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What Is a Theme in a Narrative?


A narrative contains several elements, such characterization, plot and setting, that all work together to construct the narrative’s theme. The theme is the central meaning of a narrative. It tells the reader what the work is about. The theme is expressed through what the characters say, do and think and through the actions that take place within the story. The theme also is revealed in how the plot and setting of the narrative are constructed and presented.

Types of Theme

By telling the reader what the story is about, the theme expresses what ideas or issues are raised within the story. Though a longer narrative, like a novel, might deal with several themes at once, most narratives contain one theme. Examples of themes include coming of age, nostalgia or loneliness. Themes might also involve types of conflict: individual and society, individual and nature, individual and himself, and individual and technology.

Narrative Reveals its Theme

The theme of a narrative is revealed to the reader using different techniques. For instance, if a story is presented through only one point of view, the reader can conclude that this character’s interpretation of events represents the only important interpretation of the narrative. On the other hand, if a story is presented using multiple points of view, the reader might have to interpret on multiple levels and from multiple perspectives. The theme may also be revealed using the narrator. A third-person omniscient narrator who presents various characters’ thoughts and feelings may reveal a more abstract and broader theme than a third-person limited narrator who presents only one character’s thoughts and feelings.

Example of a Theme

Jack London’s short story “To Build a Fire” is about an inexperienced young man who arrogantly goes into Yukon wilderness and perishes because he is unable to make a fire. The story’s third-person point of view, the narrator’s condescending view of the young man and the man’s actions allow the theme of the story to emerge. The story describes the conflict between man and nature, and a possible theme of this story may be that a man should think twice before being too arrogant in the face of nature.

Theme and Interpretation

Once the reader identifies the story’s theme, he can make conclusions about the narrative. These conclusions are the reader’s interpretation of the text. If the reader then writes an essay about the narrative using those interpretations, then he will create one unifying argument, or thesis statement. For example, a thesis statement for “To Build a Fire” may be that London’s use of third-person narrator shows a man who is arrogant in the face of nature and pays for his arrogance with his life.

About the Author

Kate Prudchenko has been a writer and editor for five years, publishing peer-reviewed articles, essays, and book chapters in a variety of publications including Immersive Environments: Future Trends in Education and Contemporary Literary Review India. She has a BA and MS in Mathematics, MA in English/Writing, and is completing a PhD in Education.

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