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Understanding a story’s theme is critical to deciphering an author’s message in a particular piece of writing. In this lesson, we will examine the idea of theme and look at some examples in actual literary works.

Defining a Theme

The theme in a story is its underlying message, or ‘big idea.

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‘ In other words, what critical belief about life is the author trying to convey in the writing of a novel, play, short story or poem? This belief, or idea, transcends cultural barriers. It is usually universal in nature. When a theme is universal, it touches on the human experience, regardless of race or language.

It is what the story means. Often, a piece of writing will have more than one theme.Think about some T.V. sitcoms you have seen that you have found trite and boring. Was there a significant problem in the T.V.

show that needed to be solved? Probably not. In much the same way, if a piece of writing doesn’t have deeper meaning than we can just see on the surface, it is just as shallow as the T.V. sitcom. In order for writing to be meaningful and lasting, it needs to have a theme.

How Does a Writer Develop Theme?

So how does a writer develop a theme for a story, poem or narrative? It really comes down to what the writer believes about life. If a writer has a belief system or feels strongly about certain things – and most people do – then, those strong life views will be reflected in his or her writing. For a work to last, it needs depth, and depth in writing reflects depth in the writer.

Examples

We could go on and on with great examples of theme, but we won’t – I promise. Let’s just look at three examples and analyze what gives depth and meaning to these pieces of literature.Take Golding’s The Lord of the Flies, for example. We know that Golding taught in a boys’ school and later fought in WWII.

He writes, ‘I began to see what people were capable of doing. Anyone who moved through those years without understanding that man produces evil as a bee produces honey, must have been blind or wrong in the head.’ In The Lord of the Flies, Golding took his belief about evil being resident in the human heart, even in children, and set about to prove this by placing young boys on a deserted island. If they were good at heart and only corrupted by their environment, then the boys would be well-behaved.

But, if they were bent toward evil, the result would be chaos. Chaos wins. Thus, a deeper meaning in The Lord of the Flies would be that man is capable of evil and that evil dwells in the human heart. Whether or not the reader agrees with Golding’s analysis, this novel will most likely always be considered an enduring classic because of its depth of meaning.In Julio Noboa’s poem ‘Identity’, we see an entirely different theme. Let’s read the poem, first:’I’d rather be a tall, ugly weed,clinging on cliffs, like an eaglewind-wavering above high, jagged rocks.To have broken through the surface of stone,to live, to feel exposed to the madnessof the vast, eternal sky.

To be swayed by the breezes of an ancient sea,carrying my soul, my seed,beyond the mountains of time or into the abyss of the bizarre.I’d rather be unseen, and ifthen shunned by everyone,than to be a pleasant-smelling flower,growing in clusters in the fertile valley,where they’re praised, handled, and pluckedby greedy, human hands.I’d rather smell of musty, green stenchthan of sweet, fragrant lilac.If I could stand alone, strong and free,I’d rather be a tall, ugly weed.’What theme, or deeper meaning, do you see in this poem? The very title gives us a clue: ‘Identity.

‘ Julio Noboa points out that although many people find their identity in what other people think of them – their popularity, their beauty or maybe even their talents – he wants to find strength and freedom in being himself, even if it means he isn’t admired by others. In a broader, or universal, sense, this poem has a theme that we would call ‘the individual versus society.’Finally, let’s take a look at Shakespeare’s play Macbeth. Lady Macbeth is ambitious and really manipulates her husband to kill King Duncan.

She lusts for power. However, her guilty conscience eventually causes her to lose her sanity. We see her sleepwalking and trying to wipe imaginary blood stains from her hands. The theme could be ‘good versus evil’ or that ‘crime never pays.’

Lesson Summary

We see that the theme is the deeper message, or meaning, in a work of literature. If there is no deeper meaning, the writing tends to be shallow. It is the theme that causes a piece of literature to endure and to reach hearts across many cultures.

Learning Outcomes

This literature video should teach you to:

  • Define what the theme in literature is
  • Describe how a writer might develop their theme
  • Retell some examples of theme in writing

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