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 . . .
. . . 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?