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English Literature

What makes literature so uniquely rewarding is its complexity. Good literature does not give us easy answers. Instead, it asks us to probe, offers us complexity, makes us stay with a text to better understand it, and makes us pore over our texts trying to put together elements, scenes, and techniques to trace how themes are developed and explored.

Definition of theme

Theme is a key literary element.

Theme

In literature, a theme is a central idea that is recurringly explored and expressed throughout a text.

Themes are the deeper issues that works of literature engage with that have a broader significance beyond the text. Themes raise questions more often than they provide us with answers. They invite the reader to engage with these issues by tracing how a theme is explored and developed throughout a literary work.

Frankenstein (1818) by Mary Shelley is not just about a monster. Unlike Victor Frankenstein, it is likely you've never been bothered by a monster you created, who is now trying to get revenge for your mistreatment of it. But maybe you know what it's like to want revenge, and the novel offers insight into this concept. The story engages with themes and issues of wide significance.

We can think of a theme as a through-line or a thread in a work that connects different events, scenes, and motifs.

To begin with, themes may be universal concepts – ideas and concepts of broad concern that humans have grappled with for centuries.

Which of these themes explored in Classical literature (in the ancient Greek period) are still explored in literature today?

  • Heroism
  • Identity
  • Ethics
  • Regret
  • Suffering
  • Love
  • Beauty
  • Mortality
  • Politics

That's right, all of the above. These universal themes have been explored throughout literary history because they are relevant to humans from all time periods, cultures, and countries. These themes deal with the human condition.

While there are universal themes that transcend time, location and culture, there are also themes that are more specific to a certain time and place. Namely, a theme can also refer to more specific issues.

Death and mortality are themes explored across many works of literature. But if we want to be more specific, then we might say that a text's specific theme is actually 'fear of death', 'coming to terms with death', 'the desire to transcend mortality and death' or 'embracing death', etc.

We can talk about a text's theme as the specific way a certain idea is presented and explored in a certain text by a certain author.

TS Eliot's famous Modernist poem, 'The Waste Land' (1922) is about the uprooting of English society and morality at the turn of the 20th century. This was a time when Friedrich Nietzsche had proclaimed that 'God is dead', and the brutality of World War I had thrown religion and morality up in the air.

Friedrich Nietzsche first made the statement that 'God is dead' in The Gay Science (1882).

We can say that modernity and the impact of WWI are central themes in 'The Waste Land'.

If we want to talk specifically about how these themes are manifested in Eliot's poem, we can say that the poem's central theme is the difficulty of trying to recover meaning and morality in the societal and moral 'wasteland' of post-war Britain.

Different authors explore different facets of the same themes in their works.

Other Modernist authors also dealt with modernity and the impact of war in their works, but they focus on different aspects of these themes.

For example, Virginia Woolf focuses specifically on the impact of war on the young men who had to fight in it. For example, in Mrs Dalloway (1925), one of the main characters is a war veteran with PTSD, Septimus Warren Smith.

Identifying themes in literature

Themes aren't overtly stated, but rather implied. The reader is able to pick up on a work's themes by asking what is centre stage in a novel.

We know that subjectivity and interior life are key to Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway because the narrative voice spends time diving into the minds of different characters, giving us insights into how they think and feel. From this focus, we know that one of the novel's key themes is interiority.

We can also ask: what are the deeper issues underlying the plot? If a novel's plot is centred around marriage, it is likely that gender, gender roles, relationships, and marriage are key themes.

Jane Eyre (1847) by Charlotte Brontë traces the life of Jane from childhood until her marriage to Mr Rochester. Jane often makes choices based on her own desires and judgements, such as leaving after discovering Rochester has his wife locked in the attic and declining St. John's proposal, rather than simply doing what is expected of her as a woman and as a Christian. What do these plot points - and the motivations for Jane's actions - tell us about the broader themes that underly the text? They tell us that a central theme in the novel might be the importance of knowing your own self-worth.

Next, we might want to focus on patterns in the text. What is the pattern in the Jane Eyre example above? The pattern is in the plot: over several points in the novel, Jane leaves unwanted situations. But patterns can also come in the way of motifs and other literary devices used throughout a text.

Motifs

Motif

A motif is a recurring image, object or idea that is used to explore a text's themes.

