Theme • Definition of theme • Elements of Theme • How to “find” themes • Examples of themes
Theme defined • A central idea or “truth” that a work of literature expresses • A comment that a work of literature makes on the human condition
Theme Versus Subject • Subject: what a work is about. It can usually be expressed in one word. For example, “Love” is a subject of Romeo and Juliet • Theme: What does the work say about the subject? It should be a complete sentence or statement. For example, “In Romeo and Juliet, we learn that adolescent romance can be a stronger force than family ties.”
Theme must go beyond the book • To be a true theme, the truth or comment must apply to people or to life in general, not just the characters in the book. For example, “In Beauty and the Beast, Belle learns that true beauty comes from within,” only applies to the story. Instead, express the theme like this: “In Beauty and the Beast, we learn through Belle and the beast that true beauty comes from within.”
Multiple themes are possible! • Many books have more than one theme, so do not think that there is one “right” theme to any book you read. In fact, most great literature has multiple themes.
Themes must be supported! • Just because works can have multiple themes, it does not mean that the theme can be anything that you want. • In order for a theme to be justified, there must be specific, concrete evidence from the text. For example, if your potential theme statement is that “Poverty creates tough, self-reliant people,” then the book should contain examples of poor characters who develop toughness and self-reliance.
Finding the theme • Asking questions • What is the subject? • What does the book say, or teach us, about the subject? • How does the work communicate the theme? In other words, what specific details, characters, actions, incidents, etc, suggest the truth of the theme statement?
Possible Theme Questions • Questions about the nature of humanity • Does the author think that humans are good or flawed? • What good things do people do? • How are people flawed? • To what extent are people flawed?
Questions about Society • Does the society help people or hurt them? • Are characters in conflict with society? • Do characters want to escape the society? • Is the society flawed? • If so, how?
Questions about humans and the world • Do characters control their lives? Do they make free choices? • Are characters driven by forces beyond their control? • Does the world have some grand scheme, or is it random and arbitrary?
Questions about Ethics • What are the moral conflicts in the work? • Are right and wrong clear cut in the story? • Does right win over wrong, or vice versa? • To what extent are characters to blame for their actions.
Sample Theme Statements • The theme of The Old Man and the Sea is that striving, struggling, and suffering are the only ways to achieve victory. • In My Antonia, Willa Cather demonstrates that the land is what makes people happy and fulfilled. • In Lord of the Flies, William Golding suggests that a democracy is better than a dictatorship.