AIBC: Going Postal: Theme, Part Two

00004-Going Postal

Theme should always be handled lightly, which is why the best books often inspire theme arguments. I think there are two possible themes here, but I also think that one is arguably more of a Discworld theme, and the second is the real heart of Going Postal, the basic statement it makes about the human condition.

1. “No practical definition of freedom would be complete without the freedom to take the consequences.” [Vetinari pg 46 digital]

There’s a running theme throughout the Discworld novels that actions always have consequences. Even magic, the universal get-out-of-jail-free card, will come back to bite you:

“You could wave a wand and get twinkly stars and a fresh-baked loaf. You could make fish jump out of the sea already cooked. And then, somewhere, somehow, magic would present its bill, which was always more than you could afford.”[pg 411]

So Alfred Spangler the con man is hanged, and Moist Von Lipwig is offered the choice between the post office and Door Number Two, and Adora Belle Dearheart gives up believing in love and then meets Moist, and Reacher Gilt reaches and reaches and reaches, sure in the knowledge that there are no consequences for him, and then his bill is presented. It’s one of the underlying tenets of both life and fiction: There is no free lunch.

I think that’s too vague, too broad to be the theme here, but that could be because I love the second theme so much that I’ve built my career on it:


“Words are important. And when there is a critical mass of them, they change the nature of the universe.”

I love this sentence: you can unpack it so many ways. But in this book, I love the way Pratchett makes this idea flesh, or at least paper, by having the letters whisper to Moist:

“Every undelivered message is a piece of space-time that lacks another end, a little bundle of effort and emotion, floating freely. Pack millions of them together and they do what letters are meant to do. They communicate and change the nature of events. When there’s enough of them, they distort the universe around them.”

I love the way the letters literally sweep over Moist . . .

Moist Letters

. . . and the way he sees Reacher Gilt’s counterattack in the newspaper as a crime against words:

“It was garbage, but it had been cooked by an expert. Oh, yes. You had to admire the way perfectly innocent words were mugged, ravished, stripped of all true meaning and decency, and then sent to walk the gutter for Reacher Gilt, although ‘synergistically’ had probably been a whore from the start . . . . The Times reporter had made an effort, but nothing short of a stampede could have stopped Reacher Gilt in his crazed assault on the meaning of meaning . . . . Moist felt acid rise in his throat until he could spit lacework in a sheet of steel.” [pg. 808]

Here’s the thing about theme: If you hit it too hard, your story breaks. As Sam Goldwyn never said,”If you’ve got a message, send an e-mail.” The theme should lurk below the surface, pulling everything together, although in Pratchett’s omniscient fantasy novels it occasionally lifts its head and speaks its name. Its real strength is infusing the action in the story with meaning. There are a million ways that Moist could have defeated Reacher Gilt including just shooting him (except the gonne has been outlawed in Ankh Morpork, see Men at Arms), but instead he brings him down with words. Inspired by the whispering letters, Moist uses words to restore the post office and bring real competition to Gilt, words to rally the staff when Gilt’s arson seems to have defeated them, words to lure Gilt into a competition that Moist can’t win but that everyone believes he will. And in the end, he sends words out over the Trunk lines that destroy his enemy. Reacher Gilt whores words out to distort the universe; Moist sends words out to deliver justice and restore the universe. It’s no accident that Going Postal‘s hero is a con man: if you’re writing a book dedicated to the idea that words shape reality, what better hero than a man whose stock-in-trade is reshaping reality and whose sharpest weapon is his way with words?

12 thoughts on “AIBC: Going Postal: Theme, Part Two

  1. I think that the importance of words, the importance of story, as things on their own and as what makes us human is the thread running through pretty much all of his more mature? Sophisticated? (I’m not sure what to call the books where he really has his writer feet under him) work. It’s been so long since I’ve read the Rincewind books that I can’t comment on them. It seems that no matter what the plot of the book, there’s always a story in it. Stories are how we remember things (Koom Valley), how we think we know things (most of Tiffany Aching’s problems in I Shall Wear Midnight come from a scared young woman believing a story) and how we know Things like justice and mercy and compassion as explained in Hogfather.

    Without story, we’re nothing and I think deep down most people know that. I know a lot of people who don’t read books, but I don’t know anyone who doesn’t love a good story.

    This quotation’s from Hogfather: The truth may be out there, but lies are inside your head.

    1. I firmly believe that reality is a story we tell ourselves which is why everybody’s reality is different.
      And I think that’s why we’ve had stories since the beginning of language, because we need to order chaos into our most acceptable reality.
      So it stands to reason that the person with the most skill at spinning stories is the person who gets to define reality and command power.

