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Themes and Colors
Coming of Age Theme Icon
Communication versus Silence Theme Icon
Appearance versus Reality Theme Icon
Family and Friendship Theme Icon
Isolation, Loneliness, and Depression Theme Icon
Memory and Trauma Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Speak, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Appearance versus Reality Theme Icon

Much of Melinda’s cynicism within Speak springs from what she views as a fundamental disconnect between appearance and reality. She has experienced a deeply traumatic rape, yet her parents view her as a disappointment, her teachers view her as a problem, and her classmates view her as a freak. Because she is deeply perceptive and sensitive, Mel notices gaps between appearance and reality everywhere she goes. She sees the cracks in the façade of her parents’ marriage; the social climbing of her only friend, Heather; the petty tyranny of teachers who supposedly have her best interests at heart; and the true evil within her rapist, popular senior Andy Evans. She sees lies within institutions as well, believing that places like schools and shopping malls, and even concepts like family, are built on a foundation of lies. Mel is discouraged and depressed by these gaps, believing that she is the only one who can see them, and assuming that they make the world a false and deceitful place.

Through art, however, Mel learns that the relationship between appearances and reality is more complicated than she thinks. As she creates her own works, she comes to see that images and appearances can in fact express emotional truth. She ends the book understanding that, although she cannot fix the gap between appearances and reality, she can act as a bridge between the two.

Appearance versus Reality ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Appearance versus Reality appears in each chapter of Speak. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Appearance versus Reality Quotes in Speak

Below you will find the important quotes in Speak related to the theme of Appearance versus Reality.
Part 1, Chapter 1 Quotes

I have entered high school with the wrong hair, the wrong clothes, the wrong attitude. And I don’t have anyone to sit with. I am Outcast.

Related Characters: Melinda Sordino (speaker)
Page Number: 4
Explanation and Analysis:

As Melinda begins her freshman year of high school, she reacts to her new environment with pessimism and dread. On one level, this quote reflects how sorely Melinda sticks out within the conformist world of Merryweather High. On a deeper level, Melinda's repetitive description of herself as "wrong" gives readers a sense of her deep self-hatred, and her lack of comfort within her own skin. By criticizing her own appearance, Melinda is unknowingly revealing the reality of her emotional state. Despite claiming frequently that she doesn't care what others think, Melinda's description of herself as an "Outcast" reveals that she is in fact thinking of herself in the way that others see her. Although she may pretend that her isolation doesn't bother her, Melinda is in fact acutely sensitive to her peers' opinions of her; in an effort to ignore their rejection and cruelty, she judges herself as harshly as possible. 


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Part 1, Chapter 6 Quotes

My room belongs to an alien. It is a postcard of who I was in fifth grade.

Related Characters: Melinda Sordino (speaker)
Related Symbols: Melinda’s Bedroom
Page Number: 15
Explanation and Analysis:

As she introduces readers to her childlike bedroom, Melinda reveals both her distance from her past self, and her longing for a time of innocence (fifth grade). By calling herself an "alien," Melinda makes clear that she no longer feels like the same person she was at age eleven. This would make sense for any adolescent, but for Melinda, it is especially and painfully true, considering the act of violence and violation that prematurely forced her into adulthood. 

At the same time, Melinda clearly misses the girl she was in fifth grade. The room is a "postcard," a message written by someone you miss and wish to see. Every time that she steps into her room, Melinda is reminded of the innocence that she has lost, and the child that she used to be. She is also reminded that appearance and reality are not the same thing—that no matter how childlike her room is, she herself is no longer a child, and never will be again. 

I look for shapes in my face. Could I put a face in my tree, like a dryad from Greek mythology? Two muddy-circle eyes under black-dash eyebrows, piggy-nose nostrils, and a chewed-up horror of a mouth. Definitely not a dryad face. I can’t stop biting my lips. It looks like my mouth belongs to someone else, someone I don’t even know.
I get out of bed and take down the mirror. I put it in the back of my closet, facing the wall.

