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How to Understand Theme in Literature: The Fundamentals

Jule Romans is a retired English teacher and college instructor. She has taught Shakespeare and advanced literature for over 25 years.

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What Is Theme in Literature?

The theme of a piece of literature is a deeper message about human nature that reoccurs in multiple ways throughout the work.

Keeping that in mind, the theme of a piece of literature will almost always be BOTH of the following:

  1. A deeper message, moral, or spiritual experience that can be stated in less than five words.
  2. Universal--Associated with human nature and therefore applicable to ALL people.

For example, “Love hurts” would be an example of a theme because it is a broad, general statement that describes an emotional experience very clearly in only two words.

In Literature, the Theme is a Universal Message

“Love hurts” is a clear and simple description that is applicable to all human beings, regardless of location, culture, age, or other differentiations. All human beings experience the pains of love, and the experience of this makes it universal.

The theme of a piece of literature must be broadly applicable to all human beings, and illustrate an emotion, spiritual state, life lesson, or universal experience

To clarify, a similar phrase, “John’s heart was broken” would not be an example of theme because it specifically describes a single event or experience that is focused on only one person. The statement “John’s heart was broken” may be a good example of a plot point, character development, or even the topic of a piece of literature. However, it is not a good example of theme.

Theme is Different From Topic

The topic of a work of literature is what the piece of literature is about. The subject of a piece of literature is what that work of literature describes. These are very similar things, and often confused with theme. But theme and topic are not the same thing. Many people confuse topic or subject with theme.

A piece of literature can have the topic of love if the main parts of the story deal with the subject of love. We can name examples of how love occurs in the story, and use those examples to support our points

How to Find the Theme in Literature

That, however, will not be enough to say that love is the theme of that piece. In order to fit the definition of theme, we would need to be able to describe how the story itself creates a deeper message or moral about love that strikes a universal chord with all human beings.

This is where things often get tricky for students. Topic and theme can use the same exact words, but not mean the same thing. To complicate things further, people often use a single word to describe theme, when the reality is that they actually are implying something much more.

Examples of Theme in Literature

Let’s take a common example from Shakespeare. In fact, let’s take two. The first example is easy to see the difference between theme and topic. The second example becomes more complicated.

Theme and Topic Can Be Very Different

The first example is Romeo and Juliet. On the surface, the story is about love. Two young people fall in love, and their passion has been so compelling that their names have even become synonymous with love.

So, in Romeo and Juliet, the topic/subject is love. But the theme of that play is not love at all. Although the two young people are in love, that is not the deeper meaning, message or moral of the story. The deeper lesson or meaning of the story is really about how destructive feuds can be.

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The theme of Romeo and Juliet is that holding on to wrath can destroy innocent people.

Theme and Topic Can Be Similar, But Not the Same

The second example is Macbeth. On the surface, the story is about a Scottish general who kills the king in order to take the throne. He does this because he has ambition and a lust for power. Along the way, he is pushed into action by the influence of supernatural witches, and the goading of his wife. Clearly, the topic is the destructiveness of ambition. Macbeth has ambition, and gives in to his greed for power, and so he is destroyed in the end.

In this case, the topic is very close to the theme. This is why many people are confused.

The topic of the play Macbeth is ambition. The play Macbeth could also be said to have the theme of ambition.

Even though the topic and the them are the same word, they are not the same thing. I know that is a bit hard to understand. That’s what makes theme so tricky.

To describe the topic of ambition in Macbeth, all we need to do is list events in the play that have examples of ambition. This would mean describing and giving examples of simple events, kind of like a list.

How to Describe Theme in Literature

To describe the theme of ambition in Macbeth, we would need to show what message, insight, or deeper lesson is learned by the play.

That is a different thing than simply listing events related to a topic.

We would have to choose examples that show deeper thoughts of characters, or difficult moments of choice. In addition, and most importantly, we would also need to show how that lesson, moral, or insight is applicable to all people. So in this second example, the topic and theme are very similar, but the way we explain them must be quite different.

Again, this is why people can become confused.

The Difference Between Topic and Theme in Literature

Let’s take these two plays in a little closer detail to explain.

Romeo and Juliet

  • Topic: Love
  • Theme: Violent feuds harm everyone

Macbeth

  • Topic: Ambition
  • Theme: Ambition can destroy everything

The topic is one word, and very general subject or idea. The theme is an insight, message, or moral that is applicable to all people. It is a lesson all can learn by reading or seeing the play. Sometimes the theme is different from the surface topic. Sometimes the theme is very similar to the surface topic. In both cases, the explanation of theme will require more depth and different examples to support it.

The trickiest part of finding the theme is making sure that it is universal to all human beings, so that it can be stated as an insight, message or overall moral.

Identifying Theme in Literature

As you gain experience in identifying theme, you will also gain the ability to find more subtle shades of meaning and more complex examples. To start with, just remember that theme and topic are not the same thing. And keep in mind that theme must always meet the two criteria:

  • A message, moral, insight or deeper meaning that occurs throughout the work.
  • Universal to all human beings.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Jule Romans

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