      I’ve been watching all the American political candidates since the primary season started, and they’re all telling stories they believe to be true (I think), and all their stories are vastly different. Hillary Clinton just claimed the nomination as the first woman to be a party’s nominee for President; that’s a great story. Bernie Sanders insists he still has a path to that nomination as the iconoclastic outsider; that’s a great story. I think they both believe their narratives, although Bernie’s belief may have taken a hit after CA, but their power is that they’re both telling compelling stories . . . for their audiences. The same with Donald Trump and his attacks on the Indiana judge: for some of his party, that’s a compelling story, he’s just speaking the truth. Others take that story and recast it to show that he’s a clueless racist. Whoever controls the story that most of the people buy, wins.

      Which, as I remember, is the underlying theme in The Truth, Pratchett’s book about Ankh Morpork’s first newspaper. And I think Hogfather is about the power of story, definitely about the power of belief in story.

      But then you get to Thief of Time, and I don’t think that’s about story. Guards! Guards! shows the antagonist swaying his stupid minions with story, but I don’t think that’s what it’s about. It’s an interest idea and I agree Pratchett is obsessed with the power of story, but I don’t think it runs as a theme through his books. If there is an overall Pratchett theme, it’s that People Are Basically Good, or Good Always Trumps Evil. He doesn’t shy away from Evil in his work, but it’s always defeated, usually by one person who says, “I don’t think so,” and ends up with an informal army at his or her back.

      I think.

      1. The theme that runs through Discworld (sans the Rincewind and Conan books I haven’t read) is the intersection of anger and power. Emotionless power is callous, but unreserved angry power is abusive. Passive and powerless is pitiful, tepid anger is just ineffective irritant, but most all of his protagonists find catharsis in passionate anger. They just also have to balance that against the power they have, or the power they find in it. Prachett’s characters, heroes and villains alike, muddle their way through the world until they hit a level of This Is Not Right that is personally unacceptable to them, and then the books are about seeing how they deal with that limit.

        1. I’m not sure that’s true across all of Discworld.

          I keep going back to Thief of Time, which is probably my favorite (hard to pick one). Susan Sto Helit is definitely angry, but Susan was born angry, it’s one of her basic characteristics. Lobsang isn’t angry.
          I think in any successful adventure story you need a protagonist pursuing something passionately, but I don’t think Pratchett always roots that passion in anger. I think you can argue that Vetinari is emotionless power, and I don’t see him as callous at all. Calculating, yet, but not callous. I think Vimes is outraged by injustice, but I don’t see outrage as his driving force, more a determined, almost plodding need to see justice served. It’s been too long since I’ve read the witches, but I’ve always seen Granny Weatherwax as grimly determined to right wrongs, to restore balance, getting angry at appropriate moments but not driven by anger. Carrot isn’t driven by anger. I’m not even sure Moist is angry as a motivation. It’s not that these characters don’t lose their tempers, aren’t outraged, it’s that I don’t think they’re all driven by anger.

          But I do agree that they all hit that This Is Not Right moment and, called to action, do something about it. That’s more of a general hero thing, the adventure protagonist, than it is a theme.

          1. I don’t see Vetinari as emotionless power. He couldn’t be and still rule the way he does. His emotions are dedicated to the idea, the same as Vimes, that Ankh Morpork is never going to have an abusive king or any king in charge again. At the same time he has looked deeply and sincerely at the citizens of Ankh Morpork and doesn’t see much value in a democracy either. He encourages good, not because he particularly believes in it, but because he has seen bad and he is not having that as a governing principle again.

          2. But he’s not about good and bad. If he were, there’d be no Thieve’s Guild or Assassin’s Guild. I don’t think he’s a benevolent ruler, I think he’s a clear-headed tyrant. Emotion-less might not be right, but I don’t see him driven by a moral precept, either.

          3. The adjective I think of for Vetinari is “pragmatic” rather than “angry.” That trait is supported by a deep understanding of how people (in general and specifically) work. “Manipulative” would also apply.

  2. “But words are things, and a small drop of ink,
    Falling like dew, upon a thought, produces
    That which makes thousands, perhaps millions, think;” – Byron

    I think GP also hints at how the same words, read by different people, will create different realities because they are filtered through individual perceptions…

    On a tangent (sort of related) if you have children or grandchildren, I can’t emphasise enough how cool this picture book is – it’s called The Boring Book, and it’s about words getting carried away, and the power of words, and how we as individuals have the power of words because they are in our heads.

    1. It’s evidently out of print, so I just ordered it from a private seller. Thanks for the tip!


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