Related Characters: Melinda Sordino (speaker)
Related Symbols: Trees, Seeds, Plants, and Forests, Mirrors, Lips, Blood
Page Number: 17
Explanation and Analysis:

While contemplating herself in the mirror of her bedroom, Melinda feels a surge of loathing. The protagonist often comments negatively about her own appearance, but this quote is one of the most vivid examples of her deep self-hatred. Melinda has essentially internalized all of the hatred and harm that she receives from her peers, and is projecting it back onto herself. In fact, in biting her lips until they bleed, Melinda has actually begun to self-harm, physically punishing herself both for her traumatic past and her current isolation, even though she is blameless in regards to both. The fact that she "can't stop" biting her lips only further emphasizes her feelings of powerlessness, illustrating for readers how out-of-control she feels, even within her own body. 

Throughout the book, Melinda will associate herself closely with trees. Here, though, she doesn't think that she is good enough to be a tree nymph, a "dryad," thus cutting herself off from the healing and rebirth that trees symbolize within the novel. 

Last, Melinda's admission that she "doesn't even know" her own reflection, and her decision to hide her mirror, illustrate how far Melinda is alienated from her own appearance. Inside, she is traumatized and wounded; her appearance, however, does not display those truths. Unable to verbally communicate her true internal state, Melinda hates her body for not expressing that state physically. 

Part 1, Chapter 12 Quotes

The cheerleaders cartwheel into the gym and bellow. The crow stomps the bleachers and roars back. I put my head in my hands and scream to let out the animal noise and some of that night. No one hears. They are all quite spirited.

Related Characters: Melinda Sordino (speaker)
Page Number: 28
Explanation and Analysis:

As a pep rally rages around her, Melinda experiences a moment of raw anguish and isolation. This passage puts Melinda directly in contrast with the other students at her school. While they scream with school spirit and enthusiasm, she screams out of frustration and anguish. A non-conformist in the middle of a mob, it is easy to see why Melinda feels so out of place when she is around her fellow students. Traumatized and alone, she experiences something that should be fun—a pep rally—as a deeply threatening and hostile environment. 

Importantly, Melinda's actions here also help us to understand her complicated relationship with speech and silence. Clearly, Melinda is in deep and constant pain; she is so lonely and damaged, however, that she is unable to express this pain to anyone. The chaos of the pep rally gives her the opportunity to voice her anguish without anyone hearing.

The phrase "some of that night" is particularly important, as it is a subtle reference to the night when Melinda was raped. She carries this experience around with her always, but has been unable to share that burden with anyone around her. Although screaming may provide a temporary outlet for her suffering, Melinda remains unable to escape the memory and trauma related to her assault, or to truly communicate her feelings about it. 

Part 1, Chapter 21 Quotes

I hide in the bathroom until I know Heather’s bus has left. The salt in my tears feels good when it stings my lips. I wash my face in the sink until there is nothing left of it, no eyes, no nose, no mouth. A slick nothing.

Related Characters: Melinda Sordino (speaker), Heather
Related Symbols: Mirrors, Lips, Water, Ice, and Melting
Page Number: 45
Explanation and Analysis:

After a humiliating encounter with Heather and the Marthas, Melinda's moment of anguish in front of the mirror perfectly encapsulates her self-hatred and deep depression. Melinda loathes herself so much that pain—the salt of her tears on her raw lips—feels good to her. Her assault, and her subsequent isolation by her peers, has left Melinda feeling worthless and invisible. She wishes to erase her face so that her appearance will match her internal devaluation—she will be a "nothing" inside and out. 

It is vital, too, that Melinda repeatedly washes her face in a clear effort to cleanse herself. She continues to feel guilt about her rape (a common sentiment for victims of sexual assault), and wishes to cleanse herself of those feelings. The novel often uses water to symbolize cleansing and rebirth, but here, Melinda wishes to use the restorative powers of water in order to completely erase herself. 

