Thirteen Reasons Why Themes, Symbols, and Motifs

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Thirteen Reasons Why Symbols

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Activity Overview


Themes, symbols, and motifs come alive when you use a storyboard. In this activity, students will identify themes and symbols from the novel, and support their choices with details from the text.


Themes to Look For and Discuss

The Destructive Power of Selfishness

Many of the worst behaviors in Thirteen Reasons Why are motivated by characters’ selfishness. The characters take a number of risks for selfish reasons, but rarely risk being kind. Tyler sneaks around taking voyeuristic photos. Marcus tries to molest Hannah in Rosie’s Diner. Jenny Kurtz drives away from a broken stop sign so she does not have to admit she was driving drunk. In each case, a character is ignoring the well-being of other people to pursue their own pleasure or to avoid facing justice. The novel suggests that a healthy, happy community requires concern for others. People must look outside themselves and consider the feelings of those around them. By the end of the novel, Clay takes this to heart when he reaches out to Skye in the school corridor.


Interconnectedness of People and Events

Hannah talks about the “snowball effect”, arguing that a single action combines with other small actions and reactions to produce many unintended repercussions. Seemingly minor incidents that occur early in Hannah’s time at Crestmont High School end up making Hannah’s life more difficult even years later. When Alex passes around the “hot or not” list, for example, he is building up the school’s image of Hannah as sexually promiscuous, which probably leads to Tyler’s fascination with her, Marcus’s advances upon her, and Bryce’s molestations. Another prime example of the unforeseen consequences of a single act is the car accident. Jenny’s drunk driving leads to a broken stop sign. The missing sign causes a car crash, which results in the death of a senior at Crestmont. The knowledge of this accident contributes to Hannah’s feelings of guilt and worthlessness, which leads to her suicide. As Hannah tells her story, she notices more and more connections between people and events that have brought her to the point of suicide.


The Role of Rumors and Reputation

Hannah’s tapes repeatedly draws attention to the harmful effects of rumors. Rumors about her, though completely unsubstantiated, build a reputation that influences the way others treat her. Many of the most negative incidents in Hannah’s first year at Crestmont stem from rumors about her relationship with Justin. As her reputation grows, people like Bryce take advantage of her by touching her in unwanted and inappropriate ways. Ultimately, a rumor is the first step in the long sequence of events that leads to Hannah’s suicide.



Motifs & Symbols to Look For and Discuss

The Broken Stop Sign

The broken stop sign reflects the characters' inability or unwillingness to stop the negative forces in their lives. A number of tragedies in the book - the car crash, Jessica's rape, Hannah's suicide - could have been stopped if people had made better choices and bystanders had made stronger efforts to intervene.


Hannah’s Scar

Hannah's scar is a physical representation of her emotional pain. Given to her when Jessica slapped her and left a nail embedded in her eyebrow, the scar is a daily reminder to Hannah of the kind of betrayal and lack of dependable friends that she experiences over and over. Each new time she is betrayed, her emotional wound grows deeper.


The Cassette Tapes

The cassette tapes are the central symbol in the book. Since they bring revelations about Hannah’s life and expose a number of hurtful behaviors, they represent both truth and revenge. Although they reveal the reality behind the scenes, they also stand in contrast to reality. The listener’s ability to pause, stop, and rewind them at will is a poignant reminder that real life cannot be paused or rewound; our actions are immutable and their consequences must be faced.



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Template and Class Instructions

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Student Instructions

Create a storyboard that identifies recurring themes in Thirteen Reasons Why. Illustrate instances of each theme and write a short description below each cell.


  1. Click "Start Assignment".
  2. Identify the theme(s) from Thirteen Reasons Why you wish to include and replace the "Theme 1" text.
  3. Create an image for examples that represents this theme.
  4. Write a description of each of the examples.

Template: Theme

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