When we have sufficiently debriefed from the Socratic Seminar, I transition my students into a prewriting activity for their next essay, which will require that they identify and defend a theme in Of Mice and Men.
I distribute a Theme Exploration Graphic Organizer to each student and instruct them to first focus on the side that has the web-like image on it. I tell them to take around five minutes completing the sentence in the center of the web''"Of Mice and Men is a book about . . ."--by listing as many topics that they can think of, even adding more than I have provided spaces for, if necessary. I encourage them to keep their topics limited to one word if they can (ex: loneliness, friendship, dreams, etc.), similarly to the way they began exploring theme in chapter four in a previous lesson.
When students have had time to brainstorm topics on their own, I then ask for volunteers to share their topics with the whole group. I instruct my students to add topics to their lists that they may have missed, as they listen to what their peers share.
The next step is to have my students select the the topic that "speaks to them the most," the one that has left the strongest impression on them, now that we have completed the book. Once they have selected their topic, I then direct them to the bottom of their graphic organizer, where they must figure out what Steinbeck is trying to get his readers to notice about that topic. I remind my students that this is how themes are expressed--not as single words (topics), but as complete sentences about those single words. I further stress to them that a theme needs to be a message that feels worthwhile, something that is gained from having read the work, and not an idea that we essentially already knew (EX: "Everyone will die someday." Not a theme). I remind them that themes either teach us something new that we hadn't realized before, especially in the way a text might portray it, or remind us that something is important that we may have forgotten is important.
My theme speech is never a one-shot deal; I find that I often repeat it several times throughout a school year, as many students still want themes to be single words.
After my students have had a few minutes to write out their themes, I ask for student volunteers to share with the whole group. This is critical to do as a whole group, as it gives my students an opportunity to hear each others attempts, to discuss whether or not what they have written would work as a supportable theme, and for me to help reshape them in front of an attentive audience. Through this whole-group sharing, assessing, reshaping process, the goal is to break as many theme-as-single-word habits as possible.
On the surface, the society within Gattaca appears to be utopian. Through science, the society is capable of ridding the world of disease and illness: a utopic notion. Life for the genetically engineered 'valids' also appears to be perfect, illustrated through the positive connotations in the quote "for the genetically superior, success is easier to obtain."
However, at its core, Gattaca presents a deeply dystopian society. Jerome's plight and tragic end illustrate that life for the valids is not in fact perfect. Another dystopic element is the subjucation of the 'invalids', such as Vincent, trapped in a society that believes that "no one exceeds his potential." Hence, this society is by no means perfect, as both valids and invalids are led to believe that there is no point attempting to excel beyond the restrictions of one's genetic code.
The society is rich with discrimination. In the world of Gattaca, individuals are discriminated against on the basis of their genetic code. While genetically engineered individuals form the society's elite, those born by natural means are treated as inferior, second-class citizens. For example, 'invalids' are restricted in their ability to choose their occupation, as all 'invalids', despite their academic abilities, are only allowed to perform menial tasks. This is emphasized in the ironic quote "the best test score wasn't going to matter unless I had the blood test to go with it." This illustrates that the society is not a meritocracy, as an individual's self worth is calculated purely by their genetic makeup.
Gattaca celebrates the importance of the human spirit. In a society dictated by rules and conventions, it is only through will power and determination that Vincent, the underdog, is able to achieve his dreams. Vincent represents powerful notions such as humanity and perseverance, and his ultimate victory illustrates humanity's triumph over science. This is captured in the optimistic tag line "there is no gene for the human spirit," as well as Vincent's bold declaration that, despite his genetic makeup, he is "as good as any, and better than most." Vincent's plight is characterized by passion and drive, and his success despite every adversity emphasizes the strength of the human spirit.
The society within Gattaca is obsessed with the removal of human flaws and aims for nothing less than human perfection. For this reason, the society is based on eugenics, altering an individual's genes to eradicate disease and illness and promote strength, beauty and intelligence. However, despite this scientific attempt to remove imperfections, even the 'valids' are deeply flawed characters. This can be seen through Jerome's apathy, alcoholism and bitterness regarding his fate. As well as this, the society is inherently flawed as it is based on judgement, discrimination and oppression. In this way, the fact that all of humanity contains faults and flaws, and that it is impossible to change this, is a key message of the film.
Science plays a large role in the film, as Gattaca builds upon the ideas of science and technology prevalent in the late 20th century to create an imagined futuristic society based on genetic engineering. Religion is another crucial theme, indicated by the biblical allusion to Ecclesiastes 7:13 in the title card. The film presents a tenuous relationship between science and religion, as the society's over-reliance on scientific ideals has undermined religion and spirituality. This is emphasized in the quote "I'll never understand what possessed my mother to put her faith in God's hands, rather than her local geneticist." Thus, Andrew Niccol causes the viewer to question and challenge whether an obsession with scientifically achieved perfection threatens to jeopardize "God's handiwork."
The film very clearly confronts ideas about human identity and self worth. Society in Gattaca has created a system to clearly categorize people based on their genetic makeup. Vincent is told by his parents at an early age to be "realistic...The only way that [he would] see the inside of a spaceship, is if [he] were cleaning it." Identity is controlled and defined by an individual's genes. Vincent confounds these definitions of identity. He doesn't change who he "is," genetically—it would be impossible for him to alter his genes, but he does change who he appears to be. At Gattaca, only he knows what his supposed limitations are. And so he is able to exceed his potential, by erasing any negative opinions people have of him and thus freeing himself to be who he believes he can be.
The certainty of genetic identity in this society seems to restrict 'valids' and 'invalids' alike. If Jerome hadn't been so sure of coming first in the swimming championships, would he have worked harder? If his fate hadn't been decided for him, would he have tried to influence his fate? Believing he was invincible, Jerome didn't need the passion that Vincent shows, and the result is devastating. He has to reconsider his identity, he has to accept having come second.
And so Vincent proves to us that identity is not just about what your potential is, or what qualities you may have genetically. In fact your own decisions about who you are, and your actions that make you that way, do just as much to form your "identity" as your genes.
It takes courage to stand against a whole society, a society that tells you that you are 'invalid' and unworthy. Vincent shows courage in abundance and it seems to come from his belief in himself. He doesn't understand why he should give up on his true passion just because other people have doubts about his ability. His passion is too strong to hold back, and it takes courage, time and time again, to push himself to become the person he believes he can be. When he is out with Irene without his contact lenses, he crosses the road without being able to properly see the traffic. Irene later comments, "you couldn't see, could you, that night crossing the road? You crossed anyway." Vincent doesn't want to miss the sunrise with Irene and so he crosses the road, despite putting himself in danger. Again, playing chicken with his brother, he keeps swimming even though his brother worries that he's going to "drown them both." His passion to be better gives him courage and energy: it prevents him from being 'chicken.' He tells Anton, "I never saved anything for the way back." Vincent puts himself in danger by pushing himself so far but his courage pays him back plentifully by the end.