Source Material as a Rich Foundation for Many Literary Texts


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Source material is a rich foundation for many literary texts, including novels, short stories, and poems. However, it takes a skilled author to select a source material—a character, a topic, a theme, an event, an idea, etc.—and transform it into a unique work that is truly his or her own. As you read the following selections, keep in mind that some elements of the texts were drawn from source material and used in a new and unique way.

Source material is often text, but it could also be a photograph, a statue, a painting, or even a firsthand account. Major conflicts, such as the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, World War II, and the Vietnam War, have become the subjects of art, thus serving as source material for literary texts. Recall the story of “Prometheus” as told by Josephine Preston Peabody. The fate of people and society, as well as Prometheus’ actions, reactions, and decisions, directly result from the war between the villainous Zeus and the Titans. Prometheus is a hero who does what he thinks is right. This character type, along with similar ideas about oppression, are also present in Anthem. While the novel that is very different from the myth, they do share some elements. As you read, you will notice that the same topics and themes come up again and again throughout literary texts.

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A topic is a text’s subject, or what the text is mainly about. A theme is the lesson or universal truth that lies beneath the words. Themes are universal, meaning they can be understood by many people across time and cultures. Themes can be shared many texts and appreciated whether the reader lived 200 years ago in England or in the modern-day United States. Many authors draw upon topics and themes from source materials. But each author develops the source material differently and incorporates unique elements into his or her text so that it is not simply a duplicate of someone else’s work. This happens so often in literature that it can be unnoticeable unless you analyze what you are reading.

Here is a perfect example: The theme “love is blind” is at the very heart of William Shakespeare’s classic tragedy Romeo and Juliet. The star-crossed lovers are from feuding families, but their only care is that they are in love and want to be together. The popular musical West Side Story tells essentially the same story, but the author Arthur Laurents, writing in 1961, set his version in then present-day New York City. His protagonists, Tony and Maria, fall in love although they are associated with a rival gangs. The theme remains the same, and because it is universal, people can relate to it now, just as they could in Shakespeare’s day.

Another popular theme in literature is “bravery is the face of adversity.” This theme is expressed in countless books, including Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel Gone With the Wind (in which Scarlett O’Hara must overcome the hardships of the Civil War and the years following), 1947’s The Diary of Anne Frank (in which Anne and others must hide in an attic to elude capture from the Nazis), and the 1997 movie Titanic (in which the men give up their seats in the lifeboats to women and children, among other instances of bravery). As you can see, topics, events, and characters (or real people) are just part of the text. They lead to bigger ideas and messages. The author uses his or her own imagination and style to build on the source material, conveying the ideas and messages in a fresh way that readers can enjoy.

Events of all sorts shape history and cultures, so it is not very surprising that many authors draw inspiration from these important, world-changing incidents. In fact, an author of a literary text can take one event—a war, a political movement, a new law or amendment, etc.—and create a whole new world around it. Think again about Gone With the Wind. This sweeping Civil War-era novel covers many universal themes, including:

  • War sweeps up everything in its path.
  • Individual freedom and independence are essential to life.
  • Human life is sacred.
  • Attaining ones equal rights is a necessary struggle.

In her novel, Mitchell makes the story personal to the reader by revolving the plot around Southern belle Scarlett O’Hara, who undergoes hardships in the midst of the Civil War and the fight to end slavery. Rita Williams-Garcia’s trilogy One Crazy Summer, P.S. Be Eleven, and Gone Crazy in Alabama, also works of historical fiction, follow a trio of sisters during the 1960s when the Civil Rights era takes hold and share many of the same themes as Gone With the Wind, set a century earlier. The shared themes are just as relevant in a novel about the 1960s as they are in a novel about the Civil War.

The crucifixion of Jesus Christ is one of the most significant events in the history of Christianity. Christ was arrested and, after enduring six trials, was mocked, beaten, and whipped. A crown of thorns was placed atop his head. He was then made to bear a large cross over rugged ground to the place that had been deemed his execution site. Christ’s hands and feet were then nailed to the cross, where he hung for three hours under the brutal sun, then in three hours of darkness. His actions were that of a truly selfless mortal man who lived a life without sin. He knew that nobody else on Earth could live a life so without sin that he or she could enter Heaven. Therefore, Christ offered himself as a sacrifice in the place of all other mortals. To Christians, Christ’s act is viewed as the supreme sacrifice, making him Christianity’s savior.

