The Definition of Theme in Literature
One of the Challenges to Understanding Literature
Based on conversations I have had with English teachers from elementary school all the way up through graduate professors in college, it is fair to say that finding theme in literature is a big problem for many people. Young children are often completely lost, middle-level students sometimes find it but can’t clearly articulate it, and those in later high school or college can both find it and articulate it but often lack depth in their ability to clearly explain and expand on the ideas. In each case there is something missing.
This article explains how to identify, understand and explore theme in literature in very direct and concrete terms. Using this approach, the abstractions of theme will no longer be a mystery and you will be see the deeper thematic meanings of the stories you read with clarity.
Background on the Elements of Plot
Understanding theme in literature begins with the basics of story structure. By way of review, here is a brief summary of the fundamental elements of plot that make up the basic framework of most stories:
Literary Elements (In literary order)
The "exposition" of a story introduces the characters, the setting and the central conflict of the narrative.
After the initial introduction, events follow that intensify or complicate the central conflict, causing it to evolve.
Eventually the intensity of the central conflict will rise to the point where it fundamentally changes, creating a new understanding, situation or direction for the main characters.
Once this change takes place, events will follow that come as a direct result of the shift that took place in the climax.
Finally, the author will end the story, leaving the reader with an impression about the various characters' thoughts and feelings and their responses to what happened in the story.
Understanding the basic plot structure of stories helps readers to recognize the central importance of conflict. All stories are built around problems. In a movie, a TV show or a piece of classic literature, you will always find a character, or a group of characters, who are struggling with a particular problem. The plot of the story is constructed around this.
Themes of any given story grow out of its plot and conflict. Theme, however, is abstract, whereas plot and conflict are much more concrete. Identifying the theme in any story is most easily done by taking that which is concrete and then building a bridge that carries us into the deeper and more abstract ideas of the story. Often those who struggle with the concept of theme don’t know how to build the bridge.
Here’s how it works:
A Quick Plot Summary of "The Three Little Pigs"
Three little pigs go out on their own to build their own houses. One of them is not very interested in working hard, so he throws together a house of straw and spends the rest of his time playing.
Another, being a little worried about the safety of living in a straw house, takes a little bit more time to work and puts together a house of wood. It doesn’t take too long, and he still has quite a bit of time for fun.
The third pig thinks the other two are foolish for not taking this seriously and spends a great deal of time and energy building a brick house, leaving little time for fun and play.
With the houses built, the pigs are relaxing when a wolf shows up. He’s hungry, so he goes to the house of straw in pursuit of some bacon. He easily knocks it down, but the pig gets away, running to his brother with the wood house. The wolf follows him there, quickly knocking down the wood house as well. The pigs run to the third brother’s house, who welcomes them in.
The wolf attacks the third house but is unable to knock it down. Thinking himself clever, he climbs on the roof and lets himself down the chimney. In modern children’s versions of the story, the wolf burns himself and runs away. In older, more classic, versions of the story, the wolf falls to a fiery death.
Conflict in Literature: A Quick Review
The most concrete way to approach building this bridge is to use an example. We will use the classic story of “The Three Little Pigs” (please see the side note to the right if you are unfamiliar with the story). To get at the theme, the first thing you must be able to do is summarize the story. Once the reader is able to summarize the basic outline of the story, she will have a basic understanding of the concrete elements that make up the story, the most basic level of reading comprehension.
Next we need to identify the conflict within the story. In “The Three Little Pigs,” the conflict is quite simple: the wolf is hungry and the pigs do not want to be eaten. Of course, the conflict and events in a story like “The Three Little Pigs” are quite simplistic. Even very complex stories, however, follow the same basic rules. When looking for the themes in Tolstoy's War and Peace, you still need to know what happens in the book and be familiar with the central problem that drives the story, for it is in these things that we find theme.
