The Power of Words: A Speak Analysis

Sometimes, ignoring reality is easier than facing it. When traumatizing events occur, repression is a common coping mechanism used to deal with one’s feelings and thoughts. As an unknown person once said, however, “When something bad happens you have three choices. You can let it define you, let it destroy you, or you can let it strengthen you.” In the novel Speak, written by Laurie Halse Anderson, Melinda Sordino experiences this lesson firsthand. In the story, Melinda is outwardly quiet – on the inside, however, she is everything but silent. As the novel progresses, Melinda gradually learns to both accept herszelf and open up to other people. Throughout the novel, Anderson’s development of Melinda’s character shows the reader how people’s negative experiences do not have to define them.

When Melinda first describes how she came to be a social outcast, she does not attempt justify her own actions. She explains that the reason she is treated so cruelly by her peers is that she called the police while at a party and broke it up. Instead of trying to elaborate on her motives for doing so or explain her point of view, Melinda seems to avoid further explanation. Due to how vague she is, it is easy for the reader to suspect that something happened to Melinda from the beginning of the novel. While Melinda represses it for much of the novel, however, her true reason for calling the police is one that even she does not want to acknowledge. Later in the novel, Melinda reveals that she was raped at the party, which explains her ambiguity when addressing the subject. Ever since the party, she has been in denial, refusing to acknowledge what happened to herself and other people. When her old friend, Rachel, starts dating the man who raped her, Melinda realizes she needs to accept that she was raped to her in order to help Rachel avoid being exposed to the same assault. When she says to Rachel, “I didn’t call the cops to break up the party. I called them because some guy raped me,” she finally acknowledges what happened to her, which signifies a major development in her character (183).

At the beginning of the novel, and throughout the majority of it, Melinda convinces herself that her own feelings and thoughts are irrelevant. She feels as though no one cares about what she has to say, and that her words are merely a burden on others. As she begins to realize that other people do care, and even feel the same as she does, she stops invalidating her own feelings. Near the beginning of the story, Melissa cautions people to stay away from her rapist by writing a warning against him on a bathroom stall. Melissa later revisits the stall that she wrote on, where she is surprised to see that other people supported her. She discovers that many other girls wrote phrases such as “He’s a creep. He should be locked up. Call the cops.” This event signifies a major turning point for Melissa, as it is the moment that she realizes she is not alone in her opinion (185).

As the reader can tell from the moment Melinda’s character appears, she is not an outgoing or friendly person. She keeps to herself, barely saying a word to others, even when spoken to first. Mostly, her behavior is an outcome of her assault, and the trauma she faces both during and after it. As a result of her rape, Melinda believes that what she has to say is not worth vocalizing. However, after she realizes that her thoughts and feelings are valid, and that her sexual assault and trauma are not insignificant, she gradually becomes more confident in her own words. At the end of the novel, one of the art teachers acknowledges that Melinda has been through a lot. Melinda then realizes that her hesitation about speaking is gone, and says to him, “Let me tell you about it” (198).

Throughout Speak, Melinda undergoes experiences that mold her as a person and help her accept and learn to cope with her rape. Rather than letting it define her and ruin her life, Melinda overcomes her fear. She learns that her words and actions hold power, and that speaking up can aid both herself and others. Although Melinda is in denial throughout much of the novel, she later learns that lying to herself about the assault she faced is worse than acknowledging it – and that speaking her mind is a critical step in overcoming her trauma. By talking to others, she frees herself from the isolation she once resigned herself to. In the end, Melinda realizes that what happened to her in the past does not define her value or identity as a person, and that life goes on. She just has to take the first step on the path to recovery.

From Wishbones to Wings: The Symbolism of Birds in “Speak”

Anguish, hope, and forgiveness may not be the first connections a person makes to the idea of birds. In her novel, Speak, Laurie Halse Anderson is able to transform ordinary birds into powerful symbols. Heavy/controversial topics are discussed in Anderson’s work, and not all of her message can be conveyed through literal concepts on the sentence level. The symbol of birds reflect protagonist Melinda’s inner conflicts as the story progresses. Anderson uses the evolution of birds and their meaning to Melinda Sordino to unify themes related to trauma, redemption, and freedom.

