Story of Your Life Themes
The main themes in “Story of Your Life” are free will versus destiny, language and reality, and otherness.
- Free will versus destiny: The novella uses Louise’s acquired knowledge of the future to explore the timeless tension between free will and destiny in human life.
- Language and reality: The differences between human and heptapod languages highlight the question of whether language reflects or shapes one’s perceptions of reality.
- Otherness: The government’s defensive, transactional attitude towards the heptapods shows the dangers of confronting otherness with a closed mind.
Last Updated on September 6, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1182
Free Will versus Destiny
One of the major themes in “Story of Your Life” is the tension between free will and destiny in shaping the course of individual lives. If a person already knows their destiny, as is the case for Dr. Louise Banks after her encounter with the heptapods, it is difficult to say that they are truly free. A grocery-shopping trip with her future husband, Gary, encapsulates Louise’s dilemma effectively. In the aisle of the store, a beautiful wooden salad bowl catches Louise’s eye. As she is pondering its purchase, Louise can also see the moment when her three-year-old daughter will hurt her forehead with the same salad bowl at home years later. Louise can also see herself and Gary holding their crying child in the emergency room, where she will receive a single stitch for the injury. Yet Louise goes on to buy the bowl:
I reached out and took the bowl from the shelf. The motion didn’t feel like something I was forced to do. Instead, it seemed just as urgent as my rushing to catch the bowl when it falls on you: an instinct that I felt right in following.
It is unclear whether Louise’s “instinct” for the bowl or her feeling of rightness in purchasing it is influenced by her knowledge that the bowl will have a minor role to play in her life. The question is left open-ended at this point in the novella. Earlier, Louise debates whether the very notion of knowing the future is incompatible with free will:
The existence of free will meant that we couldn’t know the future. And we knew free will existed because we had direct experience of it. Volition was an intrinsic part of consciousness.
However, as Louise observes, the heptapods are intelligent, conscious beings who not only play out a part in a preordained script but also create the script of their lives with their speech and actions. Thus, they are neither completely free nor “helpless automatons.” The text suggests that the same can apply to humans, too, whose supposedly free choices are greatly determined by forces larger than themselves.
In the case of Louise, her knowledge of the future brings a sense of purpose and urgency to her choices. It is also important to note that despite her sense of compulsion, Louise consciously chooses to marry Gary and have a child with him, despite knowing the tragic outcome of those events. In fact, Louise’s choices are all the more momentous because they are informed by tragedy. Thus, despite her foreknowledge of destiny, Louise celebrates her humanity and her human agency.
Language and Reality
The heptapods create their written speech, Heptapod B, to represent their simultaneous reality and their nonsequential view of time. Thus, it appears that language follows from and reflects consciousness and reality. However, when Louise learns to read Heptapod B, she begins to experience language and reality differently:
With Heptapod B, I was experiencing something just as foreign: my thoughts were becoming graphically coded. There were trance-like moments during the day when my thoughts weren’t expressed with my internal voice; instead, I saw semagrams with my mind’s eye, sprouting like frost on a windowpane.
Louise’s experience poses a long-standing question in the study of linguistics and society—that of whether language shapes perception or vice versa. In Louise’s case, her perception and the very course of her life shift after learning the written language of the heptapods. Although the text itself does not cite the theory, some critics say the narrative turn in “Story of Your Life” alludes to the...
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theory of linguistic relativity, or the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. According to this hypothesis, the structure of a language affects the worldview of its users. When Louise gains knowledge of the nonsequential nature of Heptapod B, time itself begins to appear as simultaneous to her.
However, the text does not wholly subscribe to the view that language precedes reality. Louise notes that when the ancestors of humans and heptapods began perceiving reality, the former looked at events as causal, or as a sequential chain of cause and effect. Heptapods perceived the same events as teleological, or having a set, determined path and purpose. These differing views, in turn, led humans to create sequential language systems and heptapods to create their teleological system.
Chiang’s novella suggests that the answer to this question lies somewhere between language being a precursor to and a reflector of reality. Although language is created to reflect reality, different languages also represent different systems of thought. A person communicating in sign language, a person communicating in Russian, and a person communicating in English do not just use different languages—they also exhibit different systems of thought.
Further, the text suggests that understanding different languages—and thus different modes of thought—is a key component of empathy. Just as the heptapods cease to be truly alien to Louise once she learns their reality through their language, humans in general can be more empathetic by paying attention to the words of others.
One of the more subtle themes in Chiang’s novella is the failure of institutions to confront and respond to otherness. In the text, otherness takes the form of the heptapods, aliens from a distant planet. But the theme can also be extrapolated to refer to the human other, such as minorities or immigrants.
From the very onset, Louise and Gary’s approach to the heptapods differs widely from that of the government and the army. Colonel Weber is wary of the motives of the heptapods and is reluctant to share information with them, lest they steal human technology. The army encampment around the looking glass of the heptapods is covered by three video cameras, so each and every interaction between the academics and the heptapods can be surveilled. While Louise and Gary immediately give the aliens specific and particular names, such as “heptapod” and “Flapper” and “Raspberry,” in an attempt to humanize them, the soldiers maintain a cool distance from the visitors. Gary is often said to roll his eyes when interacting with officials from the military or the State Department when they express a desire to obtain something useful from the heptapods. The scientists are shown to be more interested in learning about the heptapods’ mode of being, whereas the institutions are interested in extracting superior technology. Ironically, the institutions cannot recognize the truly distinctive knowledge the heptapods possess, which is their simultaneous perception and language. Instead, they demand from the heptapods their own notions of technological superiority.
Further, the institutional endeavor to engage the heptapods in a “gift exchange” exercise as a last resort to obtain information from them results in the heptapod’s departure from earth. Since the heptapods already know the events of the future, the gift-giving program serves as a cue for them to begin their exit. Thus, the institution’s blundering, narrow-minded treatment of the heptapods shows the perils of dehumanizing the other and of viewing only a certain kind of knowledge as valuable.