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.

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