I. What is Theme?
One of the first questions to ask upon hearing someone has written a story is, “What’s it about?” or “What’s the point?” Short answers may range from love to betrayal or from the coming of age to the haziness of memory. The central idea, topic, or point of a story, essay, or narrative is its theme.
II. Examples of Theme
A man, fueled by an urge for power and control due to his own pride, builds a supercomputer. That supercomputer then takes over the world, causing chaos and struggle galore.
This sci-fi style story contains many common themes. A few of its themes include:
- Danger of excessive pride
- The risky relationship between humankind and developing technology
A boy and a girl fall in love. The boy is forced to join the army and fights to survive in a war-torn country as his beloved waits at home. When he returns from war, the two are united and married.
The love story also has many common themes in literature:
- The power of true love
- Fate, which sometimes tears lovers apart and then joins them together
As can be seen from these examples, themes can range widely from ideas, as large as love and war, to others as specific as the relationship between humankind and technology.
III. Types of Theme
Just as a life is not constantly immersed in love, the pursuit of knowledge, or the struggle of the individual versus society, themes are not always constantly present in a story or composition. Rather, they weave in and out, can disappear entirely, or appear surprisingly mid-read. This is because there are two types of themes: major and minor themes.
a. Major Themes
Major themes are, just as they sound, the more important and enduring themes of the narrative. Major themes are the most significant themes of the story, and often they are a part of the entire story. A book on war would have the major theme of war’s effect on humanity, whereas a romance novel would have the major theme of love.
b. Minor Themes
Minor themes are, on the other hand, less important and less enduring. They may appear for part of the narrative only to be replaced by another minor theme later in the narrative. They provide discussion points for a chapter or two, but do not color the entire story. A book on war may have minor themes such as the home front’s reaction to war or the political aspects of war. A romance novel may have minor themes such as flirtation, marriage, and fidelity.
IV. The Importance of Using Theme
The importance of using theme in narrative is unparalleled. The theme is the underlining idea an author is trying to convey to an audience. A story without major ideas for the character and reader to experience, think through, and learn from is not a story at all. A story, by its very nature, must have a theme, sometimes many major and minor themes, all throughout. Themes are the ideas book clubs, poets, playwrights, literature students, film enthusiasts, movie-makers, and creative writers mull over in-depth. They are the meaning behind the entire story, the deeper reasons that the story has been written and shared.
V. Examples of Theme in Literature
Theme is a prominent element in literature. Here are a few examples of theme in poetry and prose:
“i carry your heart with me(i carry it in)” by E. E. Cummings:
i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)
no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you
here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart
i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)
This poem’s major theme is clear: love. Minor themes include fate, togetherness, and desire.
Atonement by Ian McEwan is an example of a novel whose theme is its title. Here are a few revealing excerpts:
How can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God? There is no one, no entity or higher form that she can appeal to, or be reconciled with, or that can forgive There is nothing outside her. In her imagination she has set the limits and the terms. No atonement for God, or novelists, even if they are atheists. It was always an impossible task, and that was precisely the point. The attempt was all.
This section reveals the main theme of atonement along with other minor themes such as the life of the writer and forgiveness.
VI. Examples of Theme in Pop Culture
Just as literary narratives require themes, songs, movies, and television shows do as well. Here are a few examples of theme in pop culture:
The trailer shows that the main theme of Godzilla is nature, as a powerful and destructive force to be reckoned with. Other themes include the human effect on nature, fear of the unknown, and hubris.
Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day
The main theme of this movie is positivity in the face of a bad day, as they happen to all of us. Other themes include family, perseverance, and love.
VII. Related Terms
Because themes encompass main ideas in a narrative, they have many similar elements which do similar things for a narrative. Here are a few examples:
“And the moral of the story is…” As many fables and tales go, morals are a necessary element. They are the main message or lesson to be learned from reading a cautionary story. Although themes and morals are both major ideas in a story, they are different in that themes do not necessarily serve to teach a lesson, whereas morals always do. A theme is simply an idea to be examined, whereas a moral is a clear lesson to be learned. Here is an example of theme versus moral:
Love others the way you would like to be loved.
Whereas the theme is simply an idea, the moral is a message and instruction.
Motifs work in a story to emphasize the theme, and for this reason, is sometimes confused with the theme. Motifs are recurring images, objects, or ideas that highlight the theme. Here is one example of how motif works with theme:
A man is struggling with regret throughout a story. Motifs like dark dreams, repetitive thoughts, and dark lighting emphasize the mood and pervasiveness of the regret.
Whereas the theme is a larger idea, the motifs are smaller elements of a story which repeat in order to reflect that idea.
VIII. In Closing
Themes are the ideas that run through narratives, enlivening them with deeper meaning to be found in real life and fiction alike. They create stories that are not dull but compelling and emotional.