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Literature / Speak

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"It is my first morning of high school. I have seven new notebooks, a skirt I hate, and a stomachache."

Speak is a contemporary young adult novel by Laurie Halse Anderson published in 1999. The book has both won awards and been the target of vocal Moral Guardians over the years due to its subject matter.

The book centers around a teenager named Melinda Sordino who's just entered the ninth grade. She's not exactly the most popular kid in school, due almost entirely to her calling the police at a party last summer.

After the events of said party, Melinda's bright, outgoing demeanor spirals into bitterness, anger, and depression. Her grades decline, her parents are alarmed, and Melinda can't find the words to tell anyone what happened; eventually, she stops speaking almost entirely. The plot mostly centers around Melinda's gradual decline, up until The Reveal of what happened at the party, and then focuses on her gradual climb out of the hole.

A sort-of sequel that takes place in the same high school, Catalyst, was released in 2002.

The Film of the Book was released in 2004, starring a pre-Twilight Kristen Stewart in the lead role.

A graphic novel adaptation was released in 2018, with art by Emily Carroll.

Speak provides examples of:

  • Academic Alpha Bitch: The Marthas, a clique of popular girls that spend their time doing volunteer projects and gossiping about Andy Evans.
  • Adaptational Nice Guy: Mr. Neck is an unpleasant, xenophobic teacher in both the book and film adaptation, but the latter gives him a Pet the Dog moment near the end, where he asks Melinda if she's okay after Andy unsuccessfully attempts to rape her again.
  • Adults Are Useless: Melinda's parents notice her grades are plummeting and that she's becoming withdrawn and unhappy, but they think it's because she's "jerking them around to get attention".
    • The teachers and staff as well, though they do try to be helpful.
  • Alliterative Name:
    • Three of the school's cheerleaders are named Ashley, Aubrey, and Amber.
    • Also, there's cheerleaders Jennie, Jen, and Jenna.
  • And I Must Scream: As Melinda is being raped by Andy, she is internally screaming but is too drunk to say anything.
  • Arc Symbol: The trees Melinda draws and sculpts in art class serve to reflect her emotional growth throughout the story. At the beginning, she can't figure out how to draw it in a way that she likes, when she's at the beginning of her internal Heroic BSoD. As she develops through art class with Mr. Freeman, she experiments with new mediums, eventually coming up with a sketch of a Cubist tree that he praises. During the mall scene, Ivy gives her pointers on how to sketch one, while at the same time boosting Melinda's confidence with a You Are Better Than You Think You Are speech. At the end, she is able to draw a tree that's like her — not perfect, but deeply meaningful through its flaws.
  • Attempted Rape: Andy Evans tries to rape Melinda again in her broom closet at the climax. She fights him off by putting a broken mirror shard to his throat.
  • Attention Whore: How Melinda's parents interpret her vow of silence.
  • Bad Samaritan: Heather. It's also implied that Melinda's former friends (minus Ivy and Nicole, who are still fairly friendly towards her after the incident and eventually rebuild their friendships with her) were this as well.
  • Bait-and-Switch: Melinda writes an extra-credit report for Mr. Neck's class about female suffragists in the early 20th century. She takes care to write a great report, but is then informed by Mr. Neck that she'll have to deliver it aloud to the class. Comparing herself to the suffragists, she "stands up for her right to stay silent" and makes copies of the report for all of her classmates to read rather than deliver it orally. She ends up with a D and with David pointing out to her that the suffragists didn't stand up for their right to not speak.
