Tone, an element of style, refers to the author's attitude toward the characters, the subject matter, and the audience. In Speak, we can hear Laurie Halse Anderson's voice behind the voice of fourteen-year-old Melinda Sordino, our narrator. Although Melinda has no clue how to deal with the fact that she was raped, we can tell that Anderson has very definite ideas. Anderson, in Speak, seems most concerned with advising and comforting victims of sexual abuse. She also seems very concerned with educating young people and others in recognizing signs of possible abuse in the people around them – and how to try to help.
Through Melinda, Anderson gives readers an example of how a young person being victimized might act, feel, and think. Through Mr. Freeman in particular, Anderson models ways to help if someone we know appears to be the victim of abuse. Through Principal Principal, the guidance counselor, and Melinda's parents, Anderson suggests that those who are supposed to be experts in handling kids are often the most blind.
As discussed in "What's Up With the Title?," Speak argues that victims of abuse need to talk about their experiences – for personal healing and to help protect others from predators and abusers. The tenth anniversary edition of the novel has lots of juicy bonus material from Laurie Halse Anderson, including an interview. In it, she says:
"There are lots of kids out there in Melinda's position—struggling with depression and teetering on the edge of disaster—but people don't pay attention unless they do something drastic. This makes me so angry I could scream…or better yet, write a book." ("Laurie Halse Anderson speaks about SPEAK" in Speak: 10th Anniversary Edition)
This quote suggests that while the novel is geared toward young adults, Anderson also hopes to reach parents, teachers, counselors, and school administrators, who she believes are letting down the kids who really need help.
Speak is written especially for teens and tweens, both male and female, though it has much to offer adults too. Because Speak is told entirely from the point of view of Melinda Sordino, a fourteen-year-old high school freshman, it falls squarely into the young adult genre.
Laurie Halse Anderson takes pains to channel her inner fourteen-year-old and give Melinda a realistic voice. In an interview, Anderson says, "When I wrote Speak […] my kids were in elementary school. To get a sense of the rhythm of high school speech, I spent a lot of time at Taco Bell and the food court at the mall" ("Laurie Halse Anderson speaks about SPEAK" in Speak: 10th Anniversary Edition).
This confirms our suspicion that Anderson is trying to keep it real. She wants Speak to feel like the story of a real person. (No vampires in Merryweather High…) Of course, each reader gets to decide if Melinda sounds like an actual teen and if her story is believable.
Speak focuses on the hardest part of Melinda's life. All her high school dreams are crushed when Andy Evans rapes her at a high school-party before she starts her freshman year. When she starts high school, she's lost her virginity against her will. She's also lost all the people she thought were her friends and her ability to communicate with others. As Melinda struggles with the burden of her secret, she grows more and more depressed, and even begins mutilating her own body.
Melinda comes of age when she begins to take back her body, her mind, and her life, through various kinds of speech and action, from graffiti, drawing, painting, and note writing, to bike riding, to good old fashioned conversation. Eventually, she truly finds her voice when she says "NO" to Andy, loud and clear. The novel ends at the beginning of Melinda's transformation from suffering victim to strong young woman. And that's what coming-of-age novels are ultimately about – growing up and becoming a strong, independent adult.
Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak is a novel that makes a definite argument. The title gives us a pretty big hint as to what this might be. In short, the novel argues that if you are a victim of a sexual assault, you will need to speak about it in order to heal. furthermore, you need to report your attacker. Hopefully, reporting the attacker will make it less likely he or she will hurt you, or other people, again.
As you probably know, there are lots of complicated reasons why victims of sexual assault might have a hard time talking about what's happened to them. Like Melinda Sordino, star of Speak, they might be ashamed or afraid of what will happen if they tell.
At the end of the day, some victims might choose not to talk about what's happened to them – ever. Is it possible that some victims heal and recover even if they don't talk about being sexually assaulted? Should a person's right not to speak be respected? These are questions for readers to think about along with Melinda as they read the novel.
For Melinda, it would have been very difficult to heal if she hadn't had the courage to finally start telling people that Andy Evans raped her. Her silence is something she hides behind out of fear and shame, among other reasons. After she passes out during frog dissection in biology class, she thinks, "The whole point of not talking about it, of silencing the memory, is to make it go away. It won't. I'll need brain surgery to cut it out of my head" (38.5).
Melinda is constantly being urged to speak, often by celebrities she imagines talking to her. For example, when Melinda feverishly imagines daytime talk show hosts giving her advice, she hears Jerry Springer telling her, "Speak up […], Melinda, I can't hear you!" (76.6).
