Theme in Literature

Theme Can Be a Broad Subject or a Specific Message

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In works of fiction, a theme is the central idea or ideas explored in the story. Literary themes might be the subject matter or present itself as a message within the larger story.

Theme As Subject Matter

A theme can be expressed concretely in a very general way -- a broad subject, such as courtship, love, and marriage in Jane Austen's works.

When conceived of as simply a subject, it's easy to see how a work of literature could have more than one theme.

"Hamlet," for instance, deals with the themes of death, revenge, and action, to name a few. "King Lear's" themes shine a light on justice, reconciliation, madness, and betrayal. 

Theme As Message

The theme can also be expressed in a more abstract way as an idea or moral -- the message of the story. For example, the theme of a parable or fable is the moral it teaches. For example:

  • The theme, or moral, of Aesop's story "The Tortoise and the Hare" is "slow and steady wins the race" or "consistency and perseverance is of more value than flash and speed."
  • George Orwell's anti-utopian novel "Animal Farm" has several themes, among them are "absolute power corrupts absolutely" and "knowledge is power." 
  • The themes of the novel "Frankenstein" by Mary Shelley are "It is wrong for human beings to attempt to usurp the powers that should be God's alone" or, more simply, "pride goes before a fall."

Building a Theme Into Your Fiction

While you might start with an issue or theme in mind, themes also develop, emerge or expand as you write.

It may not be until the editing stage that you even begin to recognize your themes. Once you see your theme, you can more easily decide what to cut from your story or novel and what to highlight.

Here's a scenario: You are writing a story through which you hope to communicate themes of love and loss.

You might even have formulated a message you wish to get across through your characters -- something like "true love is eternal and can survive even death."

Now that you have your theme, you know several things about your story:

  • It involves love
  • It involves at least two characters who are capable of experiencing and communicating deep love for each other
  • It involves loss
  • It somehow portrays love as being eternal -- whether symbolically or literally, as might be possible in fantasy.

Alternatively, you might write your story about eternal love -- and then, having read the story, you might analyze it. If you have done a good job of crafting your characters and plot, it is likely that you will discover your themes through the process of analysis.

Once you are comfortable with your theme and the way in which your fiction supports it; edit your work with the theme in mind. Are there sections of your work that seem to detract from the theme? Are there sections that should be strengthened to make the point more clear? Through this process, you might even discover secondary themes in your work.