Laurie Halse Anderson’s young-adult novel “Speak” is rich with symbolism. “Speak” tells the story of Melinda Sordino, a high school student who stops speaking after she is raped by a classmate at a party. Anderson uses symbolism to illustrate Melinda’s struggle and her eventual emotional growth as she begins to move past the trauma. Significant symbols in the novel including lips, trees, mirrors and closets add depth and meaning to the story.
Lips and Mouth
Numerous descriptions of Melinda's lips and mouth in the novel underscore Melinda’s inability to speak after the rape. For much of the story, Melinda’s lips are described as cracked, swollen and dry. The ugliness of her mouth represents the ugliness and shame she feels inside as well as her inability to take care of herself. Later, as Melinda begins to heal and learns to speak about the rape, the condition of her lips improves.
Trees are one of the most prevalent symbols in the novel, appearing in almost every chapter of the book. Trees represent life and growth for Melinda. In the beginning of the novel, Melinda is assigned to draw trees for a yearlong art project. She struggles to draw realistic trees, frustrated that she “can’t bring it to life.” This represents her depression and struggle. Later, a scene where men cut away a dead branch from a tree in order to save the rest of the tree symbolizes the danger Melinda’s faces in letting her pain overtake every aspect of her life. As Melinda begins to heal, her tree drawings become richer and more detailed, symbolizing her own growth.
Melinda avoids mirrors after the rape, unable to face her own reflection. This represents her inability to face her feelings. She narrates that she can’t “see herself,” which shows that her sense of identity has been altered by the rape. The only mirror where she feels that she can see herself is a three-way mirror in a store’s dressing room. The fractured reflection represents Melinda’s fractured sense of self.
Melinda frequently hides in the supply closet at her school. This symbolizes her need to hide from the world so she doesn’t have to speak to anyone. It also represents her isolation, not just how she isolates herself but also that she feels her friends have isolated her. The closet is a secret place, reflecting the secret of the rape. Later, when her rapist has been exposed, she stops hiding in the closet, showing that she doesn’t need to hide the rape anymore.