The real people in Melinda's life are also urging her to talk. Mr. Freeman, Melinda's art teacher, is the only adult who can clearly see that Melinda is holding a secret that's tearing her apart. He encourages her to express her emotions through art and to speak her secrets out loud.
David Petrakis, Melinda's lab partner in science class, might or might not realize Melinda is choking on a secret, but he is definitely a believer in speaking up. At one point in the story Melinda refuses to read the class her paper on "suffragettes" who fought for women's right to vote, own property, and have the same access to education as men. David tells her:
"But you got it wrong. The suffragettes were all about speaking up, screaming for their rights. You can't speak up for your right to be silent. That's letting the bad guys win. If the suffragettes did that, women wouldn't be able to vote yet." (73.7)
Ultimately, Melinda begins to talk about the rape when Andy starts dating Melinda's ex-best friend, Rachel Bruin. Melinda's sense of personal responsibility overrides her fears. When she starts speaking out, she begins getting back some of the power and confidence she lost when Andy raped her. (For more on this, check out "What's Up with the Ending?")
This novel is pretty depressing until we get to the end. Melinda Sordino finally gets some relief from her brutal ordeal and pieces together her broken life. This relief comes through various forms of speech. "Speech" includes spoken words and body language. It also includes "symbolic speech" – such as writing, art, and other media. For example, at the end of Speak, Melinda finally draws a tree that expresses her emotions.
At the very, very end, Melinda is about to tell Mr. Freeman, her art teacher, her story. Mr. Freeman's willingness to listen to Melinda could also be seen as a form of speech, or at least of communication. By listening to her and showing her that he'll believe whatever she tells him, without judging her negatively, he expresses something as powerful as words or art.
Another reason we consider the ending happy: Andy Evans, who seems to be a serial rapist, is finally revealed for what he truly is. As the graffiti on the bathroom wall of the girls' bathroom shows, Andy has sexually assaulted dozens of girls at Merryweather High, and probably other places, too. Melinda's not the only girl in school who isn't talking. But, she's the first to break the silence. This is important because it makes the dark secret of Andy public knowledge, making it harder for him to strike again. Melinda feels pretty good about the Andy situation after that.
However, Melinda learns the hard way that this is not enough. Official justice (or Lisbeth Salander of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) is needed to stop Andy. In the next-to-the last chapter, Andy attacks Melinda and almost rapes her again. Luckily, she fights him off, and there are reliable witnesses to the attack. Although we aren't given details, we can assume that Andy will be prosecuted for his crime. Hopefully he'll be stopped from hurting others in the future.
So far, there's no sequel, but Laurie Halse Anderson, author of Speak, gets requests for a sequel ever day. She wants to write one, but is waiting until "Melinda is ready" ("Here's the thing…" in Speak: 10th Anniversary Edition).
Speak is set in Syracuse, New York. This location is most significant because of the weather, which Melinda Sordino is very tuned in to. Her journey back to life after being raped is reflected in the seasons. Melinda grows more and more brittle, fragile, and cold through the long Syracuse winter. But when spring and summer come, she thaws and grows, just like a tree.
Other than that, we get the feeling that Speak could be happening anywhere, and that's probably the point. We suspect that Anderson wants us to feel like Melinda's experience isn't unique to girls in one specific area – it could, and does, happen everywhere. Similarly, exact dates aren't listed, giving it an anytime-feel. It probably takes place in the late 1990s, since the book was first published in 1999.
Much of Speak happens in that scary place most of us have to go to at some point. If we are lucky, we get out alive with our sanity intact.
Yep, we're talking about high school, the place writers love to pick on. If you have bad experiences in high school, consider a career as a writer. We've seen Merryweather-like high schools many times before: as Neptune High in Veronica Mars, as Trinity in Robert Cormier's The Chocolate Wars, and as Ewen High School in Stephen King's first published novel, Carrie, to name just a few.
Merryweather, like Neptune, has bright spots. The brightest spot of all is Mr. Freeman's art class. Here, Melinda is nourished – she learns about art, about dedication to a work of art, and about her own feelings. Science class is also important to Melinda. Through that class she gets to know her almost-love interest, David Petrakis, teen genius. In science class, she also learns about how trees and plants grow. (Check out "Style" for a look at how Melinda uses the metaphor of a sprouting seed to help her envision her own renewal and recovery from the rape.)
In fact, even though Melinda often skips school, she uses something from all of her classes to help her solve the problem she works on throughout her freshman year: whether or not to talk about her rape. In spite of the flaws of Merryweather, Melinda is ultimately getting an intense and rewarding education and learning how to negotiate a world where some people really do have bad intentions.
