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What is Theme in Literature?

    what is theme in literature

    Before you can think about teaching or analyzing theme, it’s essential to understand what it is (and isn’t), why it’s used, and how to identify themes in a text. Consider this article your one-stop-shop for understanding theme.

    Theme Definition

    A theme is a central idea or underlying message in a piece of literature that ties together various textual elements. Every work of literature has at least one theme to serve as an overarching message, offering readers insights into the author’s commentary on life, society, or human nature.

    Themes explore universal concepts such as love, power, identity, or justice. Therefore, while a theme applies to a particular work of literature, it also speaks to the general human experience, creating a bridge between literature and the real world.

    Theme Pronunciation

    Theme is a one-syllable word pronounced with a long “e.”

    Here’s how to pronounce theme: theem

    What are the Different Types of Theme?

    While all themes reflect a universal topic, there are two forms of theme: thematic topics and thematic statements.

    • A thematic topic is the broader concept or abstract idea explored and developed throughout a literary work. These are general concepts that are often universal and can be applied to various situations. Thematic topics are often represented in a single word, such as love or power.
    • A thematic statement is more specific, providing clear insight that expresses the author’s commentary on the topic. These statements offer more perspective on a broader theme within the context of the story while still leaving room for real-world application. Examples include, “The pursuit of power corrupts individuals, blinding them to the ethical consequences of their actions” and “Love conquers all.”

    Essentially, themes are broader and overarching, while thematic statements offer a clearer statement that reflects the author’s perspective or the message they want readers to take away from a literary work.

    What it’s NOT: Theme vs. Main Idea

    It’s easy to confuse a story’s theme with its main idea. While these two concepts are similar, there are some key differences between theme and main idea to be aware of.

    A main idea refers to what a text is about, summarizing the overarching concept of a paragraph, passage, chapter, or entire text. These statements include specific details about a particular piece of literature and are often explicitly stated or easily supported with concrete details from the text.

    On the other hand, a theme refers to a more universal and abstract message that an author is revealing through a piece of literature. Themes consistently show up throughout a text, working to emphasize a deeper meaning that reflects an author’s commentary on a particular idea. While readers must rely on details and literary elements to reveal a text’s theme, their universal nature allows readers to apply the concept to the world beyond the pages.

    What is the Purpose of Theme in a Story?

    Authors use themes to explore intricate or abstract ideas about the human experience in their writing. As a result, they can infuse their works with complexity and depth, allowing readers to engage with the text on multiple levels.

    In some ways, themes give stories their meaning. While literary elements such as plot, conflict, setting, character, and tone help tell a story, themes reveal the bigger picture beyond the narrative itself. Therefore, themes help establish a bridge of relevance between the literary work and the real world, empowering students to make connections with a text and think more critically about its broader message.

    Due to their universal nature, themes give literature the power to hold enduring significance through time, allowing generations of readers to analyze, enjoy, and extract meaning from a single text.

    How to Identify Theme in a Story

    The challenge with identifying a text’s theme(s) is that they are not usually explicitly stated, requiring readers to make inferences, identify patterns, uncover underlying messages, and interpret the author’s overarching commentary or perspective. Therefore, identifying themes in literature requires close reading and critical thinking.

    Follow the steps below to identify and analyze a theme in literature: 

    1. Seek Out Patterns and Reoccurring Symbols

    Authors rely on meaningful patterns, called motifs, and recurring symbolism, including characters, objects, or images, to reveal a more profound message. Note any words or phrases, patterns, or symbols that appear repeatedly throughout a text and consider how they represent abstract concepts or reinforce a central idea.

    2. Pay Attention to Character

    Paying attention to characterization, including what a character says, thinks, and does, can reveal an author’s overall message. Consider characters’ motivations, conflicts, and changes throughout the story, analyzing how their experiences contribute to the overall message the author is conveying about human nature, society, or life.

    Use my free STEAL chart to keep track of characterization.

    3. Consider Conflict and Resolution

    Conflicts can reveal more than a point of tension in a story. By analyzing a text’s central conflicts and resolutions, readers can gain perspective on the theme. While the conflict helps establish the thematic topic, the resolution often provides valuable insights into the author’s commentary.

    4. Analyze Mood and Tone

    Analyze the nuances of an author’s language choices and their impact on the narrative, paying attention to how diction elicits specific emotions for the reader. Paying attention to the tone and mood (and the feelings that go with them) plays a pivotal role in revealing an author’s perspective and underlying messages within a text.

    5. Note Contrasts and Irony

    Look for instances of contrast in a story, especially moments of irony where the narrative contradicts the reader’s expectations. Authors often use these literary devices to highlight thematic elements by challenging readers’ assumptions, leading to a deeper understanding of the theme.