It is also important to distinguish between the big ideas in a text and the secondary ideas. A motif often carries a smaller idea that contributes to a work's themes. There can be overlap between the two, and this often comes down to how significant a role a certain idea plays in a text. Is it big enough to be considered a theme, or is a certain idea secondary to a bigger idea?

As you can tell by the title of Virginia Woolf's The Waves (1931), it has something to do with water and the sea. The chapters are broken up by descriptions of the waves, which symbolise fluidity and the passage of time. Water, the sea, and the waves are not themes in the novel, but rather they are images (motifs) that engage with questions of fluidity and the passage of time (which actually are her themes).

Analysing different themes in literature

We can track the development of a theme throughout a work of literature.

The theme of religion in Jane Eyre, for example, develops through the novel's plot. At the beginning of the novel, Jane is sceptical of religion because of the cruelties she has endured at the hands of so-called Christians, but her friend Hellen Burns helps her gain faith. Her love for Mr Rochester then tests her faith, as he is all she can think about. When St. John asks Jane to marry him and go with him to India to become a missionary, she declines. Instead, she follows her heart and returns to Mr Rochester. Jane comes to her own conclusions about religion, balancing her desires with her religious instincts, rather than strictly following the word of God as St. John does.

It is also important to talk about how the text portrays the central concept, rather than just the central concept itself. What ideas is the text trying to convey?

Instead of saying that one of Frankenstein's central themes is revenge, we might want to think about how revenge is portrayed. The creature kills Victor Frankenstein's family as revenge for how he was treated by him, leading Victor to abandon empathy and vow to exact revenge on the creature. Now, we can be more specific and say that a central theme is the idea that seeking revenge makes monsters out of anyone.

How the author explores a bigger broader idea or theme is related to other literary elements. So the theme is the content, and the literary device or form is the way that this content is presented.

In Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf uses the narrative technique of a stream of consciousness narrative to explore the theme of subjectivity and interiority.

Analysing themes in relation to literary form and literary devices makes for an interesting analysis of a text.

Furthermore, you can ask if a certain theme is connected to another theme and focus on the significance of the relationship between two or more themes.

In the dystopian novel, The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985), the themes of storytelling, memory, and identity are closely linked. The novel explores storytelling as a way to recover the past and maintain a sense of identity.

Examples of key themes in literature

Let's take a look at some key themes in literature, and focus on the key themes that different literary periods and movements focused on.

These are some of the central, broad themes explored in literature.

  • Relationships, family, love, different kinds of love, kinship, community, spirituality
  • Loneliness, isolation, alienation
  • Childhood, coming of age, innocence, and experience
  • Nature
  • Memory
  • Social class
  • Power, freedom, exploitation, colonialism, oppression, violence, suffering, rebellion
  • Religion
  • Ethics
  • Absurdity and futility
  • Death
  • Identity, gender, sex and sexuality, race, nationality
  • The everyday, mundanity
  • Storytelling
  • Time
  • Complex emotions: hope, grief, guilt, regret, pride, etc.

Examples of themes in different literary periods and movements

Now let's look at the themes that were centre stage in different literary periods and movements.

The literary Romantic movement (1790-1850) focused on themes of:

  • Nature

  • The power of the imagination

  • Individualism

  • Revolution

  • The problems and consequences of industrialisation.

Literature that originated in the Victorian period (1837-1901) focused on issues of:

  • Class: the working and middle classes, aristocracy

  • The problems and consequences of industrialisation

  • Science

  • Power and politics

  • Technology and science

  • Etiquette

  • Decadence

The Modernists (early 1900s-1940s) explored:

  • The search for meaning

  • Disconnectedness, alienation

  • The individual, subjectivity, and interiority

  • Tradition vs. change and innovation

  • Rebellion

  • Power and conflict

Postmodern literature explores issues of:

  • Fragmented identities

  • Identity categories, such as gender and sexuality

  • Hybridity

  • Borders

  • Power, oppression, and violence

The themes that are centre-stage in a certain literary period or movement are often determined by what issues were of importance or brought to the surface at that time in history.

It makes sense that the Modernists focused on explorations of meaning in life, as the devastations of WWI had rocked the foundations of traditional systems of morality, such as religion.

