Study Guide

Speak Themes

  • Language and Communication

    Melinda Sordino, the fourteen-year-old star of Speak, loses the ability to communicate after she is sexually assaulted at a party. Instead of speaking out about what happened to her, she bottles up her pain inside, hoping that if she doesn't speak about it, she'll forget what happened to her. Laurie Halse Anderson's powerful novel follows Melinda as she re-learns to talk. She finds lots of other ingenious modes of communication in the meantime. Some of these are effective, like channeling her emotions into art and science. Others, like sending distress signals to the outside world by scratching her wrists, don't communicate what she wants them to. She learns that silence has a place and a purpose, but that sometimes speaking loudly, risky as it can be, is necessary.

    Questions About Language and Communication

    1. What is Melinda's biggest motivation for talking about the rape? Explain your answer.
    2. What is her biggest motivation for not talking about it?
    3. 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?
    4. Besides talking, what are some of the ways people express themselves in this novel?
    5. Why does Melinda stutter when she tries to talk to parents and teachers?
    6. How much of Melinda's silence is voluntary? How much is beyond her control?
    7. Which people in the novel are interested in and willing to listen to Melinda's story? Who isn't interested?
    8. How would the novel be different if more people were willing to listen? Would Melinda have spoken up sooner, or did she need time in order to process what had happened to her before she could speak about it?
    9. Why do the girls at Merryweather write messages about Andy on the bathroom walls instead of speaking about him?

    Chew on This

    Mr. Freeman is the only person in the novel who is really interested in hearing what has been bothering Melinda.

    Speaking is the most challenging but rewarding form of communication; art and writing (such as on the bathroom wall) will never give Melinda the kind of relief that speaking can.

  • Isolation

    Melinda starts the school year isolated by her outcast status, by the secret of her recent rape, and by the fact that her rapist goes to her school. Some of her isolation is self-imposed; she intentionally withdraws from people. This has its benefits. She really needs time to process her experience and come to her own conclusions about it. But she also needs the support of friends and family in order to heal. One great thing about Speak is that Melinda recognizes that her isolation is harmful and takes steps to reconnect with others.

    Questions About Isolation

    1. Are other characters isolated, besides Melinda? Why, or why not? How can you tell?
    2. Does Melinda push away people who care about her? If so, who does she push away and why?
    3. Does nature help Melinda feel less isolated? Explain your answer.
    4. Is Melinda still isolated at the end of the novel?
    5. Does Melinda benefit at all from isolation? What's the difference between isolation and healthy alone-time?

    Chew on This

    In Speak, Melinda recognizes that her isolation from friends and family is harmful for her, and she takes steps to reconnect with others.

    At the end of Speak, Andy and Melinda change places – he becomes the isolated outcast she once was.

  • Violence

    Merryweather High, the primary setting of <em>Speak</em> is a violent, scary place, at least if you are ninth grader Melinda Sordino, school outcast. Everybody blames her for calling the police at the end-of-the-summer party and getting them all in trouble. She gets pushed in the halls, gets her hair pulled, and she's even pushed down the bleachers at the pep rally. An even more intense violence is going on inside Melinda in the form of a memory she's trying to get rid of – the memory of being raped at the party. But how can she forget the assault when her rapist, Andy Evans, goes to her school? Whenever Melinda encounters him, he commits violence against her – verbal violence, physical violence, psychological violence. Don't get the wrong idea about this novel, though. This is a hopeful story. It's about how speaking the truth can sometimes <em>stop</em> violence and lead to a gentler world.

    Questions About Violence

    1. Can you find examples of verbal violence in Speak?
    2. Why can't Melinda stop biting her lips? Why does she scratch her wrists?       
    3. Why does Melinda feel that hurting her body makes her hurt less inside? What would you do if you had a friend who was hurting him/herself like Melinda?
    4. Why do the other students at school bully Melinda?
    5. Why isn't Melinda sure if what Andy did to her was, in fact, rape?  How does she define rape?  How do you define it?
    6. What can Melinda do to better prepare in case she's attacked again? Is it important for people to know self defense? Why, or why not?

    Chew on This

    Melinda uses just enough force to stop Andy, even though she wants to kill him; this shows that she is gaining lots of control over her emotions.

    Andy's violence against female students at Merryweather is part of what gives the school such a sick atmosphere.

  • Education

    Speak is what fancy literary types call a Bildungsroman. That's a German word meaning novel (roman) + education (bildung), or novel of education. Melinda Sordino, the star of Speak, goes through intense growth over the course of the story. Coming-of-age novels are often novels of education and like Speak they often (not always!) take place in school settings. Here we can learn a little about biology, art, literature, civil rights, and even some Spanish. But that's just a bonus. Our real fascination lies in following Melinda through her education or re-education of the heart. In "Tone," we suggest that Speak is also a novel meant specifically to educate the public, or at least open a dialogue, on the subject of rape and its aftermath. The novel also teaches about the power that speech has to hurt and to make things better.

    Questions About Education

    1. What is the most important thing you learned from the novel? What's the most important thing Melinda learns?
    2. Does Melinda get practical knowledge at school? If so, like what? If not, why not?
    3. What does Melinda learn from Mr. Freeman?
    4. What does Melinda learn from her own deep thinking?
    5. Does Melinda teach any of the other characters anything? If so, what? If not, why not?

