When you choose a novel to read, what are you looking for? Do you prefer a thrilling survival, fated romance, or a story about questionable choices? These are all themes that are commonly used in literature.
As a writer, it’s important that you learn to identify themes, even if only so that you can use them correctly in your own writing.
What is a theme?
A theme is a recurring concept, an idea that you might mull over and consider in relation to the main idea. It’s usually a message within the work, giving the story significance or a lesson. Authors don’t often spell their themes out for you, though. You have to make inferences based on evidence from the text.
Stories are unique. The characters are original, and the plots follow their own paths. However, these same stories often utilize similar themes. This is because themes are universal, meaning most readers will be able to relate to them in some way. Some of the most common themes found in literature include:
- Good vs. Evil
- A long journey
- Jealousy or revenge
- The search for God or a greater purpose
- Growing up
- Doing the right thing
- The unifying ties of family and friendship
- Conflicting with the laws or rules of society
- Peace and war
- The circle of life
Finding Themes in Literature
Sometimes, it can be difficult to spot the theme of a story or other writing. If you’re having trouble understanding what a theme is, a simple place to start is within mythology or fables. We all know the story of The Tortoise and the Hare, and many of us were taught its lesson of patient perseverance. Or, we might look at the ancient tale of the Trojan horse and its themes of deceit and consequence.
When looking for themes in more subtle literature, you might find it easiest to follow these steps:
Consider the title.
Many times, the author uses the title to showcase the theme, even if this isn’t obvious to the reader until the very last sentence.
Identify the characters, scene, plot, and conflict.
It’s always good to have a thorough grasp of who’s who in writing. Even in an essay or work of nonfiction, you have a better chance of understanding where the author is headed or what their message is if you know the characters and understand the situation. By looking at the conflict, or where the main character is struggling, you can identify themes based on the lessons they learn from their experience.
Pay attention to recurring words and concepts.
Sometimes, authors repeat ideas and terms so that the reader has no opportunity to avoid the theme. Other times, authors subtly hide their themes within synonyms, similarity, or emotion.
One obvious example of theme is in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Austen put two themes in the title, a straightforward method of getting the point across that her main character, Elizabeth, would have a lot of growing to accomplish before the end of the novel. Some more subtle themes are:
- Male and female roles in early nineteenth-century Britain
- The dependence of women upon men for social significance
- Feminism (This was a topic that was both scandalous and enticing to young, female readers, who were her target audience.)
We can find the theme of feminism in the relationship between Elizabeth and her father. While Mr. Bennett insists that Lizzy follows her heart and not marry just to please her mother, he even praises her for being an independent thinker within the first page of the first chapter, “…they are all silly and ignorant . . . but Lizzy has something more of quickness than her sisters.”
You may notice themes without realizing it.
Themes can hide from you, but sometimes, it’s simply that you haven’t realized you noticed them. Using these tips might be a way for you to find themes in literature more easily, and once you do, you’ll certainly enjoy your reading—and writing—even more!