Themes in Literature: Definition & Examples of Central Ideas

Have you ever asked yourself why some books are so compelling that you keep thinking about them even after you have finished reading? Well, of course, it can be because of a unique plotline or complex characters. However, most of the time, it is the theme that compels you.

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A literary theme is a central or underlying idea of the story. This article by our custom writing team will explain what a theme is, introduce some common theme types, and give examples of main ideas from literature.

🤔 What Is a Theme in Literature: Central Idea Definition

A central idea or theme can be defined as a universal truth or dominant impression of a story. It ties together all elements of fiction that the author uses to narrate the events of the book.

The picture shows the definition of themes in literature.

Here are some essential features associated with themes:

  1. They are often related to the human condition.
  2. They often deal with a specific group of people.
  3. They usually deal with abstract concepts and ideas.
  4. They tend to be universal.
  5. They don’t have to hold true outside the story.
  6. They unfold through characters’ personalities or actions.
  7. There is usually more than one theme in every story.

Theme Is Not…

A lot of time, a theme can be confused with similar notions. Here is the list of what a theme is not:

  • the purpose of a literary work;
  • the story’s moral;
  • something that can be expressed in one word;
  • the conflict in the story.

Theme vs. Moral

Even though the theme and the moral are overlapping concepts, they are still two different things. While the theme is the story’s main idea, the moral is the teaching that is conveyed through the story’s elements.

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For example, in Francis Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, the moral is that the American Dream is unattainable. The story’s central idea is a materialistic, money-driven society and its effect on people’s lives.

Theme vs. Message

The theme is also often confused with the message of the story. The main difference between the two is that the message illustrates a specific situation while the theme refers to a larger context. In other words, the message is the story’s theme in action.

For example, in The Great Gatsby, the message would be that a chase after money and the desire to be accepted by society will not bring love or happiness.

Theme vs. Plot

The main difference between the plot and the theme is that the plot is the order of events, whereas the theme is the story’s central idea. The plot is synonymous with the storyline. It tells what happens in the story from the begging to the end.

For instance, the plot of The Great Gatsby is all the events described in the book, including Jay Gatsby’s tragic fate.

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Themes vs. Topics

The terms “topic” and “theme” can be confused as well. Yet, they are different concepts. A theme is the central meaning of the story, and you can understand it only after reading the whole work. A topic explains what the story is about. It is more specific than the theme.

So, in case the theme of The Great Gatsby is how materialistic society affects people’s lives, the topic is the chase after money and love.

Why Are Themes Important?

Now, let’s talk about the significance of a theme in a story. Here are some of its essential functions:

  • It unites all the elements, such as plot and character development.
  • It regulates and gives meaning to story elements.
  • It helps to make a story relatable to the reader.

Note that the protagonist’s internal journey is also closely connected to a theme. When we see character’s growth and learn about their motivation, we begin to relate to them and their struggles. At the same time, the story itself becomes more compelling.

How to Find the Theme of a Story

To identify a theme, first make sure you are familiar with the plot, the main conflicts in the story, and the way it uses characterization. You can identify a theme easily by asking the right questions:

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What is the plot‘s summary? Describe the following elements in one sentence: the exposition, the conflict, the rising action, the climax, the falling action, and the resolution.
What is the subject of the work? Discuss who the main characters are and where they come from.
What do we know about the subject? Show how the protagonists change throughout the story and what lessons they learn.
How is the subject depicted in the story? Think about the portrayal of the main characters in the book. Describe how they look and how they treat others.
What is the general idea of the story? Discuss what you’ve learned about the subject and how you’ve learned it.

🎭 Common Theme Types

Now we are going to talk about common theme types. We’ll start with major and minor themes and the difference between them:

  • A major theme is expressed repeatedly and is central in a literary work.
  • A minor theme only briefly appears in the text. It may or may not give way to other minor themes.

Implied Theme

The author may choose how to present their ideas in the text. If the author uses implied or implicit themes in the story, the message is not expressed directly but conveyed through circumstances and the characters’ emotions.

Stated Theme

A stated theme is an opposite of an implicit one. If a theme is stated, it means that the author chooses to express it directly. For example, the theme of Pride and Prejudice is stated in the title. There is no need to determine it through the context.

Universal Themes

Universal themes are ideas that can be understood by anyone regardless of their culture or geographical location. They often deal with the human condition and fundamental human concerns. Such themes as man vs. nature or life vs. death are good examples.

Recurring Theme

A recurring theme or a motif is a unifying idea that recurs throughout the story and has a symbolic meaning. It often helps to reinforce the overall message of the book. This type of theme is conveyed in multiple ways throughout the literary work.

