Identifying themes is often a tough task for English students. First of all, the very idea of a theme can be hard for students to understand-what does it even mean to write about
the human condition, anyway? And then, even if you see a theme in a book, finding a way to analyze and write about that theme can be a whole new challenge. But this process doesn't have to be a challenge, and with a little bit of practice anyone can be an expert on finding, analyzing, and writing about themes.
What Is a Theme?
Put simply, the theme is what a novel, short story, play, or poem is about. This doesn't mean the story; things like character and plot will help build the theme, but they aren't the theme itself. Instead, you want to focus on the ideas behind the story. What is the story trying to say about the world and what it means to be a person trying to live in it? The plot of The Great Gatsby revolves around a man trying to win back his long-lost love, but the novel is really about the idea that no one can truly escape their past. Gatsby thinks that with enough money he can bury the person he used to be, but in the end that only gets him killed.
Notice that our theme here-that no one can truly escape their past-is a complete sentence. It's important when writing about theme to separate it from the subject or topic of the work
, which is just a simple word or phrase. The topic of The Great Gatsby
is the past and the American Dream; the theme is what the author is trying to say to us about those topics. When analyzing literature it's important to say not just the subject, but a full theme statement that encompasses what the story is saying about that subject.
There are a number of techniques you can use to help identify the themes in a novel, short story, play, or poem. Most of these boil down to simply reading the text closely; often, it doesn't take more than a cursory reading to see the main topic of a work. Once you've identified the main topic-an idea like ambition, innocence, the dangers of technology, or family-you need to decide what message the author is trying to say about that topic.
If you're having trouble determining the theme of a text, try looking out for these common writing tricks.
If a subject is important to the writer, it's going to come up again and again in the story. Often different characters will be tackling the same issue throughout the story, and how each character handles this topic will tell you something about the theme. For example, in The Great Gatsby, the idea of ambition shows up throughout the book. Many of the characters are trying to improve their situations, and their various failures tell us what the book's author thinks about ambition (namely, that striving for material wealth gets you nothing but trouble).
In short works like stories or plays you might look for words or actions that are repeated throughout the text. If a poem uses a lot of nature imagery or the characters in a play keep repeating the same phrase over and over, it's a good bet that those words are key to understand what that work is about.
Authors often use metaphors, allusion, symbols, and other literary devices to draw the reader's attention to the themes in their work. Going back to The Great Gatsby, the geographic location of the characters-from the East Egg to the West Egg to the ash heap-is a metaphor for the issues of class and lifestyle that separate them. As the characters struggle to connect and understand the each other, the physical gulf between them becomes an important comment on the themes of class and ambition. When you're looking for themes, keep an eye out for literary devices like this that recur throughout the text.
Another good device to key in on when you're looking for themes is shifts in the work. This might be something small-for example, at the end of the poem "I Wandered Lonely as A Cloud," the tone shifts and the author finishes with several lines that sum up his feelings about what makes nature important to him. Shifts like these should immediately draw your attention and let you know that something important is happening. In longer works, look for shifts in characters or unexpected plot developments that challenge your expectations or beliefs-these types of changes are the author's way to telling you something important.
Compare and contrast
Often authors will use characters or settings in their stories that are designed to specifically stand in contrast to other elements in the work. In The Great Gatsby, part of why the audience knows Gatsby's dreams are doomed to fail is that we've seen Tom, who represents the worst parts of what Gatsby wants to be, and we know that Gatsby can never really win against him. When you're looking for the subject or theme, try to find strong differences or similarities between the characters and examine how those element impact the story.
Part of the reason writing about themes is difficult for students is that there's no one right answer. Most of the texts that get studied in classes are a complicated mixture of ideas that present layered, nuanced views that aren't easy to capture in one or two sentences. So, if you're having trouble identifying a single unifying theme or getting a handle of just what an author is trying to say, don't think that's it's necessarily your fault. As with so many things in English class, themes are often a matter of interpretation. If, instead of focusing on finding the right answer, you try to find a theme that you can back up with evidence from the text, then you'll be just fine.