theme (composition and literature)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

theme of charlottes web
"The theme of Charlotte's Web," said E.B. White, "is that a pig shall be saved, and I have an idea that somewhere deep inside me there was a wish to that effect" (quoted by Scott Elledge in E.B. White: A Biography, 1986). (Harper, 1952)


(1) In literature and composition, a theme is the main idea of a text, expressed directly or indirectly. Adjective: thematic. See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

(2) In composition studies, a theme is a short essay or composition assigned as a writing exercise. See also:

From the Greek, "placed" or "laid down"

Examples and Observations (definition #1):

  • "Simply put, a story's theme is its idea or point (formulated as a generalization). The theme of a fable is its moral; the theme of a parable is its teaching; the theme of a short story is its implied view of life and conduct. Unlike the fable and parable, however, most fiction is not designed primarily to teach or preach. Its theme, thus, is more obliquely presented. In fact, theme in fiction is rarely presented at all; readers abstract it from the details of characters and action that compose the story."
    (Robert DiYanni, Literature. McGraw-Hill, 2002)
  • Orwell's Theme(s) in the Essay "A Hanging"
    - "'A Hanging' is [George] Orwell's first distinctive work. It gives an apparently objective account of a ritualistic execution--from fixed bayonets to a bag over the head of the condemned--in which the narrator officially and actively participates. . . . At this halfway point Orwell states his theme: 'till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man. When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide.' Instead of invoking religion, he asserts a quasi-religious sense of life's sacredness--the first expression of the instinctive humanism that characterizes all his work."
    (Jeffrey Meyers, Orwell: Wintry Conscience of a Generation. Norton, 2000)

    - "A variation on this theme occurs in several of Orwell's most famous texts containing epiphanies, moments of illumination in which the humanity of people he has hitherto viewed in terms of dehumanizing generalizations suddenly breaks through, and Orwell's perception is jarred as he understands, with a shock, that these are people like himself. . . . In the early sketch entitled 'A Hanging' (1931), Orwell describes how his idea of what it means to kill a man is altered by the Hindu prisoner's gesture of stepping aside to avoid a puddle on the way to the gallows. What the text reveals, however, is that the prisoner at first looks to Orwell like a mere insignificant object. Into this scene, well defined in terms of the prisoner's already marginal existence, breaks the unexpected gesture, making Orwell (or the Orwellian narrative persona) realize that the prisoner is alive, just as he is . . . . This chronicle is generally interpreted along the lines Orwell lays down, as the revelation of the barbarity of execution, but its primary meaning, I believe, is another. An inferiorized human being has for an instant become a genuine person in the eyes of one of the masters."
    (Daphne Patai, The Orwell Mystique: A Study in Male Ideology. University of Massachusetts Press, 1984)

  • The Themes of the Novel Charlotte's Web
    - "Themes are subject to readers' interpretation, so different individuals may identify different themes in the same book; the dominant idea or theme, however, should be apparent to readers. . . .

    "Charlotte's Web offers many layers of meaning to readers. Younger children are apt to understand this book as an animal fantasy. Older children are ready to apprehend the cycle of life and death, while adults recognize the irony in a situation that gives one character credit for the creativity of another. This is why we recommend using Charlotte's Web in the third or fourth grade, when children are ready to understand its major theme."
    (Barbara Stoodt et al., Children's Literature:Discovery for a Lifetime. Macmillan, 1996)

    - "Identifying theme is typically a bit more difficult perhaps because theme is often confused with plot summary or motif. . . . 'Charlotte's Web (White, 1952) is a story about a pig whose life is saved by a spider' is not a theme statement! It is a plot statement. 'Charlotte's Web is a story about friendship' is also not a theme statement! Rather, it is a statement identifying one of the most important motifs in the story--friendship. 'A theme in Charlotte's Web is that true friendship involves responsibilities as well as privileges' is a theme statement!"
    (R. Craig Roney, The Story Performance Handbook. Lawrence Erlbaum, 2001)

    - "Besides mortality itself, throughout many idyllic scenes [in Charlotte's Web] Andy [White] dabbed colorful spots of melancholy. He translated the song sparrow's aria as 'sweet, sweet, sweet interlude' and informed the reader that it referred to life's brevity. Crickets harped on the same theme. But overall Andy's theme was the joy of being alive, of reveling in the moment with visceral attention. What seemed like two themes were really one."
    (Michael Sims, The Story of Charlotte's Web. Walker, 2011)
  • The Difference Between Plot and Theme
    "If you sometimes confuse plot with theme, keep the two elements separate by thinking of theme as what the story is about, and plot as the situation that brings it into focus. You might think of theme as the message of the story--the lesson to be learned, the question that is asked, or what it is the author is trying to tell us about life and the human condition. Plot is the action by which this truth will be demonstrated."
    (Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, quoted by Kenneth John Atchity and Chi-Li Wong in Writing Treatments That Sell, rev. ed. Henry Holt, 2003)
  • Thesis and Theme
    "The thesis is the main point you are trying to argue [in a composition]: for instance, that abortion is every woman's right or that housing discrimination is wrong. The theme, on the other hand, is a motif established by orchestrated connotative language that reinforces the thesis. Theme differs from thesis in that theme relies on inference and suggested meaning rather than on direct statement."
    (Kristin R. Woolever, About Writing: A Rhetoric for Advanced Writers. Wadsworth, 1991)

Pronunciation: THEEM