    6. Determine the Author’s Purpose

    Consider the bigger picture beyond the pages. Reflect on why the author wrote the work and the messages they may want to convey. By considering a narrative’s historical, cultural, or social context, the reader can gain valuable insight into the intended themes.

    Tips for Teaching Theme

    • Identify Concrete Details First: Start by encouraging students to identify concrete details in a text before diving into abstract themes. Analyzing specific information provides a solid foundation of understanding before jumping to thematic conclusions.
    • Scaffold as Needed: Recognize that theme analysis is an abstract and complex task. Break down the steps, offer guidance, and provide additional help or resources to support students in building their analytical skills.
    • Start with Short Stories: Begin theme exploration with short stories to reduce overwhelm and build confidence in thematic analysis. The concentrated nature of more concise narratives allows students to hone their skills before tackling longer works.
    • Use Anticipation Guides: Use anticipation guides as a pre-reading activity to activate students’ prior knowledge about potential themes. This strategy initiates critical thinking around thematic concepts before diving into the nuances of a text.
    • Keep Students Organized: Encourage students to keep notes, utilize graphic organizers, or use tools like concept maps to keep their thoughts in order. This helps them track evidence, connections, and interpretations as they explore themes in a text.
    • Remind Students to Use Evidence: Teach students to support their abstract themes with concrete evidence. Emphasize the significance of quoting specific lines or passages from the text to validate their analysis.
    • Be Flexible: Remember, interpretation plays a significant role in literary analysis. As long as students can support their thematic claims with textual evidence, give them space to explore their thoughts and perspectives—even if they don’t match your own.

    Examples of Theme in Literature

    1. The theme of guilt in “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Alan Poe

    A prominent theme in “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe is the theme of guilt and the psychological effects of a guilty conscience. After murdering his neighbor, the unnamed narrator is haunted by the memories of the old man and the constant sound of his beating heart. The noise serves as one of the story’s main symbols of the narrator’s psyche as he slips into madness, revealing the inescapable nature of his guilt.

    Throughout the short story, Poe explores the psychological weight of guilt through the unraveling of the narrator’s thoughts and actions, showcasing the effect of a guilty conscience. While Poe’s commentary certainly applies to the story, it causes readers to consider the real-life consequences of guilt and wrongdoing.

    2. The theme of power and corruption in “Animal Farm” by George Orwell

    As an allegory to the Russian Revolution of 1917, George Orwell’s “Animal Farm ” explores the theme of power and corruption as a group of farm animals rebel against their human oppressors. While the animals are initially motivated by the pursuit of equality and justice, they quickly find themselves in the midst of a power struggle that leads to corrupt leadership amongst themselves.

    The theme is clearly illustrated through characters such as Napoleon, who initially represents the ideas behind the revolution. However, over time, he and the other pigs succumb to the allure of power. The motif of the pigs’ gradual transformation into oppressive leaders and the evolving language of the commandments reinforce the theme of power and corruption in the narrative, creating a cautionary tale about unchecked authority and how those in power can use manipulation to maintain control.

    3. The theme of tradition in “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson

    Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” expresses her profound commentary on the dangers of conformity by exploring the dark consequences of mindlessly following tradition. The story is set in a small pastoral town as they prepare for their annual lottery, where the “winner” is stoned to death by the community, including their family and neighbors.

    While horrifying to readers, the townspeople are seemingly unphased by the dark and gruesome tradition. Jackson hints at the story’s theme using symbols, characters, and motifs throughout the story. Everything from the townspeople’s passive participation in the ritual without question to the splintered black box used for picking names emphasizes how everything about the lottery is rooted in how things have always been done. As a result, Jackson skillfully crafted a cautionary tale about the dangers of blindly following societal norms and traditions without reevaluating their moral and ethical implications.

    • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald explores themes of the American Dream and how the relentless pursuit of wealth and social status often results in moral decay and unfulfilled aspirations.
    • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins dives into themes of survival and societal inequality, positioning Katniss Everdeen as a symbol of hope and resistance against oppressive forces.
    • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee explores themes of racial prejudice and social justice, highlighting the importance of empathy in the face of systemic inequality.
    • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling highlights the battle between good and evil, emphasizing the importance of resilience and standing up against dark forces.
    • Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare explores the theme of fate, and regardless of Romeo and Juliet’s love for each other, they are “star-crossed lovers”  trapped by their doomed fate.

    Additional Resources for Teaching Theme

    Save time by using my done-for-you lesson plan for introducing theme.

    Read this post for more tips on teaching theme using short stories.

    Engage your students in an exploration of theme with the following videos:

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