Examples of themes in different genres

Now let's focus on the most common themes explored in different literary genres.

Gothic literature

  • Madness and mental illness

  • Power

  • Confinement

  • The supernatural

  • Gender and sexuality

  • Terror and horror

Could we actually view 'terror and horror' as motifs rather than as themes?

Dystopian literature

  • Control and freedom

  • Oppression

  • Freedom

  • Technology

  • The environment

Postcolonial literature

  • Race and racism

  • Oppression

  • Identity

  • Hybridity

  • Borders

  • Displacement

Importance of themes

Themes are important because they are a way for authors and readers to grapple with difficult subjects and learn more about themselves, others, and the world. Themes refuse easy answers. Instead, they make us face the complexity of the human condition, of life and the world.

Theme - Key takeaways

  • In literature, a theme is a central idea that is explored and expressed implicitly throughout a text.
  • Themes can be broad, universal issues, or communicate more specific concerns or ideas.
  • Themes are often expressed through patterns in the plot, motifs, and other literary elements and devices.
  • Some examples of key themes explored in literature are religion, childhood, alienation, madness, etc.
  • Themes are important because they refuse easy answers; instead, themes open up questions about complex issues of broad human concern.

Theme

In literature, a theme is a central idea that is explored throughout a text.

You can identify a theme in literature by asking what ideas and issues are centre stage in a text, or focusing on the deeper issues that underly the plot. You can identify a theme by paying attention to what patterns there are in a literary work and whether these are patterns in the plot or motifs, etc.

An example of theme in literature is childhood. It is a theme explored throughout literary history, across different genres. It was a theme of particular importance to Victorian writers, such as Charles Dickens, whose novel Oliver Twist (1837) follows the hardships of a young orphan boy; or Lewis Caroll, who wrote the fantastically absurd children's tale, Alice in Wonderland (1865).

Some of the most common themes in literature are relationships and love, childhood, nature, memory, class, power and freedom, religion, ethics, death, identity, gender, sexuality, race, the everyday, storytelling, time, and complex emotions such as hope, grief, guilt, etc.

You can analyse themes by: 
1) tracking the development of a theme throughout a literary work, 
2) focusing on how a theme is portrayed by the text (through what literary devices, etc.), 
3) focusing on the relationship between a theme and the literary elements used to express it, and 
4) focusing on the relationship between different themes.

Final Theme Quiz

Question

What is theme?

Show answer

Answer

In literature, a theme is a central idea that is recurringly explored and expressed throughout a text.

Show question

Question

What is a useful way to think about theme in visual terms?

Show answer

Answer

Theme is a throughline or a thread in work of literature.

Show question

Question

What are some universal themes explored in literature?

Show answer

Answer

  • Love
  • Beauty
  • Ethics
  • Mortality

Show question

Question

While themes can be about big, universal issues, theme can also refers to...

Show answer

Answer

... themes specific to certain texts.

Show question

Question

What is a motif?

Show answer

Answer

A motif is a recurring image, object or idea that is used to explore a text's themes.

Show question

Question

Theme and motif are interchangeable terms.

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

List three big themes that are commonly explored in literature.

Show answer

Answer

  • Relationships and love
  • Loneliness, isolation, alienation
  • Childhood, coming of age, innocence and experience
  • Nature
  • Memory
  • Social class
  • Power, freedom, exploitation, colonialism, oppression, violence, suffering, rebellion
  • Religion
  • Ethics
  • Absurdity and futility
  • Death
  • Identity, gender, sex and sexuality, race, nationality
  • The everyday
  • Storytelling
  • Time
  • Complex emotions: hope, grief, guilt, regret, pride, etc.

Show question

Question

What are some themes specific to the Romantic movement?

Show answer

Answer

  • Nature
  • The power of the imagination
  • The individual

Show question

Question

What are some themes common in the Modernist literary movement?

Show answer

Answer

  • The search for meaning
  • Disconnectedness
  • Interiority

Show question

Question

What are some common themes in Postcolonial literature?

Show answer

Answer

  • Race
  • Oppression
  • Identity

Show question

Question

Why are themes important?

Show answer

Answer

  • They help us grapple with difficult subjects
  • They help us learn more about ourselves, others and the world
  • They help us deal with the complexity of life.

Show question

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