  • Bathroom Stall Graffiti: Melinda notices this in a stall, particularly a topic called "guys to stay away from". She writes Andy Evans' name there, and it turns out that she's not the only girl he's harassed.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: Heather wants very badly to get in with the popular Marthas and even ditches Melinda once she secures her place in the clique. Turns out the Senior Marthas force her to do a ton of work volunteering and make her wait on them hand and foot so often that her grades have gone all the way down to Bs. When the prom comes near the end of the year, she has to decorate the hotel ballroom all by herself because the Senior Marthas have to get themselves done up for the event and the other Junior Marthas got sick. Melinda refuses to help her, and the last we hear of Heather is that everyone was complaining about her crappy decorations the day after the prom. Melinda comments that running away and joining the Marines would be better than facing a swarm of angry Marthas.
  • Big Damn Heroes: Sure, Melinda saved herself from Attempted Rape by scaring the daylights out of Andy Evans and holding a piece of glass to his throat, but then the entire girls' field lacrosse team - led by Nicole, a member of Melinda's former clique - broke down the door with their field lacrosse sticks when they heard a commotion.
  • Big "NO!": Melinda unleashes one when in the climax when Andy tries to rape her in the janitor's closet. In the movie, she releases several during the rape scene.
  • Bilingual Bonus: Upon learning that linda is the Spanish word for "pretty", some of Melinda's classmates tag her with the insulting nickname Me-No-Linda.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: The Marthas are well-liked by the faculty because of their volunteer work. The façade hides the fact that they're really as catty and mean-spirited as any group of alpha bitches.
    • Heather - she seems sweet enough at first (if annoying), but her true colors come out when she joins the Marthas: she's manipulative and self-centered, and in her own way is probably more cruel to Melinda than anyone else in the novel save Andy and possibly Mr. Neck.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Melinda doesn't completely overcome her trauma and she'll have to take summer school to make up for her poor grades, but she manages to save Rachel (and presumably other future victims) from a similar fate and fights off Andy Evans from trying to rape her again in the school closet, exposing him as a predator. She also finally draws a satisfying tree for art class, and opens up to Mr. Freeman about what happened.
  • Break-Up Bonfire: After breaking up with Andy Evans, realizing that he really did rape Melinda at the party, Rachel burns everything he ever gave her and leaves the pile of ashes in front of his locker.
  • Broken Bird: Melinda. She used to be happy and well-adjusted, but at the beginning of the book, she's always sad and is completely uninterested in making new friends. This is because Melinda called the police at a summer party in order to try and get her rapist arrested shortly after she had the beginning of her Heroic BSoD, but everyone else thinks Melinda did it to intentionally ruin everyone's fun.
  • Cassandra Truth: Double subverted. When Melinda tells Rachel what happened to her and why she called the police at the summer party, Rachel does believe her... until Melinda tells Rachel the culprit's name. Although Rachel eventually realizes Melinda is telling the truth and breaks up with Andy.
  • Catchphrase: Only used a couple of times, but Melinda's "Gracias a Dios. Hasta luego."
  • Chained to a Railway: One of the questions on Melinda's aptitude test deals with this.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The turkey bone sculpture. When Andy attempts to rape Melinda at the end, covering her mouth to stop her from screaming, she smashes the turkey bone sculpture into a mirror, shattering the glass and pressing a shard to his throat. This buys enough time for the girls' lacrosse team to break down the locked closet door and call for help.
  • Chekhov's Party: We know that nobody will talk to Melinda since she called the cops on the end-of-year high school party. It takes almost a year for Melinda to reveal (and to acknowledge to herself) that she is selectively mute because she was raped by Andy there.
  • Clique Tour: "We fall into clans: Jocks, Country Clubbers, Idiot Savants, Cheerleaders, Human Waste, Eurotrash, Future Fascists of America, Big hair Chix, the Marthas, Suffering Artists, Thespians, Goths, Shredders."
  • Cool Teacher: Mr. Freeman.
  • Creator Cameo: Laurie Halse Anderson, the book's writer, appears in the film as a lunch lady.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Despite the fact that she's in the throes of depression, Melinda.
  • Deconstruction: This is basically a live-action realistic version of Daria, showing how a character like that would exist. And boy is it not pretty.
