The main themes of Speak include trauma and recovery, authenticity and integrity, and finding one’s voice.
- Trauma and recovery: Melinda is so devastated by her assault that she can barely acknowledge it to herself—let alone confess it to anyone else. This isolation makes it harder for Melinda to process her trauma and heal.
- Authenticity and integrity: As an outsider, Melinda keenly observes the rampant hypocrisy and superficiality of the students and teachers at her school.
- Finding one’s voice: Melinda retreats into silence to deal with her trauma, so her recovery is linked with her journey to rediscover her voice.
Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Trauma and Recovery
Speak covers about a year in the life of Melinda, a teenage girl who suffered a trauma the summer before the book’s action begins. A teenage boy, Andy, who attends the same school, raped her during a party. The rape was so traumatic that for most of that year she cannot even use the word, even to herself, but remembers that he “hurt” her. She generally does not use his name, calling him “it.” Because the returning memory and her being able to say the word take many months, and the novel is told from Melinda’s perspective, the reader learns late in the book just how serious an issue she has been handling.
For Melinda, the recovery process is aided by some of her friends and one teacher, but she does not receive counseling or medical attention. She devises her own methods of coping with her emotions but for months is blocked in terms of recalling or speaking of the rape. The limits of medical attention are shown when she loses her way one day and wanders through the wards of a hospital. There she feels disconnected from the patients but senses that they are more ill than she is.
Melinda’s personal safety at home and at school becomes increasingly important to her. Her bedroom at home, still decorated in a childish style that her mother selected, represents both her lost innocence and her difficult relationship with her mother. Melinda spends considerable time outfitting an otherwise unused closet at school as a secure hideaway and a vehicle for self-expression. She realizes later that it is not secure, but it is the place where she faces and resists Andy, including through recovering her voice. Thus, having a safe space is an important component of, but not a fully adequate strategy for, recovery.
Authenticity and Integrity
Over the course of the year, Melinda feels alienated from almost everyone around her. As she is just starting high school, had she not been traumatized, she might have made friends and enjoyed some of the social activities. However, she is an intelligent and very creative person who had already considered herself different from other children; some of the problems she experiences at school are distinct from her trauma and recovery. During the year, her distance from her authentic self is shown through her disregard of her appearance as well as her frequently feeling unwell.
Melinda gets to know a teacher and a few students who have a strong sense of self and express their individuality. Her gradually improving relationship with the art teacher, Mr. Freeman, allows her to express her own creativity. Seeing how he has adapted as an artist and a teacher to the conformist environment of the high school also helps her learn that such adaptation is possible. The long-term art project involving a tree is a key vehicle for her expressiveness and personal growth, as well as an element of her recovery. Her lab partner, David, offers an example of principled action through maintaining his position, but not vocally complaining, during a disagreement with a teacher.
In contrast, she sees most of the teachers and students as overly preoccupied with social conventions or devoid of imagination. Melinda rejects not only the authority of the teachers but the premises of the kind of education they promote. The students are organized in cliques, into which she is not welcomed. She finds their concern, even obsession, with joining the right group both unfathomable and appealing. Melinda comes to realize that she had previously been susceptible to this kind of peer pressure and...
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that Andy is a predator who took advantage of her sensitivity as well as sexually assaulted her. As her own self-esteem improves, she spends less time thinking negatively about her peers.
Loyalty and Friendship
Along with the overall unpleasant atmosphere that she senses at school, Melinda has few friends. Her optimism at making friends with a new girl, Heather, is short-lived. The novel stresses the importance of genuine friendship, which includes loyalty to one’s peers. Melinda realizes too late that she had misjudged Heather’s motives; the other girl is more concerned with being part of a clique called the Marthas than she is in understanding why Melinda is having such a difficult year.
Melinda’s efforts to be a loyal friend are an important part of her development. When she realizes that her old friend Rachelle (formerly Rachel) is dating Andy, she realizes that Rachelle is in danger. Her concern for Rachelle stimulates her memory of the rape and her speech so that she can warn her. Although the immediate effect is disbelief and rejection, by the year’s end—once Andy has exposed his true self—the girls are friends once more.
Finding One’s Voice
Throughout the book, Melinda is depicted as so traumatized that she can barely speak aloud. In contrast, she thinks constantly about the world around her and writes extensively. The return of her physical ability to speak is strongly connected with her developing self-esteem, including vehicles for finding her creativity. Thus, “voice” is both a literal and metaphoric representation of Melinda’s recovery and growth.
The author presents Melinda’s silence in part as the outgrowth of physical sensations. Melinda sometimes feels like someone is pressing on her larynx so that her “throat squeezes shut.” She identifies with others who also had silent periods, notably the writer Maya Angelou, of whom she hangs up a poster. Melinda also feels that others are silencing her, especially her parents, who are depicted as self-involved or even uncaring. As the rejection from other students increases her sense of isolation, she also increasingly feels like her opinions do not matter to anyone else.
By using different genres within the novel, Anderson shows both that Melinda is attentive to other’s voices, such as through recalling and recording dialogue, and that she can be extremely articulate. However, until the situation becomes critical—when she senses Rachel’s danger—she cannot reconcile the written and oral sides of her self-expression. Ultimately, when Andy invades her safe space, the closet, and attacks her again, she is able both to act and to shout.