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Identifying Theme

Good piece of literature is timeless and can be enjoyed by readers from generation to generation. Most of the canonical works have one thing in common; they all have strong themes which expresses a point of view about life. So, what exactly is this theme?

Theme is the central message of a story, poem, novel, or play that readers can apply to life. It is the overall meaning an author intends to communicate in a given work. For example, the theme of many stories or plays is that goodness and courage will be rewarded. Common themes include insights into human nature and perceptions about life. Look at this example.

The novel “1984” written by George Orwell, is a political novel which warns readers the dangers of totalitarian government. The novel talks about the development of totalitarian society and depicts the harsh condition of the people living in a modern-day government society exercising absolute power. Throughout the novel, Orwell demonstrates the terrifying dangers of power and control the totalitarian government can acquire and maintain. So, one of the theme of the novel is the danger of totalitarian government.

To discover a story’s theme, it is essential to understand the difference between the plot, the subject, and the theme of a story. Let’s have a glance at them.

 

Plot vs Theme

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Theme should not be confused with the story’s plot or the story’s subject. Plot is the sequence of events in a story—a series of related incidents, but theme is the message the author wants the reader to understand. The following example will guide you better.
  • The plot of W. W. Jacobs’ The Monkey’s Paw concerns the White family who hears a tale about a withered monkey’s paw from a friend of Mr. White. Despite the warnings about the awful consequences of using the paw, the three members of the White family are curious to give the paw a try, and Mr. White wishes for 200 pounds. Shortly thereafter, he gets the money but loses something priceless, his son. Too late, the Whites learn the folly of interfering with fate.
  • One important theme of the story is that “interfering with fate will bring great sorrow.” The other theme of the story is that wanting more leads to greed, and greed can lead to problems and difficulties beyond imagining.
Hope you have got a clear picture on the difference between the plot and the theme. Let’s now discuss the difference between the story’s subject and the theme.

Subject vs Theme

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The theme of a story is different from the subject of the story. The subject of a story is what the story is about. It can usually be expressed in a word or two: love, pride, war, courage, dignity, survival, death, etc. A theme is the idea the author wishes to convey about the subject; it must be stated in a single sentence rather than a phrase. For example, the subject of the poem Mother to Son is determination, and the underlying theme is “No matter how hard life is, you have to keep trying.”

Having learned the differences between plot, subject, and theme, let’s now discuss how to identify a story’s theme.

Identifying Theme in a Story

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We could see that themes are usually applicable to humanity as a whole and concern universal truths. Some works have a stated theme, which is expressed directly. More often, works have an implied theme, which the reader must infer from the main character’s thoughts/actions and the lessons he or she learns. To discover an implied theme, readers need to consider all the elements such as character, plot, setting, symbol, and irony and ask what message about life they convey. Let’s now discuss in detail how these elements help in discovering a story’s theme.

Title of the story:

Before reading the book, analyze the title carefully. It can often provide insight into the theme/themes of a story. For example, let us take the novel “Sense and Sensibility” by Jane Austen. From the title, the reader knows that the novel will compare and contrast the virtues of each trait, and it does. Austen links Elinor Dashwood to sense (Her own good sense so well supported her.) and Marianne to sensibility (too great importance place by her on the delicacies of a strong sensibility).

Characters:

Authors sometimes reveal the theme of a work through the experiences of one or more characters. One of the best ways to discover a story’s underlying theme is to look at how the main character / protagonist changes in course of the story or what he/she has learned by the story’s end. Often, what this character has learned about life is the idea the writer wants to reveal to the reader. Read through this table for a brief analysis of the main character in the story The Short Happy Life of Franics Macomber to discover the theme. 

  What kind of person is the main character?   Does the character change over the course of the story? How?  What does he/she learn?  Theme of the story 
 Francis is a coward who is stuck in an unhappy marriage.  He overcomes his fear of killing fierce wild animals in order to over throw his wife’s colonial regime of domination.  He gradually learns the nature of courage and, finally, finds it in himself. However, his wife shoots and kills him; his happy life is short indeed.  Sometimes courage can be more important than life itself.

Conflict: 

The conflict of the main character is often directly related to theme. It is sometimes possible to find out what the author has to say about certain issues by examining the conflict which the character faces. The conflict in the story usually involves the main character. The conflict can be between  the main character and other characters in the story, conflict with external forces like society, nature or conflict with internal forces  such as dilemmas faced by the main character. Identify the central conflict to help you narrow the themes. Look at this example.