So, how about you? How does your high school experience, or your idea of the high school experience, compare with Melinda's? Does Speak provide a realistic view of high school? Why, or why not?
The closets in Speak have a double meaning. They are places of contemplation and safety, but also of isolation and terror. The empty supply closet at school provides Melinda with a place to reflect on her artwork and her life, take naps, vent her emotions, and hide from mean people at school. When she feels that Andy Evans has been exposed as a predator to the student body, she decides she doesn't need the closet. She thinks, "I don't feel like hiding anymore" (88.1).
Part of why she's ready to stop hiding is because she thinks that she's safe from Andy now that other people know he's a predator. She forgets that Andy still hasn't been reported to anybody who can actually stop him, and that he might just want revenge on her for talking.
Ironically, Andy corners Melinda in the closet just when she's trying to move out of it. The closet then becomes the site of her transformation from speechless, powerless victim to powerful woman who fights off her attacker and gains control.
Now, how about Melinda's closet at home? Does she hide in it for the same reasons she hides in the one at school, or are her reasons different?
One day when Melinda is skipping school, she falls asleep on the bus and ends up at Lady of Mercy Hospital. Melinda thinks, "In a sick way, I love [the hospital]" (54.2). After touring the hospital, and tasting the food, Melinda sneaks a hospital gown and fantasizes about falling asleep in a hospital bed in the adult surgery wing.
We admit it. This moment makes us run for the tissues. The hospital setting and Melinda's attraction to it highlights her vulnerability, her extreme need, and her willingness to do whatever it takes to get well. As we read that scene, we keep hoping somebody will find her and help her.
Instead, Melinda surprises us with some serious toughness after she sees a wounded man on a stretcher. She thinks, "There is nothing wrong with me. These are really sick people. Sick that you can see" (54.9). Now, we aren't saying this toughness is healthy for Melinda. Her toughness, in this case, is another version of her not being able to ask for what she needs. It also shows that she doesn't even think she deserves help or relief. The hospital highlights the fact that for Melinda, at this point in the story, mercy and relief and care are out of reach.
The Rodgers Farm isn't far from Melinda's subdivision. It's the site of the end-of-the-summer party where Andy Evans rapes Melinda. It's also where Melinda loses all her friends when she tries to call the police to report the assault. Melinda's trip to the spot where she was raped seems important to her healing process. Although the trip is spontaneous, she's spent her freshman year preparing for it. It takes courage to face the fears and the loss the spot symbolizes. Her "heart thuds" and her "hands shake" (85.11) as she approaches the place.
At the same time, she realizes that the spot itself is innocent and "normal," even pleasant. She thinks, "You could bring a kindergarten class here for a picnic" (85.11). She transforms the place from a site of horror to a place where answers and renewal can be found. When she touches the tree, the silent witness to the crime against her, she tries to read it like "a Braille code" (85.12).
The tree is important to the setting because it shows how Melinda is turning to the natural world to help her solve her human problems. This identification with nature helps her see herself as natural and capable of growth, rather than alien and ruined. (For more on Melinda and trees, see "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory.")
We love the fresh visual style of Speak. The short paragraphs and short chapters break things up in manageable chunks, loaded with emotional content. There is a fair amount of sarcasm as well, like this cynical gem: "Our cheerleaders are much better at scoring than the football team is" (12.17). The sarcasm seems to help Melinda cope with her crummy circumstances, while giving readers some relief from the darkness of her story. It also expresses her loss of faith in the human race, some of which she regains by the end of the novel.
Through Melinda's flashbacks, we learn the details of the rape that threatens to destroy her life. The emotional journey we are reading stems from that experience. The flashbacks help Melinda realize that she needs to start talking about the rape if she gets past it. They also, obviously, allow the reader to discover what it is that happened to Melinda to mess her up so badly.
The story is told primarily in the present tense, over the course of Melinda's freshman year of high school. This aspect of the style helps us get caught up in the emotions and the action, as if we are there with Melinda, experiencing the same inner and outer torments.
Although horrendous, Melinda's journey can also be quite beautiful and even downright poetic. For example, when Melinda revisits the site of her rape and makes peace, in a sense, with the place, we are told,
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. (85.13)
Melinda seems to be envisioning herself as a seed sprouting forth from the dirt where she was raped. This metaphor gives us with the kind of layered images and meanings often found in poetry. Melinda sees herself at this moment as turning into something new, while at the same time returning to the Melinda she was before she was raped. She's also seeing herself as someone who deserves to be cared for and cherished. The poetic mode helps highlight how important the moment is to her in stark contrast to her earlier sarcasm and cynicism.