Part 2, Chapter 6 Quotes

Cooking Thanksgiving dinner means something to her. It’s like a holy obligation, part of what makes her a wife and mother. My family doesn’t talk much and we have nothing in common, but if my mother cooks a proper Thanksgiving dinner, it says we’ll be a family for one more year. Kodak logic. Only in film commercials does stuff like that work.

Related Characters: Melinda Sordino (speaker), Melinda’s mother
Page Number: 58
Explanation and Analysis:

In the midst of a disastrous Thanksgiving, Melinda reflects on why her mother cares so much about the holiday. While many teenagers feel hostilely towards adults—particularly their parents—Melinda articulates a deep cynicism here regarding her family. She believes that her mother's dedication to a ritual of togetherness and tradition (Thanksgiving) is in fact entirely deluded. That is, by focusing on appearances, such as the perfect Thanksgiving dinner, her mother is ignoring the family's broken and alienated reality.

Beneath Melinda's cynicism, however, readers are able to pick up important details about her mother. A hardworking and driven professional, Melinda's mother is clearly desperate to fulfill the traditional roles of "wife and mother." Seen in this light, her pointless efforts to cook the perfect Thanksgiving dinner are not contemptible, as Melinda seems to believe, but deeply sad. Faced with a distant husband and a nearly comatose daughter, Melinda's mother puts her efforts into cooking a perfect Thanksgiving dinner because she doesn't know what else to do.

Part 3, Chapter 8 Quotes

I rock, thumping my head against the cinder-block wall. A half-forgotten holiday has unveiled every knife that sticks inside me, every cut. No Rachel, no Heather, not even a silly, geeky boy who would like the inside girl I think I am.

Related Characters: Melinda Sordino (speaker), Heather, Rachel Bruin, David Petrakis
Related Symbols: Melinda’s Closet , Blood
Page Number: 110
Explanation and Analysis:

After a disastrous Valentine's Day, Melinda crumbles inside her closet. Through most of her narrative, Melinda acts as if she doesn't care about the opinions of her peers. This passage, however, makes clear how false that attitude actually is. While she may pretend to be hardened and cynical, Melinda in fact feels "cut" every time that someone rejects or mocks her. Rather than being apathetic, Melinda actually cares far too much. An intelligent and emotionally attuned person, she tries to protect herself from the world with hostility, but is unable to do so.

It is interesting, too, that Melinda calls herself "the inside girl I think I am." Always aware of the differences between interior and exterior, Melinda understands that she is far more sensitive and observant than she lets on. Her idea of herself is different from the face she shows to the world; yet even as she hides this softer side of herself, she is desperate for someone else to access it. 

Part 3, Chapter 13 Quotes

The next time you work on your trees, don’t think about trees. Think about love, or hate, or joy, or rage— whatever makes you feel something, makes your palms sweat or your toes curl. Focus on that feeling. When people don’t express themselves, they die one piece at a time.

Related Characters: Mr. Freeman (speaker), Melinda Sordino
Page Number: 122
Explanation and Analysis:

Mr. Freeman tries to encourage Melinda as she attempts over and over again to create a piece of art about a tree. He urges her to give herself over to an emotion—a hard task for someone who is in such pain that she has attempted to emotionally freeze herself.

However difficult Mr. Freeman's challenge is, he has also given Melinda a way to express herself. Although she cannot speak about her experiences, she may still be able to create art about them, expressing her pain through creation rather than through language. 

Mr. Freeman's final warning—that people who don't express themselves "die one piece at a time"—rings all too true for the traumatized ninth grader. By failing to express herself, Melinda has harmed herself physically, socially, and emotionally. The dangers of silence and of frozenness are real, Mr. Freeman implies, and Melinda must fight against them if she hopes to become a functional person once more. 

Part 3, Chapter 14 Quotes

I stumble from thornbush to thornbush— my mother and father who hate each other, Rachel who hates me, a school that gags on me like I’m a hairball. And Heather.
I just need to hang on long enough for my new skin to graft. Mr. Freeman thinks I need to find my feelings. How can I not find them? They are chewing me alive like an infestation of thoughts, shame, mistakes.

