28 Mar 2013

What is Theme in Literature and Poetry?

In literature, theme is an idea or concept that is central to a story. You could think of this as the moral or 'point' of the story. Please note though, that there are critics who say the theme is not the moral. What follows is my own interpretation.

Theme is the reason the writer put pen on paper. It's the point the author is trying to get across, the idea or concept that inspired them. It's a meditation on human nature or experience.

There may be more than one theme, or overlapping themes.

How to Find the Theme in a Poem:

Theme, genre, moral, message and topic blend into one another and sometimes can seem to be the same thing as you will discover as you try to pin them down.


Some Common Themes in Literature, Poetry, Plays and Novels
general wisdom about the journey of life, smallness of humanity in the face of the universe/nature, cruel beauty and dangers of female power, dangers of desire, love hurts (unrequited love), true romantic love, friendship, charity or family love (unconditional love), lust, jealousy is corrosive, loneliness and isolation, rejection, nostalgia, happy memories, conflict between the individual and society, rebellion, mixed feelings in relationships between parent and child (or lovers), bereavement, loss, loss of innocence, coming of age, power corrupts, powerlesness, bravery, dangers of knowledge (e.g. dangerous secrets, technology, dangerous science), the dangers of unchecked ambition, lack of self-knowledge, shocking contrast between ideals and reality (often in war poetry), futility or suffering of war, celebration of nature, of creation, of technology, power of God, or man, joy (in the midst of poverty, or darkness), beauty of nature ('pastoral') vs dislike of the city, problem of evil (including murder), dystopic, apocalyptic, fearful visions, (hope and beauty of) youth, (faded, or decayed) old age, wasted time, seize the moment, despair, injustice (personal, social and global), humiliation and social shame, identity, separation from one's ethnic, regional or cultural heritage, lack of self-knowledge, complacency, what it is to be a 'man', what it is to be a 'woman', prejudice.

e.g. Romeo and Juliet (genre = tragedy / love), subject is feuding and love. Themes are: pointlessness of feuding, love conquers all, even in death.

e.g. Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck (genre = bromance / tragedy). Here are some of the themesloneliness and unconditional love; living in a cruel world makes men cruel, but we should rise above it; difficulty of, and importance of hopes and dreams.

e.g. Piano, D.H. Lawrence: subject/topic: a man listens to music which reminds him of his childhood and he weeps for it, because it was wonderful. Theme: nostalgia.

e.g. If, Rudyard Kipling: subject/topic: advice poem/wisdom poem, a man tells his son that life is full of troubles, how to deal with them, difficulty of doing this and what it means to be 'a man'.

genre: wisdom poem
theme: life is hard, but to struggle and overcome is magnificent.

e.g. Prayer Before Birth, Louis McNeice: subject/topic, unborn child makes a fearful plea for protection in a cruel world (this makes sense when you realise it was written at the height of WW2)
genre: almost dystopic
theme: horror of life, fear

e.g. Sonnet 116, 'Let me not to the marriage...', Shakespeare
subject/topic: true love vs faithless love
genre: love
theme: love is the greatest thing there is, measureless, precious, like God, it is salvation.



The author, , is an Oxford graduate, outstanding-rated English Language and Literature teacher and of ages 10-18 in the British education system. In 2012, she was nominated for Pearson's Teaching Awards. As a private tutor, she raises grades often from C to A. Her writing is also featured in The Huffington Post. She offers private tuition in the Haywards Heath area, West Sussex.