  • Dressing Down: because of Melinda's traumatizing summer, she no longers cares to make an effort to fit in or dress well. At the end of every semester, she receives a report card, where she sarcastically adds a new grade. One time, she claimed that she got an F in clothes.
  • Dull Surprise: Melinda's narration in the film is saturated with these, but for good or ill, Kristen Stewart does use it effectively.
  • Dumb Struck: The focus of the book is Melinda growing out of this.
  • Eating Lunch Alone: Melinda has Heather for a little while, but then she gets friend-dumped.
  • The Eeyore: Melinda is constantly mopey and depressed. Doesn't help that the rest of the school seems to hate her guts.
  • Entitled Bitch: Months after ditching Melinda for the Marthas, Heather comes back to ask her for help decorating the hotel ballroom for the prom. She's genuinely shocked when Melinda refuses and tells her to Get Out!.
  • Everyone Is Jesus in Purgatory: In-Universe. Hairwoman lives and breathes these tropes when she studies The Scarlet Letter, believing that there's a symbolic meaning behind every last detail Hawthorne added.
  • Eye Scream: In the climax of the film, Melinda is able to blind Andy in the fight by pouring something (likely cleaning product) into his eyes.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Andy seems nice but is an unrepentant monster underneath. One scene even has him stand up for and defend Melinda to protect his image.
  • Foreign Culture Fetish: During the school year, Rachel attaches herself to the visiting exchange students, starts spelling her name as "Rachelle", and starts dressing in Middle Eastern fashion. She also starts dating an exchange student from Portugal after breaking up with Andy.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • A very subtle example: Melinda becomes attached to a poster of Maya Angelou. Maya was raped as a young girl, and rendered mute for six years by the guilt she felt about her testimony against her rapist, which got him murdered. It's also a stealth reference to Angelou's novel, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
    • There's quite a bit of subtle foreshadowing, but it can be hard to spot until you've read the book more than once, like the turkey bone art.
  • Former Friend of Alpha Bitch: Melinda to Rachel. Though Rachel becomes less of a bitch when she realizes Melinda was telling the truth.
  • Genki Girl: Heather, in contrast to Melinda, is energetic, outgoing and sociable.
  • Good Samaritan: David and Ivy - respectively, Melinda's lab partner and a former member of the clique Melinda used to hang out with. They're both very nice to Melinda, and by the end she's friends with David and has rekindled her friendship with Ivy.
  • Handsome Lech: Andy Evans. According to the graffiti messages in the bathroom, he basically feels up anything with two X chromosomes. This becomes a very dark example when it's revealed he raped Melinda at the party.
  • Heroic BSoD: Melinda spends most of the book trapped in one, and doesn't shake out of it until late in the story.
  • Heroic Bystander: Nicole, during The Climax, helps break down the closet door when the girls lacrosse team hears Melinda screaming from inside.
  • I Just Want to Have Friends: Heather and Melinda. Unfortunately, Heather is much less nice about it and basically drops Melinda like a hot potato as soon as a clique shows some interest in taking her in.
  • Implied Death Threat: In the climax, Melinda puts a shard of a broken mirror to Andy's neck with the words "I said 'no.'" The tone she takes makes it very clear to Andy she's serious, and he backs off.
  • Implied Love Interest: Vaguely implied with David, Melinda's lab partner and one of her only true friends. It's more prominent in the book, with a few cute moments on Valentine's Day and a mention that David watches her when he thinks she doesn't notice. For rather understandable reasons, though, it never really goes anywhere.
  • Intergenerational Friendship: Mr. Freeman and Melinda. He's the only teacher willing to help her in and out of school.
  • Ironic Name: You wouldn't expect a perky head cheerleader to be named "Raven", would you?
  • Jerk Jock: Andy Evans may be good looking, but he's really a creep. A couple of times in the book and the movie, he gets uncomfortably close to Melinda and tries acting like a nice guy. Though maybe the reason behind the personal space invasion is a reminder that he raped her and he loves seeing her be scared of him.
