What Is a Theme in Literature?

Definition & Examples of Themes in Literature

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

Learn more about what themes are in literature and get some well-known examples.

What Is a Theme in Literature?

A theme can be expressed concretely in a very general way or as a broad subject, such as courtship, love, and marriage in Jane Austen's works. Throughout her novels, love triumphs (and those in love), even though they had to endure hardships and challenges along the way.

Works of literature can have more than one theme. "Hamlet," for instance, deals with the themes of death, revenge, and action, to name a few. "King Lear" shines a light on justice, reconciliation, madness, and betrayal as themes. 

A theme also can 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:

  • The theme, or moral, of Aesop's "The Tortoise and the Hare" is that slow and steady wins the race or consistency and perseverance is of more value than flash and speed.
  • George Orwell's dystopian novel "Animal Farm" has several themes, including how absolute power can corrupt and that knowledge is power. 
  • The themes of the novel "Frankenstein" by Mary Shelley are that it is wrong for human beings to attempt to usurp the powers that should be God's alone and that pride goes before a fall.

Identifying themes in literature can enhance your reading experience by allowing you to better understand characters, conflicts, and story.

How Themes in Literature Work

Writers take different approaches to themes in their work. While you might start with an issue or theme in mind, you might find that other 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 them, though, you can more easily decide what to cut from your story or novel and what to highlight.

You can edit your work with your theme in mind. For example, are there sections of the work that seem to detract from the theme? Are there sections that you can strengthen to clarify the point?

Consider this 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 even survive death."

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

  • 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 a story about two characters in love and not really identify eternal love as a central theme until after you've analyzed the first draft. If you do a good job crafting characters and plot, you often will discover themes through the process of analysis.

Examples of Themes in Literature

The possible themes that literature can focus on are numerous. Here are some examples of some common ones:

  • Love
  • Coming of age
  • Rebirth
  • Redemption
  • Injustice
  • Oppression
  • Revenge
  • Courage
  • Survival
  • Resilience
  • Power
  • Corruption
  • Betrayal
  • Disillusionment
  • Family
  • Trust

"This vs. that" is also a way that many themes show up in literature. For example:

  • War vs. peace
  • Good vs. evil
  • Individual vs. society
  • Life vs. death
  • Reality vs. illusion
  • Tradition vs. change
  • Humans vs. nature
  • Humans vs. technology

Key Takeaways

  • A theme in literature is the central idea explored in the story.
  • Works of literature can have more than one theme.
  • Identifying a story's theme can help a writer develop a story and a reader understand it better.
  • There are many common themes that repeat throughout notable works of literature, such as love, revenge, and coming of age.