Clubbers," and "Cheerleaders." Unwelcome in any of these cliques, Melinda is "clanless." She declares, "I have entered high school with the wrong hair, the wrong clothes, the wrong attitude. And I don't have anyone to sit with," just like on the bus. Her school is populated with insiders and outsiders according to who fits in and who does not, but no one is as completely erased as Melinda.
Classrooms and laboratories are unfriendly spaces in which Melinda is bored by the incompetence and personal agendas of many of her teachers. She receives a demerit trying to find her first class, foreshadowing her academic decline. Melinda realizes how school bureaucrats distance themselves from students and treat them impersonally. Angry classmates viciously confront and torment Melinda verbally with name calling and by mocking and harassing her. They also kick and push her and pull her hair.
The lunchroom is a hostile area, and Melinda avoids it. She frequently eats outside the main room in a courtyard. This space also becomes unbearable because it is where Heather ends their friendship based on her dislike of Melinda's moodiness. Although Melinda resists by saying that friends help each other during difficult times, Heather returns to the Marthas who "swallow her whole and she never looks back at me. Not once." This coldness is worsened by the display of Valentine's Day hearts on the cafeteria wall which excludes Melinda.
The Merryweather In-School Suspension's (MISS) bright, white classroom has "uncomfortable chairs and a lamp that buzzes like an angry hive." Melinda and other students are expected to sit still and look at the walls. When Andy Evans, the boy who raped her, shows up, Melinda describes herself as Bunny Rabbit, fearful of the predator. The MISS room intensifies Melinda's anguish by not protecting her, and Andy menacingly blows in her ear.
Melinda tries to avoid the gymnasium and its associated assemblies, pep rallies, basketball games, and demands on her skill for shooting foul shots. Other athletic spaces, particularly the tennis court, emphasize her potential strength. Melinda hides in the bathroom where she cries and overhears conversations demeaning her. Later, though, the bathroom provides her a forum to tell people the truth she has been repressing. Melinda gains access to the teacher's lounge when she helps Heather decorate it for a Thanksgiving meeting as a probationary task for Heather's possible inclusion into the Marthas. The "small green room with dirty windows and a lingering smell of cigarettes" with a "bulletin board that hasn't been cleared off since Americans walked on the moon" disappoints Melinda and affirms her realization that faculty lack respect and authority for themselves and others.
Melinda finds solace in the art room, which she calls "Cool Central," where her teacher, Mr. Freeman, boldly paints on the walls and large canvases. He urges his students to achieve self-discovery by exploring creative ways to express themselves and their emotions. Accused of awarding too many A's, Mr. Freeman defiantly writes his students' names on a wall with notes about their progress as a compromise with the bureaucratic system. A radio constantly plays music, and students are allowed the freedom to snack while they create. Only when Melinda's attacker enters the room, does she experience fear in that space.
Mr. Freeman's blue Volvo is a safe zone which delivers Melinda from freezing conditions. Inside the vehicle, she can tentatively begin to voice her confusion and anger. Mr. Freeman tells her that art is about emotion, but that most people are dead inside. He encourages Melinda by saying he is available to listen to her and that '"You're a good kid. I think you have a lot to say. I'd like to hear it.'" She talks more to Mr. Freeman in the car than she does with anybody else.
The abandoned janitor's closet cocoons Melinda. Located in an upperclassmate section of the school "Where No Freshman Has Gone Before," Melinda discovers the closet while evading the punitive Mr. Neck. She appropriates the space as a sanctuary— "building a fort"—and cleans it and expels spiders. Bringing in comfort items such as a blanket and books, Melinda decorates the closet with her artwork and a poster of Maya Angelou given to her by the librarian. Melinda explains, "My closet is a good thing, a quiet place that helps me hold these thoughts inside my head where no one can hear them." Ironically, the closet becomes a trap when Andy Evans realizes Melinda is isolated from help and tries to assault her a second time.
