What Is a Theme in Literature?

woman holding "the complete works of william shakespeare" to represent literary themes.

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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 or as a broad subject, such as courtship, love, and marriage in Jane Austen's works. Throughout her novels, love—and those in love—triumph even though they had to endure hardships and challenges along the way.

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" shines a light on justice, reconciliation, madness, and betrayal as themes. 

Theme as Message

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 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 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.

How Themes Can Enhance Your Reading Experience

When reading fiction, identifying themes can enhance the experience by allowing you to better understand characters and conflicts and possibly even anticipate what will happen next. Consider a simplistic example. The main character may have a strong work ethic, and he may value similar traits in others and despise those who are lazy. As a reader, when you identify this trait in a character and see that he is drawn to other characters like him, you may also be able to anticipate arising conflict when these characters are forced to deal with another character who does not share their work ethic.

Stories can be enjoyed—and often are—just by following the action and finding out what happens next. The experience can be enhanced, though, by identifying themes and understanding how they drive the actions of characters and ultimately the story.

Building Themes Into Your Writing

While you might start with an issue or theme in mind, they 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 it, you more easily can 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 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.

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?