A Case Study on Trust as a Literary Theme

by Sara Letourneau
published in Reading

Trust is an essential aspect of relationships. By keeping promises and telling the truth, we prove that we honor our agreements and value the people in our lives. The confidence we win from others as a result can be life-changing. However, as we’ve witnessed in literature (and in daily life), we’re not always quick to trust.

In today’s edition of Theme: A Story’s Soul, we’ll explore how trust is demonstrated as a theme in two novels from different genres. As you read the examples, pay attention to any common elements that pop up. You might be surprised with what you find.

Before we go on, let’s take a moment to revisit our working definition of “theme” from our first Theme: A Story’s Soul article, “What Is Theme and Why Is It Important?”.

Examples of Trust in Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins (Historical Fiction)

Island Of The Blue Dolphins coverIsland of the Blue Dolphins tells the story of Karana, who’s stranded on an island for two decades after her people leave for mainland Mexico. Despite her isolation for most of the novel, Karana rediscovers the importance of trust through her taming of the wild dog Rontu, and later with a young Aleutian woman named Tutok. We’ll focus on the latter example here.

Karana’s immediately mistrustful of Tutok when they first meet. The Aleutians (not necessarily Tutok’s clan) had killed Karana’s father and most of Karana’s tribe earlier in Island. So, when more Aleutian hunters visit the island and Tutok wanders into the cave where Karana’s hiding, Karana doesn’t view their meeting as a friendly coincidence. Her narrative of their encounter seethes with bitterness: “She wished to know if I lived there in the cave so she could come back with the men and take me to their camp. I shook my head and pointed to the far end of the island, away, away, for I did not trust her.” (138) Even as Tutok reacts with kind gestures, Karana suspects Tutok’s intentions and refuses to answer her questions.

As Tutok returns every day to visit, Karana realizes Tutok hasn’t betrayed her to the hunters. Her attitude toward the Aleutian woman thaws, and she learns to enjoy Tutok’s company. Then, on Page 143, Karana decides to share her secret name with Tutok. In Karana’s culture, secret names are known only within one’s immediate family; and as Karana explains in Chapter One, “if people use your secret name it becomes worn out and loses its magic.” (5) She also admits her belief that her father had doomed himself by revealing his secret name to the Aleutians, who later killed him (24). Therefore, her own revelation to Tutok is a milestone. It symbolizes her complete trust in a woman she once believed was her enemy.

Examples of Trust in Karina Sumner-Smith’s Radiant (Fantasy / Science Fiction)

Radiant-coverIn Radiant,a homeless orphan named Xhea must save the ghost of a young girl named Shai, whose powers can generate electrical and magical energy for her home tower – at Shai’s expense, and regardless of whether she’s alive. Xhea’s alone in every way when the novel begins. In addition to being orphaned, she’s an outcast because of her unusual talent for seeing and communicating with ghosts. She never questions her lack of trust, until she meets Shai.

Initially, Xhea treats Shai with callousness and indifference – the same way she treats others. However, as the two girls travel the Lower City together, Xhea slowly drops her guard and shares her past with Shai. On one occasion, the ghost reaches out to comfort Xhea: “It was the first time anyone had touched her voluntarily for more years than she could remember. Stranger still was the feeling that followed: the desire to lean in to that touch, however insubstantial.” (50) In this seemingly small moment, Xhea recognizes her craving for companionship and her willingness to trust someone who cares – even if that someone is dead.

As Radiant goes on, Shai continues to prove to Xhea her reliability and devotion as a friend. One night, as the girls flee from their adversaries, the ghost offers to take the night watch so Xhea can sleep. Here’s what Xhea realizes then:

In that moment Xhea wanted nothing more than to have again the strong tether that had joined her to Shai, and the security of knowing that there was nowhere she could go that the ghost could not follow.

Instead, Shai whispered, “Trust me.” As if her words were tether enough.

And they were. (189)

Using the tether (an actual physical connection Xhea and Shai shared earlier in Radiant) as a metaphor, Sumner-Smith demonstrates Xhea’s understanding and comfort in the fact that she trusts another individual with her life. It’s a visceral, evocative way of describing a bond between two people, and one that makes perfect sense.

Keys to Exploring Trust as a Theme

Based on these examples from Island of the Blue Dolphins and Radiant, what elements helped convey trust or mistrust? Did you discover any similarities? Here’s what I noticed:

  • Relationships: Developing new friendships allow Karana and Xhea to build trust with other characters.
  • Isolation: Karana’s physical solitude (being stranded on an island) differs from Xhea’s social isolation (homeless and ostracized), yet their circumstances contribute to their struggles with trust.
  • Negative / Opposing Emotions: O’Dell in particular creates a necessary contrast by giving Karana reasons to be mistrustful or suspicious of Tutok at first.
  • Repeated Behaviors: Tutok and Shai act consistently and with integrity toward Karana and Xhea, respectively. Repeated behaviors can therefore establish and maintain trust between characters.

This is only a sample list. You may have found other techniques or similarities that aren’t listed above. However, this list gives us a good start for studying the theme of trust in other novels and weaving it into our own stories.

It’s Your Turn!

  • What stories have you read that explore the theme of trust? How does the author accomplish this?
  • Write a story about a character who has difficulty trusting others. What caused the protagonist’s mistrust? How can it be healed so the protagonist learns to trust others or himself/herself again?
  • In your opinion, what qualities make someone trustworthy? How have people proven their trustworthiness to you in the past?

What are some topics you’d like to see featured at Theme: A Story’s Soul? Share your thoughts by commenting below or tweeting me at @SaraL_Writer with the hashtag #AStorysSoul.


Sara LetourneaSara Letourneau 1 croppedu is a Massachusetts-based writer who practices joy and versatility in her work. In addition to writing a fantasy novel, she reviews tea at A Bibliophile’s Reverie and is a guest contributor for Grub Street Daily. She’s also a published poet whose works have appeared in The Curry Arts Journal, Soul-Lit, The Eunoia Review, Underground Voices, and two anthologies. Learn more about Sara at her personal blogFacebook, and Twitter.

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