The evolution of the meaning of birds in this novel can be traced back to the Sordino family’s symbolic Thanksgiving turkey. The disastrous bird represents tradition – solidified by years of innocent childhood memories – that Melinda can no longer understand after being raped. On the other hand, Melinda’s parents idolize this turkey and what it stands for. They consider succeeding at their annual “holy obligation” as redemption for their failures as a family every other day. To Melinda’s mom in particular, “Thanksgiving dinner means something…if her mother cooks a proper Thanksgiving dinner, it says they’ll be a family for one more year.” The corrosive nature of Melinda’s criticism of her ignorant mother shows how much she has changed. Anderson’s use of hyperbole when describing how badly the turkey was butchered creates a caustic, contemptuous tone. After Melinda’s dad butchers the turkey further, he “buries the soup in the back yard next to their dead beagle, Ariel.” Melinda’s naive parents can not begin to understand what she’s going through, what she’s lost, or what the turkey means to her. Her scornful tone shows that Melinda wants support, but can not reach out to her neglectful parents. They don’t understand her condemnation of tradition and the past, which she’s buried away like the failed Thanksgiving soup. This broken tradition relates to Halse Anderson’s message that until victims of traumatic experiences accept what has happened and forgiven themselves for it, their outlook on life is completely changed. Melinda’s parents don’t realize she lost more than her virginity the night she was raped. She lost her innocence, her past, the traditions that made her who she used to be. Anderson’s use of the turkey symbolizes all that Melinda once was, and what she could become if she forgave herself for the those losses.

As a rape victim carrying the extra burden of crippling depression, redemption is especially important to Melinda. The turkey bones were transformed from an item in the trash to a work of art; full of emotion and meaning. This symbol represents second chances, and the growing hope for someone like Melinda to heal. Her statue shows Melinda’s ability to turn scarred bits and pieces into something whole, something wanted. She learned from her teacher and friend, Mr.Freeman, to “hang on to everything a normal person would throw out…” Still, the turkey bone statue also shows that Melinda is still struggling. Under the constant burden depression places on her, Melinda is floundering. Although she’s beginning to figure out how the broken pieces of her former self fit together, she still needs to find the strength to rip off “the piece of tape over Barbie’s mouth” that keeps her from speaking up. Anderson’s use of tactile imagery when describing the statue and tape contributes to the idea that Melinda is physically unable to speak. This situation is as if a tangible, real force is holding back Melinda. This statue ultimately relates to themes of redemption. When someone forgotten, broken, or left behind is given a second chance, they can become whole again. Melinda’s journey had come to a point where she realized this, but still had a long ways to go before leaving behind the burdens of her past.

Towards the end of Melinda’s story, birds take on a whole new meaning for her. The freedom symbolized by a bird’s flight is something she achieves by releasing the guilt, shame, and self-loathing that held down her wings. On her final art project, she “draws them without thinking – flight, flight, feather, wing.” After countless attempts to perfect her work, Melinda decides to leave her perfectionism and anxiety behind to begin a new life. Without a doubt, hope is on the horizon as her “birds bloom in the light, their feathers expanding promise.” Anderson’s intentional choice in diction when describing how the birds “bloom” with “expanding promise” creates an optimistic tone. This voice is important in setting up the stage for an outcome where Melinda is not only free like a bird in flight, but hopeful and ready to take on the opportunities that lay ahead. After being held back for so long, the release of guilt and shame liberates Melinda. She learns that forgiveness can save anyone from the burdens of a painful past; even if that forgiveness comes from yourself. Before, birds represented restrictions; limits that kept Melinda from growing, healing, or most importantly, from being free. Finally, her newfound flight has led her to a life where she can truly be alive.