Rachel: "How do you know what he meant to say? I mean, did [Hawthorne] leave another book called 'Symbolism in My Books'? If he didn't then you could just be making all of this up." (49.11)
Speak opens up a debate on symbolism through Rachel's challenge to Hairwoman's belief that Nathaniel Hawthorne's Scarlett Letter has a code of symbols for the reader to crack. The symbols, Hairwoman claims, give clues to character's emotions. When Laurie Halse Anderson was a student, she actually made this same challenge to her English teacher. This tells us that we shouldn't get too carried away with symbolic interpretation in Speak, and that we should just admit we are making it all up.
We must also suggest that The Scarlett Letter itself acts as a kind of symbol in Speak. As you probably know, it's the story of a young woman scorned by her community because she had sex with a man who was not her husband. She has to wear a big red "A" on her clothes (A for Adultery). Melinda is scorned by her community because she commits a very different socially unacceptable act – calling the police to the party. But, the real socially unacceptable act that troubles Melinda is Andy's. Until she learns to deal with shame and realizes the rape is not her fault, she wears it like an invisible scarlet letter inside her.
This connects with the Scarlett Letter too. On a snowy day in Speak, Hairwoman asks the class what snow symbolizes in Hawthorne's book. Melinda thinks, "Hawthorne wanted snow to symbolize cold, that's what I think" (62.6). She seems to be talking about emotional cold. Melinda also equates cold with "silence" (62.6). She thinks, "Nothing quieter than snow" (62.6).
All this fits with the way Speak matches the turning of the seasons with Melinda's movement toward recovery. As the weather thaws, so does her heart. In the final chapter, we are told:
The tears dissolve the last block of ice in my throat. I feel the frozen stillness melt down through the inside of me, dripping shards of ice that vanish in a puddle of sunlight on the stained floor. Words float up (89.15).
Ice and cold of winter, heat and warmth of summer – these create an extended metaphor (a metaphor that plays out across the novel) that symbolizes Melinda's movement from frozen muteness to fluid speech.
We thought you might come sniffing around here for our thoughts on closets. You'll find some analysis on closets in "Setting." See you there.
Tree? It's too easy. […] I reach in for another piece of paper. […] "Ah-ah-ah," [Mr. Freeman] says. "You just chose your destiny, you can't change that (4.12).
Seeds and trees create another extended metaphor. Melinda learns about them in biology and learns to draw them in art class. By getting intimate with seeds and trees in art and science, Melinda comes to see herself as a precious part of nature, capable of much positive growth.
When Melinda tries to break the ice with Rachel early in the novel, both girls are looking in the mirror in the girl's bathroom. Melinda thinks, "My contact folds in half under my eyelid. Tears well in my right eye" (9.9).
Aha! The broken glasses, the twisted contact, the fake eye, the blindness – when you find these in a story you can expect characters to undergo drastic changes in vision. Often characters move from unclear to clear vision over the course of the story. This seems to be true of many of the characters in Speak, especially Melinda. When she can see clearly, she's able to make her life clear to the very confused people around her.
Bad grades aren't always a sign that a student has suffered a trauma. In Melinda's case, it's striking because, according to Mom and Dad, she used to get good grades. Along with the host of other negative signs Melinda is giving off, bad grades is a sign that something is seriously wrong with Melinda. Unfortunately, adults just seem to give her a hard time about it and don't pick up on the truth.
We do, though. At the end of every part of the novel (the "marking periods") we learn Melinda's grades. How well she's doing in school also tells us how well she's doing internally.
Speak is the story of Melinda Sordino, a high school freshman. She tells her story in her own words, in the present tense. This telling seems to be a kind of internal monologue. Melinda doesn't talk much to others, but she sure hasn't stopped talking to herself; she does lots and lots of thinking about her problems, and we get access to all of her thoughts.
We might think of Speak as a glimpse into Melinda's mind as she figures out how to deal with the fact that she was raped. Seen in this way, the novel makes a subtle argument for thinking, or talking to one's self as a means to solve problems. Melinda's intense reflections on her inner and outer worlds lead her to certain conclusions. Perhaps most importantly, she concludes that she has a moral obligation to warn others about her attacker and that telling the story to others is necessary for her own healing.
When we're dealing with first-person narrators we have an important question to ask: Is this narrator reliable? Should I believe what she's telling me? In the case of many first-person narrator's (like Edgar Allan Poe's – seriously, check out "The Tell-Tale Heart"), the answer is "heck no." But what about Melinda?
We'd tend to say that Melinda is a reliable narrator because she's basically talking to herself. There's no question that she's trying to trick the readers, or hold back important information. In fact, she's doesn't really seem aware that there are readers, unlike the narrator of "The Tell-Tale Heart," who addresses the readers directly, trying to convince us that, though he is a murderer, he's not insane.
