Characters, settings, plots and conflicts -- stories have many elements that are easily identifiable, as well as several that are tricky to pick out. Theme is one such element that may remain elusive if you don’t know what you’re looking for. A story’s theme can be communicated through setting, plot or people, but theme encompasses a greater message beyond the description of a tale’s characters, objects or events.
The Central Idea
Put simply, a theme is a story’s central idea, the lesson that the author intends the reader to learn. Theme should not be confused with plot, which simply outlines the sequence of events within a story. For example, the plot of Aesop’s Fable, “The Tortoise and the Hare,” can be described as a race between two ill-matched animals that ends with the tortoise winning as a result of the hare’s careless lazy actions. While this description is accurate, it does not reveal the theme. Some have described theme as the moral of the story, such as the “slow and steady wins the race” lesson imparted in “The Tortoise and the Hare.” Whether a short story or a lengthy novel, every well-told story contains a message intended for the audience to take with them once they’ve finished reading the story.
Linking Literature to Life
While readers may never experience events as dramatic as those depicted in literature, the presence of universal themes in a story allows them to learn a story’s lessons along with the characters. For example, readers may never create a destructive monster, as Dr. Frankenstein does in Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” but they can gain insight into the dangers of valuing scientific development over humanity. Readers can then apply their knowledge of this theme to real world problems, such as global energy concerns. For example, the fact that Frankenstein's discovery of reanimation led to the creation of a murderous monster can be compared to the invention of nuclear power and its connection to the deadly nuclear accident at Chernobyl.
Beyond a Topic
Theme is sometimes confused with the subject of a story, but these two elements have some marked differences. The subject of a story can also be described as the topic, or what the story is about. A subject may make mention of a universal truth, such as “politicians are corrupt,” but it states no opinion on it. The theme addresses the topic by using the subject to make a value judgment or to teach a lesson. For example, the subject of Alexandre Dumas’ “The Count of Monte Cristo” may be simply described as revenge. To describe the book’s theme, the reader needs to look beyond the subject and define the lesson that revenge is a double-edged sword that may injure the innocent as it punishes the guilty.
Both fictional novels and nonfiction works generally include at least one central theme that serves as a thread holding all the pieces of the story together, while others incorporate multiple themes. Themes may be represented in the setting, the arc of the plot, or by each characters’ differentiating wants and needs. In John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel, “The Grapes of Wrath,” the barren setting of drought-plagued Oklahoma and the stark migrant camps are symbolic of the economic strife suffered by millions during the Great Depression. These symbols, along with other story elements, develop the novel’s theme that unchecked capitalist greed can destroy an man’s financial independence, and thus his freedom. Other themes in this same novel address issues of industrialization, shifting gender roles and discrimination.