    • Nicole isn't this, despite being a Passionate Sports Girl. She's even nice to Heather (although she ostracizes Melinda like everyone else), and thus Melinda can't bring herself to hate Nicole. Eventually, it's Nicole and the lacrosse team who help save Melinda from being raped a second time by Andy.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Mr. Neck is a complete dick for most of the story and treats his students with absolute contempt and sadism. But he is mostly pissed because he feels his son is being overlooked. There is also the end when he seems genuinely concerned for Melinda's well-being after making her freshman year miserable.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Discussed. Although Mr. Neck and David Petrakis are normally at odds to say the least, Dave concedes that Mr. Neck isn't entirely wrong to give Melinda a poor grade on her extra-credit report for not giving a public speech, even with her Loophole Abuse. Because, ironically, she's standing up for the right to not speak. As Dave puts it, had the Suffragettes made it their goal to not speak up, women still wouldn't have any right to vote.
  • Karma Houdini: A variation. In Catalyst, which takes place a year after Speak and deals with another student at the same high school, it is revealed that Andy was found guilty of rape, but ended up not going to jail. Sadly, this is Truth in Television when it comes to many high school rapists. That said, the end of this novel makes it clear Andy's reputation among his peers has been ruined, and the charge is on his criminal record, so he hasn't gotten off entirely scot-free.
  • Kick the Dog: Heather's "Thanks for letting me move on to more popular friends!" Valentine. What's worse is that Melinda thought it was a genuine one... before she opened it. Ouch.
    • There is also Andy making crude remarks towards Melinda in the hallway. To most people, it looks like him being a typical Jerk Jock. But knowing what he did...
  • Known Only by Their Nickname: Mr. Neck and Hairwoman. We never learn their actual names. Andy is also referred to by Melinda as "IT" during the early part of the story.
  • Language Barrier: Melinda's Spanish teacher, ignoring the fact that she's dealing with kids who don't know a word of Spanish, apparently aims to go the entire year without speaking a word of English to them. It's mentioned the only time she speaks any English is to threaten her students about what will happen to them if they use the excuse of not understanding their homework assignments.
  • Laser-Guided Karma:
    • After callously dropping Melinda to go be part of The Marthas clique, Heather ends up being used as an errand mule by the girls. Later, she needs help decorating the ballroom for the school prom and begs Melinda for help. Melinda is in no mood to help Heather after what she did and pointedly rejects her. This leaves Heather to do the decorations by herself, and she doesn't do such a good job at it. It's implied she's the new pariah of the school because of this and will be summarily ejected from the clique.
    • After harassing numerous girls and even raping one (and it's strongly implied she's not his only victim), Andy is exposed as a predator to the whole school when his inappropriate behavior makes his date uncomfortable and causes her to realize her friend (the aforementioned rape victim) was indeed telling her the truth and was trying to warn her.
  • Last Resort Takeout: After failing to cook the Thanksgiving turkey and turning it into watery soup, Melinda's father gives her his wallet and tells her to order pizza while he buries the culinary disaster in the backyard.
  • Lethal Chef: Melinda's father is implied to be one, based on the disaster with the turkey. (Her mother isn't much better. She tries to boil it.)
  • Loners Are Freaks: The reason Melinda is spurned, other than the police call, is because she's depressed and mopey, intentionally avoiding contact with anyone else.
  • Lovable Jock: Nicole. As a former friend of Melinda's who isn't as interested in popularity as Rachel is, she does warm up to her again as time goes on. Nicole is also the one who breaks down the locked closet door to find Andy trying to force himself on Melinda during the climax.
  • Meaningful Name:
    • Melinda's last name, "Sordino", can be interpreted in various ways to mean "mute".
    • Mr. Freeman, the art teacher. His artistry and guidance helps Melinda "free man," or express oneself.
