Study Guide

Speak Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By Laurie Halse Anderson

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

Note to Shmoopers:

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.

Snow and Cold and Silence

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.

Natural Wonders

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.

Changing Vision

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.

Melinda's Grades

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.