Identifying the Theme in a Literary Work

All works have at least one theme—a central or underlying idea.

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A theme is a central or underlying idea in literature, which may be stated directly or indirectly. All novels, stories, poems, and other literary works have at least one theme running through them. The writer may express insight about humanity or a world view through a theme.

Subject versus Theme

Don't confuse the subject of a work with its theme: 

  • The subject is a topic that acts as the foundation for a work of literature, such as marriage in 19th-century France. 
  • A theme is an opinion the author expresses on the subject, for instance, the author's dissatisfaction with the narrow confines of French bourgeois marriage during that period.

Major and Minor Themes

There can be major and minor themes in works of literature: 

  • A major theme is an idea that a writer repeats in his work, making it the most significant idea in a literary work.
  • A minor theme, on the other hand, refers to an idea that appears in a work briefly and that may or may not give way to another minor theme. 

Read and Analyze the Work

Before you attempt to identify the theme of a work, you must have read the work, and you should understand at least the basics of the plot, characterizations, and other literary elements. Spend some time thinking about the main subjects covered in the work. Common subjects include coming of age, death and mourning, racism, beauty, heartbreak and betrayal, loss of innocence, and power and corruption.

Next, consider what the author's view on these subjects might be. These views will point you toward the work's themes. Here's how to get started.

How to Identify Themes in Literature

  1. Note the plot of the work: Take a few moments to write down the main literary elements: plot, characterization, setting, tone, language style, etc. What were the conflicts in the work? What was the most important moment in the work? Does the author resolve the conflict? How did the work end?
  1. Identify the subject of the work: If you were to tell a friend what the work of literature was about, how would you describe that? What would you say is the topic?
  2. Who is the protagonist (the main character)? How does he or she change? Does the protagonist affect other characters? How does this character relate to others?
  3. Assess the author's point of view: Finally, determine the author's view toward the characters and the choices they make. What might be the author's attitude toward the resolution of the main conflict? What message might the author be sending us? This message is the theme. You may find clues in the language used, in quotes from main characters, or in the final resolution of the conflicts. 

Note that none of these elements (plot, subject, character, or point of view) constitute a theme in and of itself. But identifying them is an important first step in identifying a work's major theme or themes. 

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Your Citation
Lombardi, Esther. "Identifying the Theme in a Literary Work." ThoughtCo, Nov. 1, 2017, Lombardi, Esther. (2017, November 1). Identifying the Theme in a Literary Work. Retrieved from Lombardi, Esther. "Identifying the Theme in a Literary Work." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 23, 2018).