Anything that is worth reading was written with a purpose, a message that the writer wanted to share with the world.
We can see this in everything from short poems to children’s books. (Don’t tell me you’re not moved by Dr. Seuss!)
Some writing might be a bit more shallow. It can be enjoyable to read from time to time, but it doesn’t carry a universal message that will last in our minds.
This universal message is known as a theme, and it tells us something about our shared human experience.
Definition of Theme
The theme of a literary work is its central message or idea, usually expressed indirectly through its characters, plot, and symbolism.
In fact, a large part of what makes reading pleasurable is uncovering this central message.
Unlike a story’s subject, which is simply the foundational topic, a theme contains an opinion about a larger idea and can be applied universally (not just to that specific story).
For example, a novel’s subject might be war, but its theme could be the author’s opinion that war is destructive and foolish. Many books can have war as their subject while having very different themes.
Theme vs. Motif
A motif is a recurring idea, object, or image in a literary work. Motifs carry symbolic significance and contribute to the overall theme of the work. They are often conveyed through repeated imagery or language.
Once you can identify motifs in a work of literature, you’re one step closer to understanding its theme. Think of motifs as little hints that readers can follow to figure out the greater meaning of a work, and to determine what the story means to them.
Examples of Theme in Literature
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter
Sin and guilt are two of the major topics explored in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Much like Adam and Eve’s story in the Bible, Hester and Dimmesdale’s sin (their affair) leads to exile and suffering, although it is Hester who receives almost all of the public’s backlash.
Hester is ostracized by Puritan society, but her experience actually leads her through personal growth and toward a greater understanding of others, while Puritan society experiences zero growth or change.
Dimmesdale, on the other hand, is burdened by his guilt, but only takes responsibility for his part in the affair as he is dying. Thus, it would appear that Hawthorne is suggesting that guilt and remorse mean nothing unless they are paired with action.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby
All of the characters in The Great Gatsby are attracted by the “American Dream,” the idea that anything—wealth, social mobility, happiness—is achievable as long as you work hard for it.
Gatsby spent his life trying to make money and obtain more possessions with the hope that this would make him good enough and worthy enough of Daisy’s love.
But despite despite all of his extraordinary wealth and flashy parties, Gatsby ultimately loses his dream before he can ever hold it. Thus, readers are left to wonder if the “American Dream” is even attainable at all. Is it something worth striving for, or will chasing it only bring us to ruin?
Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms
In Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, Henry and Catherine find temporary solace from their problems in each other (Catherine is mourning the death of her fiancé, while Henry wants to avoid any talk of the war).
However, their feelings quickly develop into real love and they begin to plan a life together, far from the war-torn Italian countryside in the safety and tranquility of the Swiss mountains.
Yet no matter how strong, their love and happiness can never be more than temporary. This relationship between love and pain is one of the key themes found in the novel, as well as many of Hemingway’s other novels that deal with the subject of war or post-war life.
William Golding’s Lord of the Flies
In Lord of the Flies, William Golding shows us that when left alone to fight for survival, brutal human instincts will kick in, even in children.
Jack, for example, quickly becomes obsessed with power and declares himself the island’s totalitarian leader. Even those who try to maintain their sense of civilized humanity, like Piggy and Ralph, get lost in the hysteria of Simon’s murder.
More than just a story of boys stranded on an island, Lord of the Flies carries a deeper message through its theme, one that expresses the author’s views on human nature as being inherently bad.
How to Identify Theme
In order to find a story’s theme, it’s important to examine other elements in the story, such as its characters, setting, plot, and main conflict.
Summarize the story as simply as you can. In 1–2 sentences, what is this story about?
Then, try answering the following questions. Your answers should help you to extract the larger, universal theme from the story:
- What problem does the main character face?
- What does the main character learn?
- What have you learned from the story/What does this all mean to you?
When writing a literary analysis essay, you might be asked to discuss a work’s theme. In this case, a thematic statement might serve as the thesis of your paper.
A thematic statement expresses the story’s universal theme in a complete sentence. It takes the simple keywords or phrases, such as “war and destruction” or “the elusive nature of the American Dream,” and expands them, while still remaining universal.
The story should not be referenced directly in the thematic statement (nor should any of the characters or other specific elements).
Here’s an example of a thematic statement that builds on the theme we discussed from The Great Gatsby above:
The American Dream is an elusive myth; striving for it only leads to disappointment and destruction.
You should be able to support your thematic statement with evidence and examples from the text.
The statement doesn’t have to reflect your personal opinions; it only needs to be evident that this is what the text and author are trying to say.
Theme: The Big Picture
Understanding theme is an essential part of reading. Sure, you could just read the words on the page and take them for what they are; but if you don’t try to look a little deeper, you might miss the author’s point, which is what inspired them to write in the first place.
What are some of your favorite literary themes? Share your thoughts in the comments below!