Theme

Definition of Theme

As a literary device, theme is the central topic or idea explored in a text. Usually the theme of a work of literature can be stated in one word, such as “love” or “solitude.” A work of literature can, and often does, have more than one theme. The theme is generally not stated explicitly in the text, but instead is expressed through the characters’ actions, words, and thoughts.

Thematic Concept vs. Thematic Statement

The definition of theme can be broken into two categories: the thematic concept of a work and the thematic statement. The thematic concept refers to what a reader understands the work to be about, while the thematic statement refers to what the work says about that subject in question. The thematic concept thus is usually an abstract concept, like “love” or “solitude” as we said before, while the thematic statement usually is a sentence highlighting the argument of the piece of literature. The thematic statement often comments on the way the human condition affects or is affected by the abstract concept of the theme. For example, the theme of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace is stated directly in the title—war and peace. The thematic statement could be something about the irrationality of human decision-making in times of both war and peace, and the search for the meaning of life in the face of this irrationality.

Common Examples of Theme

  • Many politicians craft a message about their campaign around a central theme. In 2008, American presidential candidate Barack Obama used the themes of “hope” and “change” to energize voters.
  • Brands also sometimes relate their advertising campaigns around a theme. For example, in 1947, advertisers for De Beers came up with the slogan “A diamond is forever.” Connecting the theme of immortality with the theme of love, De Beers made it so that any man who wished to display his everlasting love for a woman had to buy a diamond. De Beers effectively created the tradition of the diamond engagement ring.

In both of these cases, the thematic concepts were so strong and convincing that they overcame oppositional arguments. In the case of De Beers, men were suddenly expected to spend two months of their salary on a diamond ring, which until that time would have been considered ludicrous.

Significance of Theme in Literature

All works of literature contain some sort of theme. Themes are generally universal in nature, and relate to the condition of being human. Thus the theme in a work of literature crosses boundaries and makes a story meaningful to people to any culture or age. While readers may not understand all the references and language in a book from a different time period or culture, the theme of the novel is what makes it comprehensible.

Examples of Theme in Literature

Example #1

IAGO: Oh, beware, my lord, of jealousy!
It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock
The meat it feeds on.

(Othello by William Shakespeare)

Much of the dramatic action in Othello hinges on the jealousy that Othello feels toward his wife, Desdemona. In this excerpt, Othello’s best friend, Iago, warns him of being jealous (the metaphor of jealously as a green-eyed monster is such a famous quote that it created the idea that a person could be “green with envy”). Ironically, Iago is the one who creates this jealousy and feeds it.

Example #2

In the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it. It was inevitable that they should make that claim sooner or later: the logic of their position demanded it. Not merely the validity of experience, but the very existence of external reality was tacitly denied by their philosophy.

(1984 by George Orwell)

George Orwell’s novel 1984 contains multiple references to power and manipulation. Orwell had been a firsthand witness to the propaganda put out during wartime in the 1930s and 1940s, and saw how officials in different countries manipulated stories to keep themselves in power and prove their legitimacy. This theme example presents the concept of “2+2=5” to show that the Party in power will try to make citizens believe even things that are obviously and unequivocally wrong. Orwell reiterates this theme later when the main character, Winston, ends up tracing “2+2=5” in the dust of a café table after he has been fully indoctrinated in the Party’s propaganda.

Example #3

The gypsy was inclined to stay in the town. He really had been through death, but he had returned because he could not bear the solitude.

(One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez)

There are many themes in Gabriel García Márquez’s epic work One Hundred Years of Solitude, but the titular theme of solitude reoccurs many times throughout the novel. This is a theme that García Márquez states explicitly, and the characters in the novel have many different attitudes toward it. In this example of theme, a man has died and come back to life “because he could not bear the solitude.” The solitude of death is worse than the pain of life for the man. However, many characters actually seek solitude in life and find that the state of being alive is inseparable from a state of solitude. The characters try to connect over love, family, and duty, yet find themselves always and inextricably alone.

Example #4

JOHN PROCTOR: Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life! Because I lie and sign myself to lies! Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them that hang! How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!

(The Crucible by Arthur Miller)

Arthur Miller wrote his play The Crucible as a response to the scare tactics of the McCarthy era. As he saw his friends and peers being labeled as communists and blacklisted, Miller turned to the Salem witch-hunt as a model to artistically address the situation. One of the key themes both during the McCarthy era and in The Crucible is reputation and “having a good name.” At the end of the play, John Proctor refuses to admit to witchcraft to save his life. When asked why, he gives an impassioned speech about the importance of reputation, considering it even more important than life itself.

Example #5

Do not pity the dead, Harry. Pity the living, and, above all those who live without love.

(Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling)

J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series contains the major theme of good versus evil. Even more important than this, though, is the theme of love. Over the course of the series, Harry Potter learns that he is alive because of his mother’s love, and the sacrifice she made for him. This love, in J. K. Rowling’s conception, is so powerful that it resists the ultimate evil. And, indeed, Lord Voldemort is evil precisely because he is both unable to feel love and unable to grasp its significance. In this quote from the final installment of the series, Dumbledore tells Harry that living without love is the greatest hardship of all.

Test Your Knowledge of Theme

1. What is the correct theme definition?
A. The “big idea” that is explored in a work of literature.
B. What the author explicitly states is important.
C. A refrain that characters say.

Answer to Question #1 Show

2. Look at the following excerpts from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. What theme do they expound upon?

Why they came East I don’t know. They had spent a year in France for no particular reason, and then drifted here and there unrestfully wherever people played polo and were rich together.

“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

I lived at West Egg, the – well, the least fashionable of the two, though this is a most superficial tag to express the bizarre and not a little sinister contrast between them.

A. Boredom
B. Wealth and class
C. Resentment

Answer to Question #2 Show

3. Which of the following excerpts from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is an example of the theme of compassion?

A. 

When a child asks you something, answer him, for goodness’ sake. But don’t make a production of it. Children are children, but they can spot an evasion quicker than adults, and evasion simply muddles ’em.

 B. 

After my bout with Cecil Jacobs when I committed myself to a policy of cowardice, word got around that Scout Finch wouldn’t fight any more, her daddy wouldn’t let her. This was not entirely correct: I wouldn’t fight publicly for Atticus, but the family was private ground.

C. 

First of all,” he said, “if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view […] until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Answer to Question #3 Show

2 comments

  • So educating.

  • This definition helped me articulate or define (or decide) what the central theme of my paper is or should be, or what the reader thinks it is. Sounds confusing, but I’m still searching for the proper theme(s).

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