Tree of Knowledge: Language, Voice, and Differance

Melinda’s focused and determined attempt to create a perfect tree in art class throughout Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak is obviously a metaphor for working through her trauma and finally being able to speak about her terrible experience. A closer look at how the tree metaphor is employed provides an interesting interpretation of language, agency, and the ability to speak.

Why is it so hard for Melinda to speak in the first place? She cannot guarantee that her words will convey what she intends them to, not because she has trouble finding the “right” words, but because she knows that others will interpret them in a manner that suits their own agendas better. No one wants to believe that Andy committed the act, because it would require a whole paradigm shift. That shift does indeed happen by the end of the book, but not because Melinda said anything. The students believe Melinda because they hear the scuffle between her and Andy and they see the blood – tangible and real and undeniable facts.

Words don’t have that quality.

Melinda could have chosen the most perfect words to describe what had happened. But even without the inevitable hesitant effect caused by the trauma in having to relate the story, those words could have been interpreted in any number of ways.

The tree is Melinda’s deferral of meaning. She works on it feverishly, wanting – needing – to get it just right. When the tree looks perfect, is perfect, her story will be heard as it should be. The absolute meaning of her story will not be obscured by the unmeanability of words.

That is not exactly what happens, though. In the last line of the book, Melinda says, “Let me tell you about it.” That one sentence implies both Melinda’s new ability to tell as well as the implicit relationship between speaker and listener, where the listener must “let” the speaker tell. Nothing has really changed.

Mr. Freeman, the art teacher, has given Melinda the ability to speak and have her words mean, when he tells her the tree is finished.

But he never does tell her the tree is finished. He tells Melinda, “Time’s up,” and asks if she’s ready. He of course means that the time she has in the room has come to an end and is asking merely if she is ready to leave the class. He then takes takes her sketch of the tree, but all he says about it is, “You get an A+. You worked hard at this.” This is followed by “You’ve been through a lot, haven’t you?” which allows Melinda to begin speaking, but it is not necessarily a comment on the tree having enlightened him to this fact. After all, Melinda’s arm is bandaged and news of her experience has spread throughout the school by then.

The words Melinda is searching for so desperately may never come to her. The tree represents that. She gets a perfect mark – but it will never be finished. Just before this exchange, Melinda looks at her sketch and thinks, “It isn’t perfect and that makes it just right.” She knows now that différance can never be eliminated, even in the representation of language that the tree is.

Just before this, Melinda does say one word that is heard for what it is, a word which in rape scenarios is most often misinterpreted or ignored, bent and reshaped to mean what best suits the listener. As Andy Evans attacks her again, “Maya Angelou looks at me. She tells me to make some noise.” But she can’t make a sound and “Beast” knows this. Finally, “A sound explodes from me. ‘NNNOOO!!!'” and Melinda can “follow the sound” and push her attacker off. This doesn’t stop him, but a shard of glass pressed to his neck does. Significantly, though, after Melinda observes that “He cannot speak. That’s good enough,” she says one more thing: “I said no.” She states what she has said, affirming her voice. And he nods. He has heard.

But what matters is not that Andy or the others or Mr. Freeman hears or invites speaking. What matters, what provides healing for Melinda, is not the perfection of the tree, the discovery of the exact right words to use in order to convey “The Truth.” It is her last frantic class, drawing birds with “feathers expanding promise” only to return to the tree she can now acknowledge and accept as imperfect – that is what provides healing.

That is when she can say, “Let me tell you about it.” When she has stopped attempting to circumvent the inevitable différance and instead is ready to engage in all its nuanced contradictions and impossibilities, that is when she steps into the performance that speech and language is.


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