Themes in Literature
A literary theme is the unifying or dominant idea in a work of fiction. This is not to be confused with the plot. The theme is the main topic or central idea. This can be as simple as “love,” “family,” or “revenge.” It can be as complicated as “science vs. nature,” “the folly of youth,” or “the treachery of commerce.”
Every writer makes his or her writing about something, and that something, the essence of the story, is the theme.
For example, a major theme in Great Expectations is that moral values are more important than wealth and status. Alienation is a primary theme in Crime and Punishment, while “true love triumphs” dominates the well-loved classic, Princess Bride.
What good does it do to know major themes? We’ve already pointed out how a story without a uniting theme is often confusing and leaves the reader wanting more. Well, learning about themes isn’t just a way to better analyze an author’s finished work of fiction. It’s also a way to improve your own writing. The stronger a writer’s theme is, and the more in tune the writer is with that theme’s execution, the better the work as a whole will be.
For your own written work, ask yourself: what, under all the characters and subplots, is my story really about? Is it about love conquering all? About good triumphing over evil? About the dangers of progress? Often, your story will have a “spine.” This is a one-sentence description of the heart behind your book. For example, one could say the “spine” of Pride and Prejudice is “a man and woman in the regency era overcome their preconceptions to ultimately find love” while two major themes are matrimony and, you guessed it, prejudice.
This might sound too simple, but that’s okay. The theme is supposed to be an oversimplification of the story’s meaning.
Once you’ve defined your theme and the spine of your story, it’s helpful to look at all your characters, situations, and plot developments through this lens. Say your theme is “love fails in the end.” Even at the happiest moments of your love story, it might be wise to include some foreshadowing of love’s imminent doom. This helps enrich your writing.
Two of the primary ways to build a theme in writing are through motifs and symbols. A motif is a recurring literary structure that helps develop your theme. It’s a meaningful pattern that reuses objects, characters, even weather, to further emphasize the theme.
For example, in The Great Gatsby, changing weather patterns reflect the shifting tone of the story. The weather is overwhelmingly hot when characters feel suffocated by a situation, tension is connected to storms, and the day of Gatsby’s funeral it’s pouring rain.
A symbol is like a motif, but on a smaller scale. It’s is an image, character, or object that has a meaning beneath the immediate surface. Let’s stick with The Great Gatsby in our explanation. In the novel, Gatsby is still in love with a former flame, Daisy. He’s come up in the world since their last meeting, and now lives across the lake from her in an enormous mansion. Daisy has a green light on the edge of her dock, and Gatsby watches that light from the edge of his own dock. This is an example of symbolism. There’s nothing to suggest Gatsby is particularly infatuated with green lights, but for him the light symbolizes Daisy, who seems to him unattainable.
In summary, a literary theme is different than a plot. While a plot is the order of events in a work of fiction, the theme involves the overall meaning and purpose of the book. The theme is where fiction intersects with life. It may be a story about hobbits in Middle Earth, but the theme of friendship and good conquering evil is still applicable in real life.
Thanks for watching, and I’ll see you next time.