As Melinda Sordino grew as a person, the symbol of birds changed with her. The Thanksgiving dinner, the statue, and Melinda’s final art project became more than their more evident meanings. By taking characteristics associated with these individual symbols, Laurie Halse Anderson transforms an everyday creature into significant symbols that bring to focus themes related to trauma, redemption, and liberation. Readers ached with the protagonist in her darkest times; grew hopeful with when she realized she could heal; and rejoiced when a little bird told them that Melinda would finally be free.

The Factors That Helped Melinda Recover

Melinda Sordino is broken. She drifts through her freshman year of high school, failing her classes and being ridiculed by her peers. She might have stayed broken, too, had it not been for key aspects of her life that inspired her to change. This takes place within the book Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. At the end of her eighth-grade year, Melinda and her friends go to a high school party. Once there, Melinda gets drunk and is taken advantage of by a senior, Andy Evans. The story focuses on Melinda’s journey towards recovery and how she conquers her fear of speaking. Over the course of the book, three things in Melinda’s life put her on the road to recovery. One of these things is art class and the teacher in charge of it. Another is Melinda’s lab partner, David Petrakis. Finally, there is an abandoned janitor’s closet that Melinda discovers and puts to good use. These things all are crucially important to Melinda as she fights her way through her freshman year.

On the first day of school, Melinda wanders into her art class where she is greeted by the art teacher, Mr. Freeman. Mr. Freeman soon establishes himself as the only adult Melinda trusts: he teaches Melinda how to speak through art, how to express herself in a way that makes Melinda feel safe. While Melinda talks very little throughout the book, she couldn’t have said more. This growth is evidenced by Melinda’s year-long art project of painting a tree. Melinda’s trees represent whatever stage of healing (or worsening) she is going through. “I’ve been painting watercolors of trees that have been hit by lightning. I try to paint them so they are nearly dead, but not totally.” (Anderson 30-31) Melinda is representing how she feels damaged and broken, and, “nearly dead.” These trees are Melinda’s way of thinking about herself and what happened- she may not realize it, but by painting these trees she is getting her suppressed feelings into the world.

However, Melinda is not the only one who tries to communicate through silence. Melinda’s lab partner, David Petrakis, simply got up and left when a cruel teacher delivered a lecture. “He says a million things without saying a word. I make a note to study David Petrakis. I have never heard a more eloquent silence.” (57) The only difference is, David is not silent in order to hide his thoughts. He is the opposite- he stands up for himself and makes his opinions known. He helps Melinda give a presentation on the suffragettes without a presentation, but says to her afterward: “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.” David convinced Melinda to try to truly speak and make a difference in the world around her instead of living so passively. But this kind of massive change doesn’t happen overnight. It needs to be nurtured so that it can grow.

One day, while running from Mr. Neck, Melinda stumbles across an old, abandoned janitor’s closet. She quickly claims the space as her own and uses it as her retreat or hideaway for whenever things get rough. She decorates the room with things that hold meaning to her and feels safe thinking about what happened to her here. This closet protects Melinda throughout the story until she is fully healed and is ready to live again. It also fits in with one of the motifs in the story: seeds. Melinda frequently talks about seeds in the book, about the process they go through in order to grow. “If the seed is planted too deep, it doesn’t warm up at the right time. Plant it too close too close to the surface and a crow eats it. Too much rain and the seed molds. Not enough rain and it can’t get started.” Melinda’s closet is like the hole that seeds require to grow- it separates her from the outside world just enough so that she can be alone and think about what happened, but it does not completely isolate her or act as a crutch. It simply shields Melinda until the time is right for her to sprout.

These components of Melinda’s life are what she needed to blossom. This can be applied to everyday life in a very significant way; it teaches people the lesson that even though we may feel traumatized or broken in some way, we can always find a way to make ourselves whole again. Melinda did this through art, the ongoing support of David Petrakis, and through her closet. If people are to make use of this lesson, they must find things in their life that can heal them. Melinda was assaulted viciously when she was very young; that is not something that is easily forgotten. But Melinda nurtures herself through these key aspects in a way that effectively brings her back to life.