Determining the themes in a work of literature engages both a reader's intellect and his intuitive and creative abilities. Because a theme is closer to a message that the author wants to convey than to a "moral," it is a gift of sorts from the author to the reader. It's also different from the subject of the literary work.
A compelling example of a theme in literature comes from Mark Twain's classic novel "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." Morality is a major theme in many literary works, and it is for Twain as well. Although high school and college students often tend to confuse subject and theme, slavery is one of the subjects in Twain's novel and not a theme. A significant theme in this work is the confusion that is normal when you are faced with a morally and emotionally painful decision, such as Huck's choice between betraying his new friend Jim, a slave, and playing by his society's rules. Twain embedded a message -- or theme -- in the novel for his 19th century audience about the humanity and goodness of those who were enslaved.
The Color Purple
Fast-forwarding to the late 20th century, Alice Walker's novel "The Color Purple" is a story of painful childhood abuse but also one of hope and renewal. Walker's protagonist, Celie, after a young lifetime of abuse and rejection, forms an unlikely friendship -- and affair -- with exuberant singer Shug Avery. Shug ultimately helps Celie to appreciate larger ideas about God, love and who she is and what she might become. Walker wants readers to consider how truly complex and multifaceted gender can be. Another theme in this novel is the human capacity for hope, forgiveness and transformation.
The way the protagonist changes or grows provides clues to the theme. For example, Huck Finn grows in his perception that slavery is wrong through his friendship with Jim. Encountering cruelty or rejection or conversely finding acceptance or falling in love is a change for a character that can result in new or evolving ideas and attitudes. Characters then decide that the universe is -- or is not -- a benevolent one.
Conflict may exist between the individual and society or between the individual against the natural world. Or, conflict might be duel between two competing ideas or philosophies, such as what the Fitzgeralds experience in "The Great Gatsby." The conflict in this classic novel is between the idea that the American Dream is an empty promise and the idea that it is attainable and desirable. Jotting down some ideas about the conflict as well as about the characters' various challenges and experiences -- and what conclusions they draw from what they encounter -- is an effective strategy. When the reader brings receptivity and curiosity to the literary work, the gifts of truth and insight will be waiting.