What Is Theme?

(View all literary devices)

Also referred to as a main idea, a theme is the subject explored in a piece of writing. All literary works have a theme; some longer works, such as novels, may have several of them.

A theme is different from a moral message. The theme is what a piece of writing is about. Hamlet is about revenge. Othello, another Shakespeare play, is about jealousy. These plays also both explore the theme of betrayal.

How Do You Identify Theme in Writing?

Finding the theme depends on what kind of work you are reading. Nonfiction tends to state its theme directly, in the form of a thesis statement, introduction, or preface. Such themes are easy to locate.

Literary works, however, often have themes that are hidden beneath the surface. They aren’t directly stated. Like a detective, you have to read carefully, looking for clues that illustrate your theme. You can find these clues in figurative language (symbols and metaphors), character development and conflict, setting, and narrative point of view.

Examples of Literary Themes

Theme Example 1. In Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour,” a woman with a heart condition reacts to news of her husband’s death unexpectedly, by realizing that she is free. Suddenly, she wants to live. The news was a mistake, however. Her husband walks in the door, and on seeing him, the woman dies of a heart attack. Chopin’s theme is individual freedom. Without it, her story suggests, life is not worth living.

Theme Example 2. Leo Tolstoy explicitly states his theme in the first paragraph of his novel, Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike. Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The whole novel explores this theme.

Theme Example 3. The Wizard of Oz has several themes. The most obvious is the quest for self-knowledge. Each of the characters has the means to get what they want all along, but they don’t realize it. Once they band together on a quest to help Dorothy return home, they find their inner resourcefulness and gain confidence and power.

Theme Example 4. Shirley Jackson’s allegorical story, “The Lottery,” in which members of a small village still practice ritual stoning, explores the theme of social conventions and implicitly asks the question, “How far will people go to honor a tradition?”

Theme Example 5. Jonathan Swift’s satire, “A Modest Proposal,” asks the Irish to consider butchering young babies as a solution to the poverty and famine in that country under British rule. The theme of the essay is oppression.