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  • Writer's pictureDiving Bell

What even is...a value?

This week I discovered the value of a school blazer: it clearly tells kids what the school values. 'Truth, Justice, and Diddling the Tax Man'. 'To the Heights of Holiness'. Or the motto of the place that educated me: Prospiciamus ('Let's go forward'. It wasn't a driving school).

Values are part of that abstraction-continuum that we never explicitly announce to English students. But they're there; and by the time students get to the dreaded Advanced Module A, they're everywhere. And very few students seem confident about the difference between a theme and a value. I've recently read an awful lot of essays answering this question:

Every participant in a conversation has their own values.
How is this evident in the text-pairing you have studied?

Most of them told me stuff about the themes common to Shakespeare and Atwood, Donne and W;t and used 'themes' and 'values' interchangeably.

My point is that values are ideas which we're told are good things. We should have them. 'Do that,' in other words. This is different to a theme. A theme is just a thing, not necessarily a good thing. It's just something that the text brings up a lot. Sometimes themes and values are connected. Look at marriage in Jane Austen. It's a theme. It's a thing. It comes up a lot. But marriage in itself isn't a value. Marriage between equals, that's a value. Happy marriage, that's a value. Compassion in marriage. Marrying someone who dives into fountains and comes out looking troublingly hot. But marriage in itself is just a theme.

There's a funny meme about how to tell whether something is in the passive. Apparently, if you can add ' zombies' to the sentence, then it's a passive verb. (This explains a lot about the general standard of writing, that we're learning about verbal voice from memes and zombies). I think values are something similar. If you can add ' a good thing' and it sounds legit, then it's a value. If it just sounds weird, it's probably a theme. So 'filial obedience is a good thing' sounds right for The Tempest. It doesn't sound right for Hag-Seed. It's present, but Atwood doesn't exactly push the idea that obeying your half-insane conspiracy-theory father is a good thing. It's just a thing. 'Filial autonomy is a good thing' sounds more like an Atwoodean value.

Try it and see how you go. If nothing else, saying ' a good thing' for a solid hour feels positive, if slightly insane.

Buy the worksheet here:

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