Melinda's house both comforts and distresses, her. Her room retains childish elements such as garish roses and numerous stuffed toy rabbits that her mother insisted on when she remodeled when Melinda was younger. Melinda states, "My room belongs to aliens. It is a postcard of who I was in fifth grade" and undergoing a "demented phase." Melinda's friend Heather's bedroom contrasts with Melinda's room. Organized and neat, Heather's room, painted lilac and featuring sophisticated artwork and furniture, reflects her controlling personality and eagerness to be treated as an adult.
At home, Melinda's privacy is not assured as her parents can corner her to express their upset about her grades and attitude. She retreats to her room when she hears her parents drive up and pretends to nap. She hides her mirror in her bedroom closet which she sometimes enters to muffle her screams into old clothes. She also sits on the roof to think and escape, metaphorically attempting to rise above her problems but instead bites through her lip and bloodies snow which represents the stain of her attack. Melinda begins healing when she begins to prune shrubbery that conceals her house much like her silence cloaks her pain. By landscaping her yard, Melinda begins to examine her feelings and shape ways to express them.
The party where Melinda was raped was held at a farmhouse on the outskirts of town. She and her friend Rachel accompany Rachel's brother Jimmy to this upperclassmate party where Melinda knows nobody. The barn holds kegs and stereo equipment which isolate Melinda and make her vulnerable as the revelers indulge in beer and form groups. A nearby wooded area provides Andy Evans cover to pursue and overwhelm Melinda as she drunkenly wanders in the moonlit woods. Although Melinda is speechless when she calls 911, the farm's location is locked in by communications technology, snaring partygoers and initiating her torturous existence.
Melinda later returns to the place underneath the tree where she was raped. She describes how this experience transforms her: "I crouch by the trunk, my fingers stroking the bark, seeking a Braille code, a clue, a message on how to come back to life after my long under-snow dormancy." Comparing herself to a seed that needs nurturing, not condemnation, Melinda says:
I dig my fingers into the dirt and squeeze. A small, clean part of me waits to warm and burst through the surface. Some quiet Melindagirl I haven't seen in months. That is the seed I will care for.
Effert's, the store where Melinda's mother is employed, controls the family's life. Melinda's mother is focused on her work and thinks that Melinda should be interested in how the store operates. Melinda resents being expected to work there during her Christmas vacation, pinning returned shirts in the basement because she is underage and legally cannot be employed. She is angry that she has to purchase clothes there because of her mother's employee discount. Melinda covers jean labels identifying the store with her baggy shirts, the looseness which suggests her poor body image after the assault.
Her father's insurance office is also a confining setting which enrages her because her father goofs off while she stuffs gift calendars into envelopes for clients. Melinda cannot perform her assigned tasks quickly and competently enough to his satisfaction. She accidentally cuts her tongue and bleeds, reminding her of her rape and "All of the anger whistles out of me like I'm a popped balloon." Her father "is really pissed when he sees how many calendars I bled on" and "mentions a need for professional help," ironically indicating his lack of awareness that his daughter needs counseling much more than he needs trained workers.
Melinda wanders through the various floors of the Lady of Mercy Hospital after she falls asleep on a bus and gets off at the wrong stop. After observing people in various waiting rooms and the cafeteria, she takes a hospital gown and sleeps in a sheltered spot. Melinda realizes that other people are really sick, perhaps permanently, and that she is not. This experience helps shift her thoughts toward healing. It also shows how nobody pays attention to Melinda or her apparent physical deterioration. Medical personnel, including the absentee people who stitch her bitten lips, do not inquire about the underlying reasons for her injury.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 820
Melinda's first person narration empowers Speak's literary strength. The use of monologue invites readers to become emotionally involved in the story and feel empathy for Melinda. Other than Mr. Freeman and David, readers seem to be the only people who will listen to her and comprehend what she is saying. Melinda's private narra- Cover illustration by Michael Morgenstern for Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. tion encourages her to speak boldly and provocatively without constraints or fear of being humiliated or punished. Melinda's monologue is presented in the form of short passages preceded with descriptive headers like journal entries, school newspaper bulletins, or quick phone calls. Sometimes paragraphs consist of a single sentence, symbolizing Melinda's isolation.