  • Motor Mouth: Heather is quite talkative, which Melinda admits is a bit annoying.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: All of Melinda's former friends once she starts opening up about the rape, and more so once Andy nearly rapes her again. Rachel briefly has this reaction but when Melinda tells her who did it, she refuses to believe her at first. However, after Andy touched Rachel inappropriately and made her uncomfortable during prom and tries to assault Melinda again, Rachel leaves a voicemail on Melinda's answering machine to apologize.
  • Nice Guy: David, Melinda's lab partner, is the only other person besides Mr. Freeman (and later on, Ivy) to treat Melinda with genuine kindness, even inviting her to come to a party. He also stands up against Mr. Neck when the latter goes off on a xenophobic rant in the middle of class.
  • Nice Job Fixing It, Villain: In the movie, Rachel wonders to Andy why he previously asked if she knew Melinda. His responds with a dismissive excuse and calls her a "bitch". This tiny indication of Andy's character tips off Rachel that there may be more going on than Melinda being "jealous" of her.
  • No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: Melinda only tells Rachel that Andy Evans raped her because Rachel is dating the jerk, and could become his next victim. Rachel refuses to believe Melinda, but when Rachel gets uncomfortable with his hot and heavy behavior towards her at the prom dance, Rachel breaks up with Andy while loudly accusing him of being a sexual predator. This leads to Andy assaulting Melinda in the climax, indirectly making Rachel partially responsible.
  • No Sympathy: Anyone who actually saw Melinda make the call at the party. A clearly scared girl with a disheveled look, calling the cops at a party which includes booze and a relatively wide age-gap of party-goers. No one seems to come to the conclusion that something might have happened to this girl. The movie is worse, showing her top defiled and partially open, yet no one seems to make the connection.
    • Melinda's mother, after noticing that her daughter has begun cutting: "I don't have time for this, Melinda," followed by a lecture about how Suicide Is Shameful.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: Melinda's description of the rape by Andy is extremely bare-bones on the details, which not only adds depth to it but also makes it quite terrifying.
  • "Not If They Enjoyed It" Rationalization: Andy pulls one of these on Melinda during The Climax, right before trying to rape her again.
  • Passionate Sports Girl: Nicole, to put it lightly. Regardless of the sport, she's relentless on the court or on the field. It's mentioned that the opposing team during one gym class threatened to quit the team if Nicole weren't benched.
  • Pet the Dog: Mr. Neck, a complete and utter bastard to Melinda for the entire story, showing genuine concern for her at the end of the movie and calling her by her first name.
  • Politically Motivated Teacher: Mr. Neck at one point goes off on a rant about immigrants in front of the class, blaming them for why his son can't get a job, and starts a debate on whether America should have closed its borders in 1900. When David argues in favor of immigration and points out that it's not reasonable to blame immigrants for his son not being able to get a job, Mr. Neck declares the debate closed, but David continues to argue and tells him he can't close a public discussion he started just because it's not going the way he wants.
  • Rejected Apology: Implied. Rachel calls Melinda after finding out that Andy assaulted Melinda in the school closet, leaving a voicemail. Melinda says, "Rachel wants to talk to me" but doesn't say if she's going to call back or not. It's understandable, considering that Rachel inadvertently motivated Andy to go after her former best friennd.
  • Replacement Goldfish: Disastrously deconstructed with Heather as a replacement for Rachel.
  • The Reveal: Melinda was raped by Andy at the wild party they went to, which was why she called the police.
  • Running Gag: The school changes mascots at least once a semester.
  • Self-Harm: One scene in the book features Melinda scratching herself with a paperclip until she bleeds, after her parents lecture her over her poor grades.
  • Self-Serving Memory: Near the end of the school year, Heather asks Melinda to help her decorate the hotel ballroom for the prom, acting like they parted ways amicably, when in reality Heather ditched her for the more popular Martha clique and went as far as to return the necklace Melinda gave her as a gift.
