Things Fall Apart Cover art
Theme seems like a no-brainer–it’s the universal truths we find in a text that make it relevant to the human experience. Yet teaching theme can be quite challenging. Students have difficulty grasping the concept, and I am not sure if it’s because they don’t know how to phrase a theme statement or if they simply don’t have quite enough life experience to recognize grand human truths (we’ll set aside semantics for now and operate on the premise that there are “human truths” by which we live).

One way I’ve been able to combat this is by studying book cover art, especially for novels that have several reprints. In case you’ve never really considered it, I’ll make the literary equivalent of a John Madden observation: book cover publishing is a marketing art. Each cover must sell the story in a way that is aesthetically appealing yet intellectually  curious. As much as English teachers and book lovers across the globe will hate to admit it, everyone judges a book by its cover. There have been plenty of times that I’ve picked up a book at Barnes & Noble (love that Educator discount!) because of the pretty picture on the front, and just as often have set it aside because the cover just doesn’t look interesting. I know. I’m shallow. I’ve dealt with it. Feel free to embrace your inner superficiality with me.

Now perhaps I’m a little slower than some, but after teaching for about a decade, I began really taking notice of the cover art on novels. While I told students it didn’t matter that their book didn’t look like mine, I was curious about the reasons a publisher would so radically alter the cover of each new reprint. I don’t have a complete answer, but contextualizing a novel’s reprint in its time period may shed a little light on the subject. I noticed that whatever social preoccupation or concern seemed to be at the forefront of the public mind at the time of republication contributed very much to the images presented on the covers of the books. Moreover (and painfully obvious), the artwork seemed to be designed specifically for the publisher’s targeted demographic market.

Crime and Punishment Cover art

Consider, for example, the book cover for Crime and Punishment marketed in the 1990s to a group of academics (or at least erudite readers in the United States) that portrays an image of social unrest and penury within the proletariat (see above collage, lower left corner); recall, of course, the time period for this cover’s publication followed the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of a long Cold War era. This image, then, speaks to the anxieties and concerns of the time, perhaps even calling upon others to consider (and act upon) the devastating effects of poverty that followed a fallen regime. Yet, another cover designed for cinema depicts what appears to be a love story between Raskolnikov and Sonya. Who knew that was a central theme? Nevertheless, a study of each image portrays a different theme from the novel in a different way. So while Dostoevsky writes about the abject poverty and disenfranchisement of the working class in St. Petersburg, he also writes of one man’s solitary journey to self-realization through guilt, obsession, and finally confession and redemption, as depicted through the various portraits of a lone man. The same sort of pattern is true of Things Fall Apart. A publication in the 1960s, a time of global and domestic civil unrest, looks vastly different from a publication at the turn of the 21st century, a time when society was turning inward and people were becoming more solitary; too, the book art depicts various images depending upon the demographic targeted, i.e. scholars, students, casual readers (see first collage).

To help students better understand this concept, after reading the book, I copy and paste between four and six book cover images from Google into a very simple PowerPoint and ask the same five questions for each image:

  1. What colors define or dominate this cover? How might it affect the reader’s approach to the novel?
  2. How are the images arranged and is one more dominant than another?
  3. What symbolic weight do the images carry?
  4. How might the images affect the reader’s approach to the novel?
  5. What theme(s) does the book art appear to privilege? How might it affect the reader’s approach the novel?

As you can see, the questions gradually guide students to a deeper understanding of the novel in study. Furthermore, the questions ask students to consider the ways a reader may be predisposed to read a text based on its cover art. Might a reader sympathize more with Okonkwo’s unwillingness to adapt to the new reality of the Igbo people when they see the image of the African continent and various modes of violence displayed on the film-based 1970s cover of the novel? Might readers be saddened by the fall of the tragic hero as depicted by the cover illustrating a decaying statue head a la “Ozymandius”? Or might the reader be more likely to revel in the richness of culture expressed in the novel when he is confronted by images of tribal artifacts?

Exploring the changing cover art reinforces the relevancy and timelessness of a novel’s themes and provides an additional technique to differentiate instruction for students. It is also one of the most effective ways I’ve found to stimulate class discussion and critical thinking about a text’s themes, as well as to provide an avenue to examine symbols and the role of art in literature. It doesn’t hurt that it’s a fun way to spend 50 minutes, too.

If you have additional tips or strategies for teaching theme, please share your ideas in the comment field!