Anderson divides the novel into four sections, each representing a grading period of the academic year. These sections also correlate to seasons. This structural framework aids Anderson's depiction of Melinda's dramatic decline, her grades plummeting along with the temperatures, then her gradual ascent as spring brings renewal and birth. To cope with the overwhelming prospect of high school, Melinda divides time and counts down the days remaining until graduation. Like nature, Melinda transforms herself from being frozen and in hibernation to thawing for growth and revitalization. In spring, Melinda's germination studies in biology class stress that seeds are "restless" to sprout, which corresponds with Melinda's agitation as her need to speak surfaces. Her interest in planting around her house suggests that she is emerging from her self-imposed confinement.
Dialogue and the absence of dialogue delivers information. Anderson often shows how Melinda does not participate in conversations by presenting dialogue as a script. For example, another character such as Melinda's father will be designated by the tag "Dad:", followed by dialogue, then, on a separate line, Melinda will be identified as "Me:", followed by white space to indicate that she said nothing. The lack of dialogue or antagonistic dialogue reveals how people refuse to speak with Melinda and instead speak at her to condemn her behavior and attitude. Sometimes Melinda responds in short, staccato sentences in order to participate without revealing too much.
Melinda gradually discloses clues about being raped and calling 911, heightening tension and suspense. Readers become aware that something significant happened to her beyond the simple explanation her peers believe. The full story of her attack is not revealed even to readers until near the conclusion. Through her sometimes tragic, sometimes comic monologue, Melinda alludes to her attack. Jaded by the realities of academic processes and school culture, Melinda offers insights often disguised as humor. She makes lists like "Guys to Stay Away From" and "The First Ten Lies They Tell You" which reveal her intelligence to comprehend the realities of situations and her disgust with a rigid system unsympathetic to students' needs. Regardless of how Melinda presents information, she emphasizes how surreal and absurd high school life is. The indecision about which mascot should represent the school shows how difficult it is to achieve resolution of a small problem, let alone a major issue like the one Melinda has. The mascot dilemma also underscores the lack of unity and identity at all levels throughout Merryweather High.
Anderson uses powerful figurative language to achieve effective imagery and symbolism. Melinda says, "words fall like nails on the floor, hard, pointed." She describes April as "A warm, moldy washcloth of a month." Blood is present when Melinda cuts herself carving her art project, licking envelopes, or scratching her wrists, representing the wounding of her spirit. She causes Andy to bleed, thus making him suffer the pain and fear he inflicted on her. Snow and cold hint at a hushed silence and quiet related to dormancy. Plant, raking, and mulch references suggest Melinda's affinity and identification with plants, when she declares, "I can grow" like trees. Flying and birds represent freedom, and an emotionally liberated Melinda states, "I feel like I can fly." The moon represents illumination as Melinda contemplates her situation, and concealment of the moon symbolizes Melinda's rape, which Anderson discretely describes with Melinda's euphemistic phrase "he hurts me" repeated three times.
Names are important to convey meaning, even if they indicate the opposite of what is intended. Merryweather is inappropriate because the high school is anything but merry. Suggesting the weather is pleasant might be Anderson's personal joke referring to the region's notoriously cold and snowy winters. Melinda devises names for her teachers based on their physical peculiarities, aware that she might be dubbed by classmates with names referring to her disheveled appearance and perceived treachery. She respects Mr. Freeman and does not assign him an unflattering nickname. Students' first names represent both typical names used in the late-twentieth century and some that suggest ethnic pride (Siobhan), desires for individuality (Blitzen), and revised spellings to be unique (Rachelle). Heather's name might have been inspired by the duplicitous characters, all named Heather, in a macabre movie, "Heathers," about the dark side of high school culture.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3467
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. She is pushy, trying to manipulate Melinda to do things such as redecorating her room. Melinda does not like Heather but tolerates her because she is lonely and "I need a new friend." "Just a pseudo-friend, disposable friend. Friend as accessory. Just so I don't feel and look stupid." Heather shares personality traits with Melinda's mother. Heather schemes about which clubs and service activities she can participate in and sets goals for each grading period. Melinda reveals to readers that "I used to be like Heather."
