THEME: A unifying or dominant idea in a work of art. Not expressed as a single word but as a complete and specific idea.
EG: A major theme in Peter Pan is “out-growing the innocence and lack of responsibility of childhood and becoming an adult”.
The theme of a fable is its moral. The theme of a parable is its teaching. The theme of a piece of fiction is its view about life and how people behave. The controlling idea or central insight of a story is the underlying or philosophical idea(s) that the story conveys.
In fiction, the theme is not intended to teach or preach. In fact, it is not presented directly. It is extracted from the characters, action, and setting that make up the story. You must discover the theme(s) yourself.
To determine a theme, we ask what insight into life or human nature are revealed in the story. Exploring themes is a way to encapsulate what we may discover about the human experience in that story.
Here are some ways to uncover a theme in a story:
- Notice repeating patterns (motifs) of images and symbols.
- Check out the title—sometimes that says a lot about the theme(s)
- Notice what allusions are made by the author.
- Look at specific details of the story. If the author is paying particular attention to something, it's important.
Themes are general—they are not about specific characters. However, they should not extend beyond what may be justified by the story or upon our own assumptions.
Remember that everything about a piece of literature is there by the author's choice. Ask why those choices were made. You may not agree with the theme(s) you discover, but they are an intrinsic part of the story.
Theme, plot, structure, motifs, etc. are inseparable; they all help to inform and reflect on each other. A theme does not explain the story; it's just one element of the whole.
There may be more than one theme in the story.
Themes should not be facile cliches; they should be specific to the story.
Moral and theme are not interchangeable. Usually an author is not trying to inculcate a moral code but only to make observations and provoke thought. Ask, "what does this story reveal?" rather than "what does this story teach?"
Topic vs. Theme
A topic is just a vague idea: The American Dream; unequal power dynamics between men and women; man's inhumanity to man; greed; etc. are all topics, not themes.
"A true marriage can only exist when partners treat each other equally and with respect" is a theme: the controlling idea or central insight of a story.
Accumulating money without knowledge or care of the human cost of its acquisition can lead to greed", is a theme.
"The idea of The American Dream, of bettering ones own condition by hard work, is not equally shared among those who are discriminated against by society" is a theme.