📚 Examples of Central Ideas in Literature

There are, of course, countless books on numerous different topics. Every author chooses what to write about and how to express their ideas in writing. However, we can try and single out some common themes. Now, let’s look at the example of some central ideas that appear in literature a lot:

Theme of Love and MarriageThis theme often relates to women’s and men’s place in society. It also focuses on the complexities of love and married life. Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (feel free to visit our Wuthering Heights study guide)
Revenge Themes in LiteratureMost of the time, revenge stories show the hero’s downfall and reflect the destructive nature of the human desire for vengeance. A novel Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (for more info, see our Frankenstein study guide)
Theme of Death in LiteratureIn many literary works, death is a central idea. It often gives way to other themes such as grief, revenge, or justice. William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet (if you want to learn more, check out our study guide on Hamlet)
Appearance vs. Reality Theme This theme often deals with the deceptive nature of outward appearance. It tends to explore concepts such as luxury and beauty. The Necklace by Guy de Maupassant (see The Necklace study guide for more information)
Loyalty & Friendship Themes Numerous books tell stories that depict the ups and downs of friendship. They focus on the idea of true loyalty and selflessness. The Odyssey by Homer (feel free to read The Odyssey study guide)
Isolation ThemeThis theme primarily deals with the inner world of characters and feelings such as alienation and detachment. Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis (want to learn more? Browse The Metamorphosis study guide)

Themes in American Literature

American literature combines the ideas of the past and hopes for the future; it embodies the worldview of the American people. Because of the county’s unique historical background, some themes are especially prominent in American literature. Here are some examples:

MoneyMoney and materialism are common themes in American literature. They are often represented as false values that people strive for. F.S. Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (feel free to read The Great Gatsby study guide)
Freedom The stories that focus on this theme depict the struggle of people oppressed by society. It can also refer to the search for personal freedom. The short story The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (you can read our The Yellow Wallpaper study guide if you want to learn more)
Faith Countless American authors share their views on or interpretation of religion. This theme also covers the role of faith in the lives of individuals. A Good Man Is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor (see A Good Man Is Hard to Find study guide for more interesting information)
The American DreamThis is one of the most prominent themes in American literature. Authors share their interpretation of the American Dream and argue about whether it is attainable or not. Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller (if you want to learn more about the play, check out Death of a Salesman study guide)
Racism Because of America’s colonial past, the theme of race is discussed a lot. Mostly the authors talk about injustice and the discrimination of African Americans, Native Americans, and other people of color. Barn Burning by William Faulkner (our Barn Burning study guide has more interesting info about the story)

Themes in English Literature

Compared to American literature that emerged in the early 17th century, English literature has a long history. It is known for its wit, depiction of manners, and criticism of the disparity between classes. Here are some examples of common themes in English literature:

GenderMany English writers discuss and express their views on traditional gender roles. In literature, they’re often criticized or subverted. Othello by William Shakespeare (feel free to read our comprehensive Othello study guide)
Class English literature often focuses on unfair practices and prejudice related to one’s social class. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen ( there’s more interesting info in our Pride and Prejudice study guide)
MonstrosityMonsters are often used in English literature to explore the concepts of humanity and good vs. evil. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (feel free to check out our article on characters in Frankenstein)
Honor Works that talk about honor praise those who possess this quality. You can often find this theme in romantic novels. A romance poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (want to learn more? You’re welcome to browse Sir Gawain and the Green Knight study guide)
Corruption Corruption is usually depicted as a force that destroys people and even whole nations. William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet (don’t forget to read our Hamlet analysis)

Thanks for reading through our article! We hope you found it helpful. If you did, don’t hesitate to share it with your friends. You may also want to check our articles dedicated to themes in specific books.

📖 Themes in Literature Articles

A Good Man Is Hard to Find: Themes

From this article, you will learn about the story’s core themes, such as good vs. evil, religion, and death.

Barn Burning: Themes

Read about the themes related to the story’s main characters: loyalty & morality and resentment & racism.

Death of a Salesman: Themes

This article explains the key themes of Arthur Miller’s play: the American dream, family, and betrayal & abandonment.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: Themes

Read this article if you want to learn about the core themes in Frankenstein: dangerous knowledge, nature, isolation, monstrosity, and revenge.

Hamlet: Themes

William Shakespeare’s timeless play deals with themes such as death, revenge, corruption, and appearance vs. reality.

Night by Elie Wiesel: Themes

The novel’s themes are related to critical issues that were prominent during World War II: faith and dehumanization.

Othello: Themes

This article explores how the themes of appearance vs. reality, jealousy, racism, and women are treated in the play.

Pride & Prejudice: Themes & Ideas

The themes in Jane Austen’s brilliant novel include love & marriage, social class, and reputation.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Themes

There are many themes in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, but chivalry and honor are especially prominent.

The Canterbury Tales’ Themes: Estates Satire & Deceit

This article will help you dig deeper into The Canterbury Tales’ themes of satire and deceit.

Great Gatsby: Themes

The novel’s numerous themes include the American dream, money, social class, love, morality, and time.

The Lottery: Analysis

The story’s central idea is the presence of a dominant tradition that overwhelms the villagers’ rationality.

The Metamorphosis: Themes

This article will show you how the themes of transformation and alienation unfold within the story.

The Necklace: Themes

Read about the two central ideas of Maupassant’s sensational story: appearance vs. reality and greed.

The Odyssey: Themes

The epic poem raises numerous issues that remain relevant, such as loyalty & perseverance and hospitality.

The Yellow Wallpaper: Themes

Read this article and discover the story’s central themes of gender, mental illness, and freedom.

Wuthering Heights: Analysis

Emily Bronte’s novel is multifaceted, but it’s primarily built around the ideas of tragic love and revenge.

🔍 References

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Comments (2)

Lisa Bengochea
Lisa Bengochea

The information was quite helpful.

Custom Writing
Custom Writing

Thanks for the feedback! Much appreciated.

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