Related Characters: Melinda Sordino (speaker), Melinda’s mother, Melinda’s father, Heather, Mr. Freeman, Rachel Bruin
Related Symbols: Trees, Seeds, Plants, and Forests
Page Number: 125
Explanation and Analysis:

In a moment of peak anguish, Melinda once again uses a botanical metaphor to express herself, thinking of all the obstacles and difficulties in her life as thornbushes ready to rip off her skin. Although it is frustrating to see Melinda remain silent and isolated, passages such as this help readers understand why she does so. To Melinda, everything in her life is hostile and sharp, ready to rip her to shreds. She does not feel safe with anyone, and so she can never release the terrible burden of her guilt and trauma. She is trying her best to heal from her sexual assault—to allow her "new skin to graft"—but everything in her life is making it more difficult to do so. 

This passage also makes clear Melinda's complicated relationship to emotion and appearances. Outwardly, Melinda is apathetic; she doesn't seem to care about school, friends, or life. Inwardly, however, Melinda is in constant torment, her guilt, shame, and regret eating her up inside. Given her inner pain, it makes sense that Melinda tries to remain as outwardly unfeeling as possible. If she ever lets out the powerful emotions inside of her, she is terrified of what will happen. 

Part 3, Chapter 19 Quotes

Slush is frozen over. People say that winter lasts forever, but it’s because they obsess over the thermometer. North in the mountains, the maple syrup is trickling. Brave geese punch through the thin ice left on the lake. Underground, pale seeds roll over in their sleep. Starting to get restless. Starting to dream green.

Related Characters: Melinda Sordino (speaker)
Related Symbols: Trees, Seeds, Plants, and Forests, Birds, Water, Ice, and Melting, Warmth and Sunlight
Page Number: 133
Explanation and Analysis:

As the narrative progresses, Melinda's voice becomes slightly more hopeful. Emotionally frozen during the winter months, she begins to thaw as the weather turns towards spring. This passage illustrates the close relationship between Melinda's emotions and the changing of the seasons. The signs of spring—water thawing, birds returning, seeds growing—all have intensely symbolic and positive meanings for her. Water melts, just as her inward iciness melts as well. Birds fly free, just as Melinda hopes to one day be free of her trauma. Seeds grow from the cold ground, just like Melinda wishes to be reborn, and to come back from her trauma as strong as she was before. 

Like the "restless" seeds that are "dream[ing] green," Melinda too is starting to become restless, dreaming her way out of her cold, frozen shell. To her, spring is a metaphor for renewal and rebirth, processes in which she hopes to take part as well. Her close association with nature makes the tree an excellent subject for Melinda's artwork. Just as she uses natural metaphors to describe her own internal journey, so too will she use a representation of her tree to express her hidden emotions.  

Part 4, Chapter 7 Quotes

This looks like a tree, but it is an average, ordinary, everyday, boring tree. Breathe life into it. Make it bend— trees are flexible, so they don’t snap. Scar it, give it a twisted branch— perfect trees don’t exist. Nothing is perfect. Flaws are interesting. Be the tree.

Related Characters: Mr. Freeman (speaker), Melinda Sordino
Related Symbols: Trees, Seeds, Plants, and Forests
Page Number: 153
Explanation and Analysis:

While encouraging Melinda to continue working on her tree project, Mr. Freeman articulates one of the central beliefs at the core of the novel: that rather than attempting to escape the flaws and traumas in her past, Melinda must instead try to incorporate those experiences into her life. Urging Melinda to "Be the tree," Mr. Freeman hints that, on some level, he understands that he is talking not just about the art project, but about Melinda herself. He is a wise and empathetic teacher, and it makes sense that he would instinctively recognize his student's pain and her need to connect with others.

This passage also continues to support the idea of expression through art. Over and over, Mr. Freeman tells Melinda to put her feelings, her life, and herself into her artwork. Together, teacher and student work not just to create a satisfying final project, but to find a way for Melinda to find healing by creating a tree—a sentiment that is made clear within this quotation.