Theme (narrative)

In contemporary literary studies, a theme is a central topic a text treats.[1] Themes can be divided into two categories: a work's thematic concept is what readers "think the work is about" and its thematic statement being "what the work says about the subject".[2] Themes are often distinguished from premises.

The most common contemporary understanding of theme is an idea or point that is central to a story, which can often be summed in a single word (for example, love, death, betrayal). Typical examples of themes of this type are conflict between the individual and society; coming of age; humans in conflict with technology; nostalgia; and the dangers of unchecked ambition.[3] A theme may be exemplified by the actions, utterances, or thoughts of a character in a novel. An example of this would be the thematic idea of loneliness in John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, wherein many of the characters seem to be lonely. It may differ from the thesis—the text's or author's implied worldview.[4]

A story may have several themes. Themes often explore historically common or cross-culturally recognizable ideas, such as ethical questions, and are usually implied rather than stated explicitly. An example of this would be whether one should live a seemingly better life, at the price of giving up parts of one's humanity, which is a theme in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Along with plot, character, setting, and style, theme is considered one of the components of fiction.[5]


Various techniques may be used to express many more themes.


Leitwortstil, which means "leading word style" in German[6], is the repetition of a wording, often with a theme, in a narrative to make sure it catches the reader's attention.[7] An example of a leitwortstil is the recurring phrase, "So it goes", in Kurt Vonnegut's novel Slaughterhouse-Five. Its seeming message is that the world is deterministic: that things only could have happened in one way, and that the future already is predetermined. But given the anti-war tone of the story, the message perhaps is on the contrary, that things could have been different. Its use in Scheherazade's Arabian Nights demonstrates how the technique can result to the unification of the constituent members of story cycles.[6] A non-fictional example of leitwortstil is in the book Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart: Thirty True Things You Need to Know Now written by Gordon Livingston, which is an anthology of personal anecdotes multiple times interjected by the phrases "Don't do the same thing and expect different results", "It is a bad idea to lie to yourself", and "No one likes to be told what to do". In the Bible, various forms of the verb "to see" is also recurring to underscore the idea of Abraham as a seer.[8] There is also the repeated use of the root kbd in Samuel I, to indicate "weightiness, honor, glory".[9]

Thematic patterning

Thematic patterning means the insertion of a recurring motif in a narrative.[10] For example, various scenes in John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men are about loneliness.[11] Thematic patterning is evident in One Thousand and One Nights,[12] an example being the story of "The City of Brass". According to David Pinault, the overarching theme of that tale, in which a group of travelers roam the desert in search of ancient brass artifacts, is that "riches and pomp tempt one away from God".[13] The narrative is interrupted several times by stories within the story. These include a tale recorded in an inscription found in the palace of Kush ibh Shaddad; a story told by a prisoner about Solomon; and an episode involving Queen Tadmur's corpse. According to Pinault, "each of these minor narratives introduces a character who confesses that he once proudly enjoyed worldly prosperity: subsequently, we learn, the given character has been brought low by God ... These minor tales ultimately reinforce the theme of the major narrative".[13]


Some common themes in literature are "love," "war," "revenge," "betrayal,"[14] "patriotism," "grace," "isolation," "motherhood," "forgiveness," "wartime loss,"[15] "treachery," "rich versus poor," "appearance versus reality," and "help from other-worldly powers."[16]

See also


  1. Oxford English Dictionary, retrieved January 26, 2012
  2. Griffith, Kelley (2010), Writing Essays about Literature (8 ed.), Cengage Learning, p. 40, ISBN 1428290419, retrieved February 10, 2013
  3. Kirszner, Laura G.; Mandell, Stephen R. (1994), Fiction: Reading, Reacting, Writing, Paulinas, pp. 3–4, ISBN 015501014X, retrieved February 11, 2013
  4. Weitz, Morris (2002), "Literature Without Philosophy: "Antony and Cleopatra"", Shakespeare Survey, 28, Cambridge University Press, p. 30, ISBN 0521523656, retrieved February 10, 2013
  5. Obstfeld (2002, pp. 1,65,115,171)
  6. Sweney, Chip; Murray, Kitti (2011). A New Kind of Big: How Churches of Any Size Can Partner to Transform Communities. Grand Rapids: Baker Books. p. 82. ISBN 9780801013690.
  7. Pinault, David (1992), Story Telling Techniques in the "Arabian Nights", Studies in Arabic Literature, 15, Brill, p. 18, ISBN 9004095306, retrieved February 10, 2013
  8. Levenson, Alan T. (2011). The Making of the Modern Jewish Bible: How Scholars in Germany, Israel, and America Transformed an Ancient Text. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. p. 85. ISBN 9781442205161.
  9. Ryken, Leland; III, Tremper Longman (2010). The Complete Literary Guide to the Bible. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Academic. p. 171. ISBN 0310230780.
  10. Pinault, David. 1992. Story-telling techniques in the Arabian nights. Leiden: Brill. p. 22. ISBN 9004095306
  11. Scalia, Joseph E.; Shamblin, Lena T. & Research and Education Association (2001), John Steinbeck's Of mice and men, Piscataway, N.J: Research & Education Association, p. 13, ISBN 087891997X, retrieved February 11, 2013
  12. Heath, Peter (May 1994), "Reviewed work(s) Story-Telling Techniques in the Arabian Nights by David Pinault", International Journal of Middle East Studies, Cambridge University Press, 26 (2): 358–360 [359–60], doi:10.1017/s0020743800060633
  13. Pinault, David. 1992. Story-telling techniques in the Arabian nights. Leiden: Brill. p. 23. ISBN 9004095306
  14. Baldick (2004)
  15. Carey & Snodgrass (1999)
  16. Brown & Rosenberg (1998)


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