The theme is the central topic of a narrative. Novels, films, plays, and TV shows all have themes. To identify the theme, you simply need to look at the central conflict of a story and ask yourself what it’s all about. How does the protagonist’s experience relate to the broader human condition?
Basically, any work of art with a plot and a conflict has a big idea at the heart of the action. When you figure out what the creator is trying to say about the way the world works, you’ve probably identified the theme.
The definition of theme, according to Merriam-Webster, is “a subject or topic of discourse or of artistic representation.” Music can even have a theme, defined as “a melodic subject of a musical composition or movement.”
For the purposes of this article, we’ll mostly be discussing the way authors, playwrights, and screenwriters communicate theme in a piece of writing.
What Does Theme Mean in Literature?
In a nonfiction book without a narrative structure, you would call the main argument the thesis. A novel or memoir has a theme instead. Much like a thesis in a paper, the theme of a book often expresses an opinion. In some ways, the entire narrative—with its character arcs and plot twists—serves as an argument in support of the author’s theme.
The theme of a work of fiction is different from the genre of that work. For example, you might know that a novel is about mystery or romance, but that doesn’t give you any indication of the book’s theme.
The topic of the book is not the same as the theme, either. You might know that a book is about World War I, but the theme could express the author’s opinion about any number of big ideas: courage, religious faith, imagination, etc.
How Do You Identify a Theme in Literature?
To identify the theme, look to the climax of the story. Usually, the climax occurs towards the end of the plot, and it’s the moment where tension builds to the highest level. What issues are at stake in the climax? Ask yourself what the conflict is about in that scene. The abstract ideas that drive the story to its climax will usually give you insight into the major theme.
Beyond the major theme, there may be subplots with their own minor themes. Typically, the minor themes will support and build on the primary theme of the story.
You can distinguish the minor themes from the major theme in two ways. First, the major theme is likely to preoccupy the protagonist (and the antagonist, if one exists) in some way. If the theme only appears in relation to a minor character, it’s not likely the main theme. Second, the major theme should be relevant to the climax. The most dramatic moment in a work of fiction will touch on the major theme.
You can also keep an eye out for motifs, or recurring images or details, since they may give you a clue about the author’s intentions. Similarly, any symbolism that the author uses can help you to define the theme. For example, the blood in the play MacBeth by William Shakespeare is a symbol that points to one of the major themes: the destructive power of guilt.
Theme vs. Subject
As mentioned above, the theme of a book or play isn’t the same as its subject matter. In a memoir, this is very clear. The subject of the book would be the author’s own life, but the theme could vary based on what the author chooses to write about.
Returning to Macbeth, the subject of the play is power struggles in 11th century Scotland. The theme has to do with timeless human concerns, such as loyalty, ambition, guilt, etc.
In literary fiction, the subject may not be as clear-cut. You can deduce the subject matter of a book from the title and the plot. So, the subject, or the topic, of a book might be family life in the suburbs. The theme may require you to dig a bit deeper. Ask yourself, what are the sources of conflict in this story? What abstract ideas do the characters discuss? What is the author trying to say about this subject? Why did the author select these scenes to tell the story?
Thematic Concept vs. Thematic Statement
Thematic concept describes the reader’s understanding of the theme. So, for example, two readers may argue about the theme of a book. In that case, they would have different thematic concepts.
In contrast, a thematic statement is a sentence or two summarizing the author’s theme. A writing teacher might assign you to write a paper with a thematic statement as its thesis. Usually, thematic statements are written in abstract language, and they sound almost like short aphorisms.
Some examples might include:
- Love is blind.
- Success takes sacrifice.
- Pride leads to foolish behavior.
A thematic statement is longer than a one- or two-word description. If you know that the theme is “love,” and you want to write a thematic statement, think about what perspective the author expresses about human love. You might make a list of possible opinions, drawn from what the author communicates through plot, dialogue, setting, symbolism, and so on.
Your list might look something like this:
- Without love, we die.
- Love is what makes a house a home.
- Friendship is the most important kind of love.
- Lovers will always betray one another.
- Unconditional love is possible but rare.
Next, look through the book for passages that support your argument. If you find ample evidence to support a particular statement, you can feel confident that your thematic statement is workable. On the other hand, if you have trouble locating example sentences that confirm your thematic statement, you may want to revise your thematic concept.
Examples of Theme in Literature
To better understand theme, let’s take some well-known fictional works and examine their climaxes.
In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, the last film in the series, the climax occurs when Harry chooses to return from the dead to face off with Voldemort. The elder wand recognizes Harry as its master, giving him the power to overcome his rival. This scene underscores the theme of the movie—that love is more powerful than death.
The climax of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen happens when Mr. Darcy proposes to Elizabeth for the second time even after many misunderstandings. This reinforces the novel’s theme. With this story, Austen illustrates how finding romantic love may require you to overcome social prejudices and personal pride.
Major vs. Minor Themes
Sometimes a work of literature contains subplots that deviate from the main idea. For example, A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens has duality as a major theme. Starting from the first sentence of the book, Dickens sets up contrasting pairs with his settings, characters, and philosophical ideas.
Meanwhile, a subplot within that work reveals a minor theme, having to do with fate. Madame Defarge stitches the names of her enemies into her knitting, an action that echoes the weaving goddesses (the Fates) of Greek mythology. Yet, fate is not addressed with every character’s subplot, nor does it appear in every chapter of the book. For those reasons, the inevitability of fate acts as a minor theme rather than a major theme.
To some degree, the categorization of major and minor themes may be a matter of personal opinion. It’s possible that a particular theme resonates more with one reader than it does with another. If that’s the case, two readers may develop different thematic concepts, or they may prioritize the major theme differently.
Certain themes tend to come up in literature again and again. If you’re stuck trying to identify a theme in a novel, film, or play, ask yourself if any of these common types of themes fit:
- Coming of age
- Greed and betrayal
- Good vs. evil
- Survival and perseverance
- The importance of family
- Order vs. chaos