Have you read the tragic play Dr. Faustus written by Christopher Marlowe? This play primarily deals with the internal and external conflict of Dr. Faustus. In the beginning of the play, we could see how Dr. Faustus struggles within himself to sell his soul to Lucifer for immense power in black magic, later we could witness how he struggles to get relived from the evil spirit in fear of heaven and hell. These conflicts actually reveal the theme of the play explicitly. One of the themes of Christopher Marlowe in this play is absolute power and evil spirit. This is evident through the conflicts in the play. Faustus under the influence of evil spirits sells his soul to Lucifer in exchange for twenty-four years of immense power, but the desire to repent begins to plague him as the fear of hell grows in him in course of time.

Symbols:

Symbols in work of literature can be important clues to determine themes. For example the windmill is an important symbol in the novel “Animal Farm” by George Orwell”. It symbolizes the pigs’ power and manipulation of the other animals for their own gain. This symbol allows us to draw a conclusion on one of the themes in the book like the exploitation and the need for human rights. 

Let’s now look for these elements in a story to determine the theme of the story.

Through the Tunnel by Doris Lessing

Jerry, a young British boy, and his widowed mother are vacationing on a foreign coast. Each tries to please the other and not to impose too many demands. The mother wants to be loving and caring, yet not too possessive. Jerry, in turn, is pulled between his mother’s eye and the wild bay which provides adventure for him. Looking back to shore, Jerry is amazed as he watches a group of local boys perform daring breath-holding dives from high rocks. When the boys reject him, apparently because he cannot duplicate their feat, he challenges himself to swim through the tunnel to the rocky bay and prove that he is as skilled a diver and swimmer as any of them. To accomplish the goal he has set for himself, Jerry prepares himself to travel through the tunnel. His preparation included getting the swimming goggles, locating the tunnel, exploring the tunnel’s opening, and learning to hold his breath for extended periods. Jerry finally attains his goal of making it through the tunnel and learns that he can meet even the most extreme challenge.

Having read the plot of the story, let’s now work on each element of the story to determine its theme. To begin with, let’s see what is significant about the title of the story.

  • Title: The story’s title refers to Jerry’s goal to go “through the tunnel” in the sea. However, the title implies that Jerry is trying to get through a stage in his life where he feels he needs to work at overcoming challenges.
  • Characters: How does Jerry change throughout the story? At the beginning of the story, Jerry starts out as small, shy boy, playing on the safe beach next to his mother. As the plot moves forward, he begins to part away from his mother’s watchful care, avoids the calmer beach his mother prefers, and longs to go to the wild and rocky bay which provides adventure for him. During his adventure of swimming underwater through the tunnel, Jerry transforms from an overprotected, cowardly, childish boy into an independent, brave, mature person. In short, swimming underwater through the tunnel changes his personality. What are the important life lessons Jerry has learned through his experience and how does this reveal the story’s theme? He learned that preparing for and accomplishing a goal is more important than impressing a group of boys. Also, he learned that he can meet even the most extreme challenge. This conveys the theme that setting a goal and working hard to reach it helps you grow and mature to a better person.
  • Conflict: What is the major problem in the story? What does the problem suggest about the theme? There are two major conflicts in this story—internal and external—and both have to do with the growing maturity of Jerry. His external conflict is that he wants to be independent of his mother and wants to be on his own. Also, he must find his way through the tunnel to prove the boys that he is mature and as good as them. This leads to his inner conflicts: As he ponders the dangers of the deep waters and underground tunnel, Jerry is afraid that he will die in the water and that he won’t ever attempt his goal if he doesn’t swim the tunnel. Throughout the story, Jerry struggles with himself, but overcomes it by the end of the story. This reveals the theme that discovering one's own identity can be a truly harsh experience.
  • Symbol: How do the symbols in the story reveal the theme? The tunnel signifies the passage to adulthood or maturity. By going through the tunnel, Jerry ‘grows up.’ Another symbol is cliff which represents how far away Jerry is from getting to his goal and how the tunnel is one small part of this cliff.

From the above example, you can see that a literary work has more than one theme. Just because works can have multiple themes, it doesn’t mean that the theme can be anything that comes to your mind. In order for a theme to be justified, there must be specific, concrete evidence from the text. If you are struggling to identify the theme, organize your thoughts and write them down. The following questions may help you determine the theme of a work:

  1. What does the story reveal about life?
  2. What is the significance of the title?
  3. Does the main character changer over the course of the story or learn something?
  4. What are the ideas or ideals which affect or motivate the main characters of the story?
  5. What is the final outcome of the characters’ responses to the situation and the conflict?
  6. What are the implications of the outcome with regard to the characters and the life which surrounds them?
  7. What was the author trying to tell us using the book?