Using her voice to please others, Heather rejects Melinda in order to be accepted by the Marthas. She never truly hears what Melinda is trying to tell her. While Melinda's physical appearance deteriorates, Heather conforms her wardrobe to meet public approval. She denies herself food and exercises to become a size one to retain her role as a model at the mall. Ultimately, though, Heather's efforts are in vain when the Marthas exclude her from their circle. Heather notices Melinda's depression and says she needs to seek treatment but does not act supportive, withdrawing her friendship and returning Melinda's friendship necklace.
Melinda's lab partner, David Petrakis, does not overtly shun her, and most of her at-school conversations are with him. He seems to function in another sphere of high school that does not care about social status. A "Cyber-genius" who "is so brilliant he makes the teachers nervous," David fixes the computer bugs in report card files for the school and sets up databases to chart the most effective ways to attain high college board scores. He also asserts himself by leaving the social studies classroom when the teacher refuses to permit students to continue a debate about immigration when the teacher does not agree with their comments. As David leaves the room, he stops to look at the American flag. Melinda comments that "He says a million things without saying a word" and "I have never heard a more eloquent silence." When David audio and video tapes class, and has his parents hire a lawyer to ensure free speech is allowed, Melinda declares that "David Petrakis is my hero." She hopes that he is interested romantically in her, and scenes such as his asking her to a pizza party at his house might foreshadow a future relationship beyond friendship.
The novel's villain is Andy Evans, who is alternately known as IT or the Beast in Melinda's thoughts. He is a popular senior athlete who raped Melinda. Andy is narcissistic, often flaunts authority, disregards rules, and feels entitled to whatever he wants. Melinda's use of a pronoun instead of his name symbolizes her need to strip him of an identity. The Beast refers to his predatory nature. As Melinda becomes psychologically stronger, she is able to write and say Andy's name to warn other girls and alert people of his crime. Andy takes advantage of the four-year difference in his and Melinda's ages, as freshmen girls often revere male upper classmates. Not comprehending that his assault was morally and legally wrong, Andy is ever present and threatens and taunts her in detention and the hallways.
Andy exemplifies the themes of deception and false appearances. Watching Rachelle and Andy kiss, Melinda says, "His lips move poison." She remembers how, when she first saw him at the party, she thought he was as handsome as a "Greek God." Dancing in the moonlight with him, she naively thought his kiss meant that "I would start high school with a boyfriend, older and stronger and ready to watch out for me."
Angered that she has warned people about him, Andy attempts to attack Melinda violently again. She successfully fights and defends herself with a broken piece of mirror and screams, "No!" Pushing the mirror against his throat, Melinda draws a drop of blood and controls herself and stops before serious injury can be inflicted. Andy becomes Melinda because "His lips are paralyzed. He cannot speak." After Andy's crime is exposed, he becomes a social pariah. Ignoring Melinda's lengthy quiet period, he tries to belittle Melinda by saying she has a "big mouth" and that she lied about the rape because she had been willing. Nobody believes him.
Melinda has mixed reactions to other students. She notes the party was held at Kyle Rodgers's house but never elaborates about him. Melinda comments on the power male students have over females because they are athletes or hold other influential roles. For example, Todd Ryder is the yearbook photographer and students appease him to ensure inclusion of decent pictures and not unflattering candid shots. Melinda labels other students by physical characteristics such as calling Brendan Keller "Basketball Pole." She lumps cheerleaders into the group "Girls Who Have It All," lamenting their acceptance as role models. Comparing herself to them, Melinda speculates, "I bet none of them ever stutter or screw up or feel like their brains are dissolving into marshmallow fluff. They all have beautiful lips, carefully outlined in red and polished to a shine." Melinda assigns descriptive words to students such as "Brave Kid," who challenges Mr. Neck by saying his son might not have been hired because he was unqualified or not a good worker. She overhears "errant student" outwit the principal about loitering in the hallways.