    Chew on This

    Speak makes high school seem worse than it is.

    Speak's main purpose is to help young people learn to talk about their problems.

    The characters in the novel don't reach out to Melinda because they are not educated about sexual assault.

  • Friendship

    Friendship is a tender and brutal thing in <em>Speak.</em> When Melinda loses all her friends at a party just before she starts high school due to a grave misunderstanding, she's forced to reevaluate the nature of friendship. It hurts to watch her heart get broken again and again by those she wants to be friends with. It also hurts to watch her close off from those who wish her well.  Over the course of the novel, though, she gradually finds ways to renew her old friendships and to make new ones.  She learns to see others with kinder eyes and to communicate with them in a healthy way. <em>Speak</em> celebrates friendship, while exploring its complex nature.

    Questions About Friendship

    1. Why does Rachel turn her back on Melinda? Do you think she has any idea about what happened to Melinda at the party?
    2. Was Melinda's friendship with the Plane Janes shallow?
    3. How would you describe Melinda's friendship with Heather?
    4. Do you think Melinda and David will become better friends?
    5. Can Melinda be friends with her parents?
    6. Does <em>Speak</em> accurately portray high school friendships?

    Chew on This

    Melinda's love for Rachel motivates Melinda to talk about the rape.

    David Petrakis acts like a true friend to Melinda.

    Melinda's friendship with Mr. Freeman is the most important one in the book.

  • Sadness

    It would be fair to call Laurie Halse Anderson's bestselling novel a "tearjerker." The novel's young heroine, Melinda Sordino, is deeply sad. She's been raped and can't tell anybody. All the people she thought were her friends hate her. Her constant need to sleep, her self-mutilation, her depression are all symptoms of the deep sadness she feels. Her vision of the world, of herself, and of her friends is shattered. Now she trusts no one. By the end of the book, however, Melinda is gradually letting go of her depression. When she finally learns how to speak about the terrible thing that happened to her, she begins to find a way past her sadness.

    Questions About Sadness

    1. Melinda perceives Mr. Freeman as being depressed around the time she is. Does Mr. Freeman's depression have an impact on Melinda? Explain your answer.
    2. What are some of the ways Melinda shows her sadness?
    3. Does Melinda's sadness make other characters sad? Why, or why not? Can you give some examples?
    4. What gives Melinda relief from her sadness? Why is it effective? What would you recommend if you were her friend?
    5. Does Melinda do things to make her sadness worse? If so, why does she do those things?

    Chew on This

    More than calling the cops at the party, Melinda's depression drives away her friends.

    Melinda learns to uses sadness as a tool to help her find her feelings.

  • Transformation

    Coming-of-age novels go hand in hand with the theme of transformation. Melinda Sordino, fourteen-year-old high school freshman, is drastically transformed when she's raped by high school senior Andy Evans. She becomes silent and secretive; she becomes distrustful of people and terrified of being alone with a boy. Speak follows Melinda through her freshman year. We watch as she struggles to change back into the girl she used to be, while becoming someone newer and stronger. Her positive transformations come about through art, learning, listening, and speaking. They come about through intense contemplation on Melinda's part and through her willingness to draw on everything around her for the answers she needs.

    Questions About Transformation

    1. What are some of Melinda's important changes?
    2. How does Melinda change physically in the novel? Why are her physical changes important?
    3. Do Melinda's feelings on the human race change throughout the novel? If so, can you give some examples? If not, how does her vision stay the same?
    4. Why does Melinda feel that "Having jeans that fit" (59.8) is a good first step toward recovery?
    5. What do you think Melinda was like before she was raped? What hints does the novel offer us?
    6. Why do trees and seeds become so important to Melinda?

    Chew on This

    At the end of the novel, Melinda learns to reclaim the innocence she thought she lost when Andy raped her.

  • Guilt and Blame

    It's kind of ironic. When Melinda starts ninth grade, most of the kids despise her. They blame her for getting the end-of-the-summer party busted by the cops. Although the bust did have serious consequences for the partiers, the real crime was committed against Melinda. She was raped, but she's afraid the rape was somehow her fault. She isn't even sure that was Andy Evans did to her was rape. As she struggles with her secret and her feelings of guilt, she blames those around her (her parents, friends, school personnel) for not being able to figure out what's wrong with her. Eventually, though, she comes to realize that Andy Evans is the only one to blame. Things get tricky when she begins to understand that if she doesn't start talking about what Andy did, other girls might get hurt. A sense of responsibility for others motivates her to break her silence.

    Questions About Guilt and Blame

    1. What are some of the reasons Melinda feels like the rape was her fault?
    2. Should we blame Melinda's parents for not being able to help her, or for the way they treat her? Why, or why not? Will they feel guilty when they know what she's been through?
    3. Why doesn't Melinda seem to blame Rachel for betraying her?
    4. What do you think happens to Andy after he's discovered trying to rape Melinda a second time? Will he get out of it, or will he have to take the blame?
    5. Why does visiting the spot where she was raped seem to make Melinda feel less guilty?
    6. How did you feel when dozens of girls accuse Andy with their writings on the bathroom wall? Do you consider this reliable evidence? Would a court of law?

    Chew on This

    Melinda believes that she doesn't have a right to talk about the rape, because she thinks it was her fault.

    The Merryweather High School faculty failed Melinda; they should have recognized that she was having a difficult time in her personal life and provided better support.