Universal Theme

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As already discussed, a theme is the central idea of a literary work, tying together its plot, characters, setting, and other elements. Themes often explore historically common or cross-culturally recognizable ideas. If we turn the pages of history of English literature, we could see that themes such as love, loyalty, death, war, peace, friendship, trust, hopes and dreams, challenges and struggles, etc. recur over and over again. These themes are universal-ideas that everyone can relate to-and are always compelling because they are common to all people everywhere, irrespective of culture, period, race, gender, country, and language. Every story, poems, novel, or play we read fits into one of these universal themes.

Comparing Works that Express Universal Themes:

Different authors provide different dimensions and insight to a specific theme. For example, let’s compare two poems that express the same thematic idea. After reading each poem carefully, identify its underlying theme, how this theme is presented by the poets, their different perspectives about “a delicate balance,” and how they are contradicted with each other.

Let’s compare the poems "Loo-Wit" by Wendy Rose and "The Flower-Fed Buffaloes" by Vachel Lindsay.

Both poems deal with the theme of nature and its relationship to civilization. Let’s compare them to see how relationship between nature and human beings is portrayed.

The poems “Loo-Wit”  and “The Flower-Fed Buffaloes” portray the power and beauty of nature. In both poems, the theme of nature and its relationship to human beings and civilization plays an important role.

While we compare both poems, we could notice many differences in the authors’ perspectives. For instance, “Loo-Wit” portrays nature as something that can strike back at humans if they take advantage of it. The poet uses metaphor to help readers understand that humans and nature are sometimes in conflict. Wendy conveys the message that humans are destructive, but nature is stronger-it fights back when things get bad.

To be precise, this poem shows what can happen when the balance of nature gets disturbed by humans. Loo-Wit fights back by spitting black tobacco (volcanic ash), shuddering her slopes (earthquake), and singing (eruption).

On the other hand, in the poem “The Flower-Fed Buffaloes,” we could see a contradicting dimension of nature. The poem portrays nature as something that humans can destroy or change. The conflict is between nature and technological development, and the balance of nature has been upset by technology. Lindsay repeats the phrase “lying low” to mean that something is gone, suppressed, or near extinction. She is sad to witness the end of a type of life (extinction of buffalo).
In both poems, humans alter nature. However, in “Loo-Wit,” nature can defend itself, but in “The Flower-Fed Buffaloes,” nature is at the mercy of civilization.

Let’s now compare novels with similar themes.

As an example of comparing novel themes, we will look at Catcher in the Rye and Frankenstein. Both of these novels explore the theme of how isolation can eventually lead to self-destruction. The novel Catcher in the Rye is set in Post-war USA while the novel Frankenstein is set in the 17th or 18th century. In both novels the main characters are isolated but for different reasons; both have characters that developed a new awareness through their hardships. Some comparisons we could make:
  • The characters have to explore the notion of “normal behavior” in the societies where they exist.
  • The main characters have to question the behavior of other characters and why they are isolated. 
  • Each major character encounters challenges socializing with others. 
  • The loneliness results from the feeling of abandonment. 
In Catcher in the Rye, the theme of isolation refers to the personal, social, and mental isolation of the main character Holden Caulfield. Throughout the book, Holden seems to be isolated from and excluded by the world around him, but in reality he alienates others. By exploring the theme of isolation, we constantly see the desire to reach out mitigated by hesitation and passivity.

"Well – take me to the Edmont then," I said. "Would you care to stop on the way and join me for a cocktail? On me, I'm loaded." (9.10)

From the quote above, we can see that Holden is pretty desperate for someone to talk to. He tried to reach out to anyone around him. But in another instance, he shrinks away from contacting people who cared about him and thus isolating himself from others. The main character seems to be using isolation as a protective layer to protect himself from getting hurt by the outside world.

Similarly, in the novel ‘Frankenstein’ chapter 10, paragraph 2, the author portrays the theme of loneliness using the monster, Robert Walton and Dr. Frankenstein. Right from the start, the novel explores the theme of loneliness as it begins with various letters written to Robert Walton by his sister. All the characters in the novel are isolated in some way or the other. The constant theme of isolation, leads to the loss and tragedy of many characters in the novel.

The feeling of isolation results in violence between the monster and Dr. Frankenstein. In this novel, the monster is rejected by the society and this horrific rejection makes him enveloped with loneliness and hopelessness which eventually drives him to resort to violence.  On the other hand, Victor Walton and Dr. Frankenstein choose isolation because of their lust of knowledge. Dr. Frankenstein says about himself, “I was to a great degree, self taught with regard to my favorite studies. My father was not scientific, and I was left to struggle with a child’s blindness added to a student’s thirst for knowledge.” 

The presentation of isolation in the novel can be exemplified by Victor Frankenstein. Out of his isolation, he searches for knowledge of life, and the theme of isolation can be seen from many of the quotes from the book.  
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