Mr. and Mrs. Jack Sordino seem clueless that their daughter is undergoing a personal crisis. They are disengaged from Melinda's life, as well as from each other, and do not seem capable of comprehending that their daughter may possibly be at risk of suffering an emotional breakdown. The Sordinos are not nurturing or protective of Melinda. Her childhood fantasy that her real parents were royalty who would rescue her in a limousine reveals her lifelong dissatisfaction and feelings that she does not belong. Often her conversations with her parents are punctuated by silent pauses in which she does not answer their questions or respond to statements. Her parents' primary form of communication is via notes left on the counter. Melinda describes a typical conversation as a three-character dramatic performance in which her father does an "Arnold Schwarzenegger imitation" and "Mom playing Glenn Close in one of her psycho roles. I am the Victim." She says her mother's "Death Voice," which used to scare her as a child, is not effective anymore, admitting she often leaves her quarreling parents and retreats to her room.
Both parents are obsessed with their work. Jack Sordino ironically sells insurance while his own daughter's life is out of control. He pays more attention to the sound of his beeper than Melinda's voice. Her mother is the manager of Effert's, a clothing store in downtown Syracuse which is a location many people consider dangerous. Melinda says, "Mom loves doing the things that other people are afraid of. She could have been a snake handler." Describing her mother as a cigarette chain smoker and driven by work, Melinda, from her point of view, depicts a cold person. When Melinda cuts her wrist with a paperclip, her unsympathetic mother complains, "I don't have time for this," concluding that "suicide is for cowards." Mrs. Sordino buys a book about teenage suicide for Melinda to read, assuming this will resolve her angst. Melinda's mother forces her to walk to school when she misses the bus, thus unintentionally exposing her to Andy and causing a setback in her recovery.
Mr. Freeman seems more intuitive and compassionate than any other adult in Melinda's world. An eccentric man who often disregards the rigid expectations of authority figures, he encourages her to strive to express herself artistically beyond basic methods. This creativity parallels Melinda regaining her voice. Freeman could be considered a father figure while Melinda's real father is oblivious to her pain, which is central to her art project. This project assists Melinda to reject her denial of admitting the rape and to proactively seek help and justice. Mr. Freeman is Melinda's mentor and link to sanity. He urges her to "Speak up for yourself—we want to know what you have to say." An ugly man with a "grasshopper body, like a stilt-walking circus guy," he smiles at students and tells them that his course is the "only class that will teach you how to survive." Mr. Freeman wants to help students find their souls. With his support, Melinda learns to trust her thoughts even if she is unable to give voice to them. His mural of a sunrise represents his optimism.
Melinda's interactions with some faculty shows promise that she will recover retain some interest in school. The librarian is kind and helpful to Melinda, giving her a poster of Maya Angelou. Melinda courteously checks out a stack of books in gratitude. She learns about seed germination from Ms. Keen, the short "gelatinous figure, usually encased in orange polyester," who teaches biology. Feeling sad for Ms. Keen because Melinda suspects she could have done something more substantial with her life than teach high school, Melinda absorbs information which helps her understand how she can achieve her own renewal. Biology class also upsets Melinda. During frog dissection, Melinda observes her lab partner pinning the frog for exami- nation, which reminds her of Andy restraining her. She becomes agitated that the frog is silent and dead, and emotionally relives her assault: a "scream starts in my gut—I can feel the cut, smell the dirt, leaves in my hair." Melinda faints and laments that doctors only stitched up her cut because she believes that only brain surgery can take away her horrible memories of that night.
Other faculty members are antagonists. Melinda does not refer to the teachers she most loathes by name to indicate her disrespect. Principal Principal and the Guidance Counselor are more eager to find fault with students than to help them. The counselor warns Melinda that she is not achieving her potential, but Melinda ignores her. Principal Principal and the Guidance Counselor consult with Melinda's parents and determine that a regimen of MISS detention and supervision of her class attendance and homework, in addition to a stint in summer school, will fix Melinda's problems without investigating the complex reasons for the drastic changes in her academic performances and attitudes.