Song 38 begins with the author talking about the “usual mistake.” In the second stanza, we learn he has been hit with mockery, insults, and “blows of the bludgeons and hammers,” and this is what he believes, incorrectly, is the true meaning of life. Whitman then goes on to mention his own “crucifixion and bloody crowning.” These direct references all relate to Christ’s crucifixion. When the author says, “I resume the overstaid fraction,” he is telling the reader that painful experiences blot out the parts of life that are kind and loving. Christ remained loving and kind, despite his ordeal. Whitman then reminds the reader that “gashes heal,” and the poem continues on with a more upbeat tone and imagery.

The Mexican-American War (1846-1848) was part of the “manifest destiny” movement, in which it was felt that the United States had the right to expand across the entire continent. In the process of pushing toward the Pacific Ocean, the United States took nearly one-third of Mexico’s land, including almost all of what is now California, Arizona, and New Mexico. Prior to the official start of the war, there were already battles, one of which occurred in the town of Goliad, Texas, in 1836. With General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna and his Mexican soldiers advancing across Texas, Sam Houston ordered Colonel James W. Fannin to evacuate his men, roughly 400 of them, from Goliad. They were to retreat about 30 miles away to a town called Victoria, where they would be protected by the Guadalupe River. Houston gave his orders on March 14.

Colonel Fannin disobeyed. It is unclear why. However, by the time he ordered the retreat on March 19, it was too late. The Mexican forces, 1,400 strong, were close at hand, following on the heels of Colonel Fannin’s troops. Colonel Fannin was injured. With no food and little water and ammunition, the unprepared Texas troops were slaughtered or taken as prisoners of war. Clearly, Whitman tells the story of this disastrous battle in Song 34—everything from the number of soldiers to the retreat to Colonel Fannin’s injury to the slaughter and capture of the outnumbered troops. In his poem, Whitman paints the Texas soldiers as gallant heroes—omitting the crucial part about the colonel disobeying Houston, which undoubtedly contributed to the defeat of his troops.

In “Song of Myself, Song 34,” Whitman uses bravery as one of his themes—bravery that he associates with this actual historic event (his source material). But how do you know that bravery is a theme? What parts of the text provide evidence for the conclusion that Whitman is trying to convey this message? Just look at stanza three where Whitman describes the soldiers in this way: They were the glory of the race of rangers, Matchless with horse, rifle, song, supper, courtship, Large, turbulent, generous, handsome, proud, and affectionate. Many of these details develop the idea of courageous, well-trained young men who met an untimely demise. As a poet, Whitman does not come right out and say, “These men were brave.” He lets the reader interpret his details.

Whenever you develop your ideas about theme, search throughout the text for evidence that supports your conclusion. Your instincts about theme may be correct if you have read carefully, and there there will be details that back up your thoughts. Consider both Song 34 and Song 38 from Whitman’s poem “Song of Myself.” Although they seem quite different and deal with events that are not associated with one another—one a historic event, the other a religious event—these two songs are part of a much longer work. Therefore, it is not surprising that the author would include some themes that recur from song to song.

What is a theme that Whitman uses in both Song 34 and Song 38?

One theme that is present in both Song 34 and Song 38 is the idea that suffering unites people. In Song 34, evidence that supports this theme is “A few fell at once, shot in the temple or heart, the living and dead lay together/The maim’d and mangled dug in the dirt,” which describes the suffering of the soldiers. In Song 38, an example of evidence is “trickling tears and the blows of the bludgeons and hammers!,” which alludes to Christ’s crucifixion on the cross.

For authors, source material is a deep well. The same events, themes, ideas, characters—and, yes—real-life peopleserve as the basis for countless works of literature. Authors sometimes adhere to details in the source material and sometimes transform the source material until it is almost unrecognizable. In either case, identifying and analyzing source material can greatly enhance a reader’s understanding of a text.

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