Thinking About the Human Experience
Now comes the part that requires some thinking: building a bridge from the concrete to the abstract. Once the process is understood, it’s not really all that complicated. The bridge is contained within this question, which will directly lead to the definition of theme:
What does the story have to say about the universal human experience?
This question, once understood, is very easy to apply to any story. To understand it, however, you must understand the idea of the universal human experience.
The universal human experience is all of those experiences that are now, and have always been, commonly shared by everyone who is a human being throughout history. There are many things that fall into this category, but the easiest way to really understand it is to look a list of examples:
Aspects of the Universal Human Experience
This list covers many themes, but it is a mere fraction of all the things that would qualify as part of the universal human experience. They do, however, provide a very simple way to look at the concrete events of a story and try to identify ways in which what happens in the story is a reflection of these universal experiences.
Learning to Ask the Right Questions About Theme
At this point, posing a simple question will lead directly to theme. Once again, let’s take the story of “The Three Little Pigs.”
What does the story of “The Three Little Pigs” have to say about power?
Looking at what happens to the three little pigs, one could say that there is power in the wisdom of hard work. The little pig that worked the hardest saved them all from being eaten. Had they all made houses of straw, none of them would have survived the story.
One could also suggest that a theme of “The Three Little Pigs” could be that it’s important to know the limits of your own power. The wolf demonstrates physical power throughout the story. His power met its limit, however, when he came to the brick house. Had he recognized this and walked away, he would have survived the story.
What does the story of “The Three Little Pigs” have to say about brotherhood?
The story of “The Three Little Pigs” suggests that part of brotherhood is a willingness to share. The third little pig could certainly have closed his doors to his brothers, leaving them to be eaten by the wolf. After all, they were the ones who had been lazy. He did not. He welcomed them in, earning their thanks and gratitude.
Looking at this story from a variety of perspectives, one could come up with all kinds of themes related to the events of the story. Given that such a simple story can create so many different kinds of themes, whole novels have themes everywhere. One can find themes hidden within subplots and minute actions of minor characters. While these observations make wonderful things to talk about in book clubs, we still need a way to identify the big ideas—the central themes—of a given story.
Finding Theme in a Story
How does one distinguish between minor themes and major themes? You must turn your attention to the central conflict of the story. The details of the events surrounding this central conflict contain the major themes of the story. Once you find one that seems to relate to almost everything in the story, you have located a central theme of the story.
In “The Three Little Pigs” we defined the central conflict of the story as having to do with the wolf and his hunger for the pigs. The turning point of that conflict happens when the wolf finally fails in his attempt to get at the pigs. Given that he fails because of the construction of the brick house, a central theme of this story is: hard work pays off—or—bad things happen to those who are lazy. To put it in slightly more universal terms, those who meet the struggles of life with hard work will be successful where those who meet the struggles of life with as little effort as possible will not.
While finding the central theme of a story is not terribly difficult once these concepts are understood, it cannot be done without applying some thought to the story. Analyzing the events of the story and its central problem from different angles of the universal human experience can take some time, particularly when dealing with larger and more complex stories. If you do it in this way, however, the central themes of the piece will not hide themselves for long.
A Survey of Experience
In school, how often did you encounter teachers who felt there was only one "right way" to interpret literature?
A Word to the Wise
Do not get confused into thinking that stories have one theme. All stories, even simple ones, have multiple themes. Some people, especially teachers, may sometimes suggest that a given story has one theme. All this means is that that is the one theme they consider to be the most important. There will be other themes there, but, when dealing with someone who thinks this way, I suggest keeping them to yourself until you get out of their class or move on to having a discussion with someone else. Bringing them up will simply lower your grade or get you into trouble.
Quick Summary of the Definition of Theme in Literature
To close, here is a summary of how to find and analyze literary theme:
- Begin by understanding the concrete events of the story.
- Be sure you understand the central conflict that drives the story.
- Look at the events of the story in light of the universal human experience.
- What do these events have to say about what it means to be a human being.
- Clearly state the answers to the questions that you have pursued. These statements will be literary themes.