Skill Spotlight: Theme

Skill Spotlight: Theme

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DefinedTheme is the central idea or message an author expresses in a work of fiction, poetry, or drama. Sometimes an author explicitly states a theme through a title, the words of a character, or a descriptive line. For example, the theme of most fables is stated right in the text as a moral.

Usually, though, themes grow and develop over the course of a text, and they are not directly stated at all. In this case, you will have to infer the theme. When readers try to infer the theme of a story, novel, poem, or play, they ask themselves: What is this text really about?

The term “theme” can be used in two different ways. It can refer to a broad theme dealt with in a literary work. A broad theme can be expressed in a single word or short phrase—for example, love or courage. Just as often, “theme” can refer to the specific message about life contained in a literary work. A specific theme is usually expressed in a sentence—for example, “Love conquers all” or “It is courageous to go against the crowd.”Identification and Application: 
To find a theme in a work of fiction:

  • Identify the specific genre. For example, is this realism, fantasy, science fiction, mystery, or humor? The genre may affect how a theme is developed.
  • To determine the theme, examine how specific details help to shape and refine a particular message:
    • Think about the title. Ask, How does its meaning change as we read the story?
    • Identify the narrator and the point of view from which the story is told. Ask, Is the narrator a part of the events and offering commentary, or distant and objective?
    • Keep track of who the characters are, as well as what they do, what they say, and what is said about them. Ask, What do they want, and how do they get it?
    • Note the setting and how it changes. Ask, How is the setting important to the events of the story? How does it shape the characters?
    • Identify how events of the story unfold, and how characters change as a result of the action.
    • Identify literary devices the author uses, including flashback, foreshadowing, symbolism, or dialogue, for example.
    • Put it all together: Consider the title, characters, setting details, ideas, and events. Then, ask yourself, What overall message do these elements seem to express? How does this message develop over the course of the text?
  • A novel may have several themes. State the themes you identify in clear, complete sentences. Themes in a work of literature are not usually stated in a single word.