How to Find the Theme of a Book
To uncover important themes in a story, readers should examine the main character's evolution, conflict resolution and the author's message or messages. Themes challenge you to explore deep messages about society and human nature, such as unconditional love, coming of age and a quest for identity. Some themes are clearly stated, and others require you to dig below the surface to find hidden meanings.
Study the Characters
Examine the primary characters -- especially the protagonist -- to uncover subtle details about a book's themes. You should focus on lessons the characters learn and how their viewpoints change during the course of the story. The theme will often relate to how the protagonist views his world and the people in it. For example, in the book "The Giver" by Lois Lowry, Jonas learns that his dystopian society is overbearing, abusive, emotionless and oppressive. Themes center on Jonas' revelations, such as the importance of free will, the need for diversity, the significance of memories and the value of family.
Make a T-Chart
Create a T-chart to locate and support significant themes. Use one side of the chart for major events in the story and the other for messages or morals that relate to those events, suggests Angela Bunyi, in her article "Finding the Message: Grasping Themes in Literature" on the website Scholastic. For example, if you're looking for themes in "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" by Mark Twain, you might write "kidnapped by father," "fakes own death," "teams up with runaway slave," and "collaborates with Tom Sawyer" on the major events side of the T-chart. On the themes side, you might write "coming of age, surviving childhood," "respecting people of different races," "overcoming fear" and "facing obstacles without giving up."
Create a Graphic Organizer
Make a graphic organizer that contains "bubbles" -- empty entry fields -- with specific category titles, such as characters, setting, mood, tone, conflict and resolution. Jot down words and phrases in each bubble to describe your book, and look for repeating patterns throughout the organizer. Recurring ideas are often themes in a book. For example, if you're looking for themes in "The Scarlet Letter" by Nathaniel Hawthorne, you might write "lonely," "isolated," "discerning" and "forgiving" in your Hester bubble. Write "unfair punishment," "dishonesty" and "judgment" in your conflict bubble, and write "depressing," "foreboding" and "dreary" in your setting bubble. Themes such as revenge, hypocrisy, guilt, compassion and forgiveness will emerge as you fill out your graphic organizer.
Ask Crucial Questions
Ask yourself questions that are critical to the story. Your questions should focus on the protagonist's desires, the interactions of the main characters, the protagonist's self-image, the author's use of symbolism, the meanings suggested by the chapter titles and the protagonist's relationship to society. You should look for answers that go beyond basic plot lines and action sequences. For example, in the "The Hunger Games" by Suzanne Collins, Katniss wants to survive, but more importantly she wants to outwit and expose unethical leaders. The book's themes center on the corruption of power and the importance of individuality, free will and compassion. Book themes typically revolve around ways people perceive and connect with society.
- Scholastic: Teachers: Finding the Message -- Grasping Themes in Literature; Angela Bunyi
- University of Pennsylvania Almanac: Teaching Students to Read: Teaching Students to Think; Barbra Mann Wall
- The Giver; Lois Lowry
- The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; Mark Twain
- The Scarlet Letter; Nathaniel Hawthorne
- The Hunger Games; Suzanne Collins
As curriculum developer and educator, Kristine Tucker has enjoyed the plethora of English assignments she's read (and graded!) over the years. Her experiences as vice-president of an energy consulting firm have given her the opportunity to explore business writing and HR. Tucker has a BA and holds Ohio teaching credentials.