On the other hand, Melinda is unreliable. She's bitter, angry, self-destructive, and self-deceptive. She's rightly upset with how she's being treated by her schoolmates, parents, and teachers, but her anger is also blinding. She sees others as belonging to a different species than she does. She rarely uses people's names. Andy is "IT;" her teachers are Hairwoman and Mr. Neck; her principal is Principal Principal.
This helps make Speak fun to read, but it also highlights the fact the Melinda is figuring out her feelings. To do that, she has all kinds of strategies for creating distance between herself and others. So, we'd say it's safe to trust this narrator, but not some of the generalizations she makes about the people around her.
We'll leave you with a question: Does Melinda change as a narrator from the first day of school, when the novel begins, to the last day of school when it ends?
In this stage, we first get hints that some evil monster is lurking. In this case, the monster is Andy Evans. In this stage, the hero experiences a "'call' to confront" the monster. Melinda's "call" is Melinda's overwhelming desire to tell somebody she was raped. She doesn't, at first, recognize Andy is a danger to others and doesn't think of trying to save people from him.
In this stage, the hero prepares for battle, but doesn't quite understand what a threat the monster is. So long as Andy keeps his distance from Melinda and her friends, she can try to forget him. All the thinking she's doing prepares her to fight him off at a later date even though she doesn't know it.
All the sudden, Andy is everywhere. He seems to be stalking Melinda, and her ex-best friend Rachel could be his next victim. It seems like Andy might be winning. Melinda is overwhelmed and terrified of him and doesn't have a clue how to fight him.
Near the end of the story, Melinda finds herself trapped in her private hiding place with a very angry and strong Andy. It looks like all is almost lost. Will Speak end in tragedy?
But wait, Melinda's getting the upper hand. She holds a broken piece of a mirror to Andy's neck. She's not about to let him hurt her again – not without a fight. She wants to kill him, but she resists the temptation. So the monster isn't really dead, but he is caught and exposed.
When we meet Melinda on the first day of her freshman year, we know that all her ex-friends and a bunch of other kids are really mad at her. She also hints that something awful has happened to her, and she wants to tell somebody about it but can't.
We find out that people are mad at Melinda because they hold her responsible for an end-of-summer party being busted. Melinda is physically and verbally assaulted at school on a semi-regular basis, prompting her to keep to herself more and more. We also learn that the bad thing happened to her at the party, and that's why she called the police. She is deeply conflicted about whether to talk about it or not.
Melinda could avoid facing her secret indefinitely if it weren't for the fact that Andy Evans goes to her school and has made contact with her. We strongly suspect in this stage that whatever bad thing was done to her at that party was done by Andy. He terrorizes her more and more and is starting to move on to her ex-best friend, Rachel. Now, she has to do something. But it's so complicated.
Melinda is finally motivated to speak and warns Rachel about Andy. Rachel doesn't seem to believe her at first, but Melinda's anonymous warning probably prepares Rachel to ward off Andy at the prom, which she does.
When Andy traps Melinda in her hiding place at school, he has a personal vendetta against her, unlike when he attacked her at the party. It seems like he will beat her or even kill her in addition to raping her if she doesn't escape his clutches. She does escape, though. Nothing like a shard of glass to the neck to put somebody in his place.
We don't learn what happens to Andy, but the secret is out, and he's hopefully in the hands of the police now. On the last day of school, Melinda sees a different side of Merryweather High, a side of Merryweather that's on her side. Classmates express sympathy, and we learn that Rachel has reached out to Melinda. Melinda also seems on the road to a better relationship with Mom and Dad.
After earning an A+ on her final art project, Melinda feels her throat loosening. She begins to confide her story to Mr. Freeman.
Act I starts with our introduction to Melinda and her problems. We know her friends are against her. We know something bad happened to her, and we know it involves Andy Evans, but we don't know what. Act I ends as Melinda embarks on her first school-skipping adventure of the somewhat dangerous kind.
Act II follows Melinda down that dark road to delinquency. Skipping school. Bad grades. In-school suspension – with Andy Evans. That's enough to scare her straight back to good attendance. Act II ends with Melinda discovering the fabulous art of Pablo Picasso.
Act III starts on a positive note. Melinda gets a ride from Mr. Freeman and he offers to listen to her problems if she ever wants to talk about them. Wow. He's the first person to do this. The act features Melinda starting to tell others about the rape, fighting off Andy when he tries to rape her again, drawing an A+ tree, and reconnecting with family and friends. It ends with her starting to confide in Mr. Freeman.