10 Common Themes in Literature

Illustrations of Major Literary Themes

Hugo Lin / ThoughtCo.

When we refer to the theme of a book, we are talking about a universal idea, lesson, or message that stretches through the entire story. Every book has a theme and we often see the same theme in many books. It's also common for a book to have many themes.

A theme may show up in a pattern such as reoccurring examples of beauty in simplicity. A theme may come also through as the result of a buildup like the gradual realization that war is tragic and not noble. It is often a lesson that we learn about life or people.

We can better understand book themes when we think about the stories we know from childhood. In "The Three Little Pigs," for example, we learn that it's not wise to cut corners (by building a straw house).

How Can You Find a Theme in Books?

Finding the theme of a book can be difficult for some students because the theme is something you determine on your own. It is not something you find stated in plain words. The theme is a message that you take away from the book, and it is defined by the symbols or a motif that keeps appearing and reappearing throughout the work.

To determine the theme of a book, select a word that expresses the subject of your book. Try to expand that word into a message about life. 

10 of the Most Common Book Themes

While there are countless themes in books, a few are the most common. These universal themes are popular among authors and readers alike because they are experiences we can relate to.

To give you some ideas on finding a book's theme, explore some of the most popular and discover examples of those themes in well-known writings. Remember, however, that the messages in any piece of literature can go much deeper than this, but it will at least give you a good starting point.

  1. Judgment: Possibly one of the most common themes is judgment. In these books, a character is judged for being different or doing wrong, whether the infraction is real or just perceived as wrongdoing by others. Among classic novels, you can see this in "The Scarlet Letter," "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," and "To Kill a Mockingbird." As these tales prove, judgment does not always equal justice.
  2. Survival: There is something captivating about a good survival story, one in which the main characters must overcome countless odds just to live another day. Almost any book by Jack London falls into this category because his characters often battle nature. "Lord of the Flies" is another in which life and death are important parts of the story. Michael Crichton's "Congo" and "Jurassic Park" certainly follow this theme.
  3. Peace and war: The contradiction between peace and war is a popular topic for authors. Quite often, the characters are gripped in the turmoil of conflict while hoping for days of peace to come or reminiscing about the good life before the war. Books such as "Gone With the Wind" show the before, during, and after of war, while others focus on the time of war itself. Just a few examples include "All Quiet on the Western Front," "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas," and "For Whom the Bell Tolls" by Ernest Hemingway.
  4. Love: The universal truth of love is a very common theme in literature, and you will find countless examples of it. They go beyond those sultry romance novels, too. Sometimes, it is even intertwined with other themes. Think of books like Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" or Emily Bronte's "Wuthering Heights." For a modern example, just look at Stephenie Meyer's "Twilight" series.
  5. Heroism: Whether it is false heroism or true heroic acts, you will often find conflicting values in books with this theme. We see it quite often in classical literature from the Greeks, with Homer's "The Odyssey" serving as a perfect example. You can also find it in more recent stories such as "The Three Musketeers" and "The Hobbit." 
  6. Good and evil: The coexistence of good and evil is another popular theme. It is often found alongside many of these other themes such as war, judgment, and even love. Books such as the "Harry Potter" and "Lord of the Rings" series use this as the central theme. Another classic example is "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe."
  7. Circle of life: The notion that life begins with birth and ends with death is nothing new to authors—many incorporate this into the themes of their books. Some may explore immortality such as in "The Picture of Dorian Gray." Others, such as Leo Tolstoy's "The Death of Ivan Ilych," shock a character into realizing that death is inevitable. In a story like F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," the circle of life theme is turned completely upside down.
  8. Suffering: There is physical suffering and internal suffering, and both are popular themes, often intertwined with others. A book such as Fyodor Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment" is filled with suffering as well as guilt. One like Charles Dickens' "Oliver Twist" looks more at the physical suffering of impoverished children, though there is plenty of both. 
  9. Deception: This theme can also take on many faces. Deception can be physical or social and it's all about keeping secrets from others. For instance, we see many lies in "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," and many of William Shakespeare's plays are centered on deception at some level. Any mystery novel has some sort of deception as well.
  10. Coming of age: Growing up is not easy, which is why so many books rely on a "coming of age" theme. This is one in which children or young adults mature through various events and learn valuable life lessons in the process. Books such as "The Outsiders" and "The Catcher in the Rye" use this theme very well.
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Fleming, Grace. "10 Common Themes in Literature." ThoughtCo, Sep. 9, 2021, thoughtco.com/common-book-themes-1857647. Fleming, Grace. (2021, September 9). 10 Common Themes in Literature. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/common-book-themes-1857647 Fleming, Grace. "10 Common Themes in Literature." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/common-book-themes-1857647 (accessed June 6, 2023).