Mr. Neck is a racist, sexist history teacher "hired to coach a blood sport." Sporting a "gray jock buzz cut" and a "whistle around a neck thicker than his head," he assumes he has all of the answers because he has taught at Merryweather High for twentyfour years. He dislikes Melinda from the first time he sees her at orientation. Misinterpreting Melinda's hasty departure from the cafeteria when her shirt is hit with mashed potatoes, he chastises, "I knew you were trouble the first time I saw you" and smugly boasts, "I can tell you what's going on in a kid's head just by looking in their eyes. No more warnings." Mr. Neck is outspoken about his beliefs. When the ecology club protests a tiger mascot, Mr. Neck loudly expresses his outrage about this attack on school spirit and identity. Mr. Neck reveals his arrogant intolerance for minorities and foreigners when he initiates a debate about whether the United States borders should have been closed to immigrants in 1900. He refuses to let students voice their opinions, relenting only when pressured with legal action. Ironically, Mr. Neck denies Melinda credit for an extensive extra-credit report she prepared about suffragettes' efforts to secure rights for women to express themselves publicly with the vote. He punishes her for not speaking when she delivered her paper to the class and ignores her attempts to resume normalcy. This report shows that Melinda was trying to improve her grades and reengage herself in schoolwork.
Melinda is bemused by her English teacher, whom she dubs Hairwoman because of her half-black, half-orange limp hair which is later transformed by a buzz cut. This teacher also withdraws from society and is unable to look students in the eye. Melinda takes advantage of Hairwoman's behavior and steals a pad of late passes from her, allowing Melinda to come and go as she pleases. Hairwoman devotes many of her lectures to Nathaniel Hawthorne's literary symbolism, telling students that there is a code of literature which will help them figure out deeper meanings and intended messages. Melinda identifies with Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter and wonders if Hester had said "no." Melinda thinks she and Hester would get along, suggesting she could wear an "S for silent, for stupid, for scared. S for silly. For shame."
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 355
Adams, Lauren. Review of Speak. Horn Book Magazine, vol. 75 (September/October 1999): 605-606. Adams recommends Speak because of its main characters "smart and savvy interior narrative" that "also nails the high-school experience cold." Adams concludes, "An uncannily funny book even as it plumbs the darkness, Speak will hold readers from first word to last."
"Anderson, Laurie Halse." In Something about the Author, vol. 95. Detroit: Gale, 1998. This is a biographical sketch of Anderson and a list of resources prior to the publication of Speak.
Brown, Jennifer M. "In Dreams Begin Possibilities." Publishers Weekly, vol. 246 (December 20,1999): 24-25. Brown tells how Anderson wrote Speak after awaking from a nightmare, comments on her other sources of inspiration, and provides details about Anderson's professional and personal life. Brown also says Speak "is remarkable for both Melinda's strong voice—an ironic twist for a character who rarely Speaks but has a pungent internal monologue—and for its taut structure."
Carton, Debbie. Review of Speak. Booklist, vol. 96 (September 15,1999): 247. Carton says that "Anderson perfectly captures the harsh conformity of high-school cliques and one teen's struggle to find acceptance from her peers." Carton concludes, "Melinda's sarcastic wit, honesty, and courage make her a memorable character whose ultimate triumph will inspire and empower readers."
O'Malley, Judy. Review of Speak. Book Links, vol. 9 (January 2000): 54. O'Malley recommends Speak because "The important subject of rape is often difficult to broach with teens" and "This novel powerfully addresses the 'unspeakable' nature of this crime in our society."
Sherman, Dina. Review of Speak. School Library Journal, vol. 45 (October 1999): 144. Sherman remarks that the book contains "sharp, crisp writing" and compliments Anderson for her ability to "[express] the emotions and the struggles of teenagers perfectly."
Smith, Sally. Review of Speak. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, vol. 43 (March 2000): 585-587. Smith's interpretative article explains that Speak is psychologically valuable for using Melinda as an example because her silence represents that which afflicts many young girls as they enter adolescence and secondary school. Smith says Anderson's "novel illuminates the experiences of adolescent girls . . . which focuses on the need to take the struggle away from the individual girl and locate it in the school and community."