    She completely ignores the fact that I was never in, and that she dumped me, banished me from even the shadows of Martha glory. I feel like any minute a guy in a lavender suit will burst into the room with a microphone and bellow, "Another alternate-reality moment brought to you by Adolescence!"
  • The Snark Knight: Melinda. In fact, she basically is the former trope namer Played for Drama with a Freudian Excuse.
  • Silent Snarker: Melinda, given how she rarely speaks but her sarcastic side shines through all the time during her descriptions.
  • Slasher Smile: According to Melinda, Andy sported one after he raped her.
  • Sleazy Photoshoot: When Heather, a high school freshman, poses for a photoshoot in a blue bikini, the photographer makes some off-putting comments while telling her to pose, including, "Sexy, sexy, very cute. Look this way. Sexy, think beach, think boys."
  • Smoking Is Cool: Rachelle (nee Rachel) wants to smoke to fit in with the foreign-exchange students, but can't because she has asthma. Thus, she's forced to smoke candy cigarettes, much to the amusement of the kids in her new clique.
  • Suicide Is Shameful: When Melinda's mother notices the results of her daughter's Self-Harm, she delivers a stern lecture about how only the weak resort to suicide.
  • Teens Are Monsters: Melinda's classmates. Heather jumping ship on her. Those kids at the pep rally. And Andy, the monster who started everything.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: In the film, Melinda delivers one to Heather after Heather tries to get her to help with prom decorations even though she told Melinda they shouldn't be friends anymore. In the book, Melinda turns her down politely but sharply, but gives the speech on the inside.
  • The Snack Is More Interesting: Melinda bites into the apple they were supposed to use during bio class because the movie wants her to look like even more of an asshole.
  • The Unreveal: It's never shown how Melinda's parents reacted to Andy Evans assaulting her after the climax of the book given he was arrested. Nor, for that matter, is it confirmed in the book if she opens up to them about that fateful party though her mother takes her to the hospital to get stitches and Melinda finally tells her what happpened.
  • [Verb] This!: One of the chapters is called "Conjugate This".
  • Villain Ball: Andy's Attempted Rape of Melinda at school, when the girls' sports team is playing. Naturally, someone overhears Melinda screaming and catches him in the act.
  • Villain with Good Publicity:
    • Andy, though it completely disappears when people find out what he did.
    • The Marthas, a snotty Girl Posse led by a trio of Alpha Bitches, come off looking like angels because their clique revolves around doing volunteer work.
  • Walking Spoiler: Melinda having been raped could be considered a major spoiler, since it is not revealed before halfway through the book. Yet, in many reviews and articles covering the book, it is revealed alongside a summary of the book.
  • We Used to Be Friends:
    • Rachel and Melinda used to be best friends until the night of the party, when Rachel blamed her for calling the police and joined the rest of the school in shunning her. The ending implies that Rachel is truly sorry for her actions and inadvertently motivating Andy to assault Melinda again, but Melinda hasn't responded to her voicemail.
    • For a while, it seems like things will be better when Melinda befriends Heather, a new student. But Heather also ends up ditching her for the more popular crowd.
  • What Do You Mean, It's Not Didactic?: Made fun of In-Universe through the English teacher's opinion of The Scarlet Letter.
  • What the Hell, Hero?:
    • Speaking of The Scarlet Letter, Rachel(le) openly complains in class about how hard it is to read and suggests that Hairwoman's talk of symbolism is so much baloney. In response, Hairwoman gives everyone extra homework, and Rachel(le) has to face her classmates' wrath afterward.
    • Likewise, Melinda calls out Rachel in her head for callously abandoning her in favor of a clique. While she is nice when warning Rachel about Andy raping Melinda, and Melinda even wonders if it was worth it. Rachel gets an offscreen Jerkass Realization and tries to get Melinda to call her at the end of the story.