What is a Theme in Literature? Definition & Examples

What is a theme in literature?

In the vast landscape of literature, themes serve as the guiding threads that weave through the fabric of storytelling, imparting depth and meaning to the narratives. Whether subtle or overt, themes play a crucial role in shaping our understanding of the world within the pages of a book.

In this exploration, we delve into the heart of literary expression, unraveling the concept of themes, examining examples, and understanding how they can be used to create compelling narratives.

What is a Theme?

At its core, a theme in literature is the central idea or underlying message that a writer aims to convey through their work. It is the bedrock upon which the narrative unfolds, often exploring universal concepts that resonate with readers across cultures and time periods.

Common thematic concepts include:

  1. Love and Relationships: Themes exploring the complexities of human connection, emotions, and the myriad forms of love.
  2. Good vs. Evil: A timeless theme pitting virtue against malevolence, challenging characters and readers alike to ponder morality.
  3. Coming of Age: Narratives that trace the characters’ journey as they navigate the trials of growing up, gaining wisdom, and self-discovery.
  4. Power and Corruption: Themes delving into the dynamics of authority, its potential for abuse, and the moral dilemmas that arise.
  5. Survival and Resilience: Stories centered around the human spirit’s ability to endure hardships, showcasing resilience in the face of adversity.
thematic concepts outlined by From Whispers to Roars

Examples of Themes in Literature

To grasp the essence of themes, let’s explore five specific examples in literature:

Love and Relationships: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Austen’s timeless classic delves into the intricacies of love and societal expectations. Through the characters of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, the theme of overcoming prejudices and societal norms unfolds, offering a profound exploration of genuine human connection.

Good vs. Evil: Lord of the Flies by William Golding

Golding’s masterpiece delves into the dark recesses of human nature when societal structures break down. The struggle between the inherent good and evil within each character paints a chilling picture of the fragility of civilization.

Coming of Age: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Lee’s novel explores themes of racial injustice, moral growth, and empathy through the eyes of Scout Finch. The coming-of-age journey reflects the transformation of innocence into awareness, tackling societal prejudices head-on.

Power and Corruption: Animal Farm by George Orwell

Orwell’s allegorical novella illustrates the corruption of power through the lens of a farm revolution. The pigs’ descent into authoritarian rule exposes the pitfalls of unchecked authority, serving as a stark warning about the corrupting influence of power.

Survival and Resilience: The Road by Cormac McCarthy

McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic tale follows a father and son’s journey through a lonely world. The theme of survival and resilience is palpable as the characters navigate a harsh reality, emphasizing the enduring strength of the human spirit.

How to Identify The Theme of a Story

Understanding how to identify themes is essential for extracting the full richness of a literary work:

  1. Recurring Motifs: Identify patterns or motifs that reappear throughout the narrative, as they often point towards central themes.
  2. Character Arcs: Examine how characters evolve throughout the story. Their growth or regression can offer insights into overarching themes. Learn more about character development here.
  3. Author’s Message: Consider the author’s intent and the messages they aim to convey. This can be observed through their portrayal of characters, events, and the overall tone of the narrative.
  4. Setting and Atmosphere: Analyze the setting and atmosphere created by the author. These elements can contribute significantly to the thematic undercurrents of a story.
  5. Symbolism: Uncover symbolic elements within the text, as they often carry deeper meanings related to the central themes.
Our Editor’s Take

Identifying themes takes practice. Once you start being more diligent about identifying them, it gets a lot easier. Oftentimes, you can sort of tell what the theme of a story will be in the first chapter; usually the hook of a story will give away some thematic aspects. – R. R. Noall

How to Use Theme to Create a Narrative

For aspiring writers and storytellers, integrating themes into narratives can elevate the impact of their work:

  1. Develop Characters that Embody the Theme: Craft characters whose traits and experiences align with the chosen theme. Their journeys can then serve as vehicles for exploring and expressing the theme.
  2. Create Conflicts Aligned with the Theme: Construct conflicts that resonate with the central theme, adding depth and resonance to the narrative.
  3. Use Symbolism and Imagery: Employ symbolism and vivid imagery to reinforce the theme throughout the story. These elements provide a visual and emotional layer to the narrative.
  4. Establish Consistent Tone: Ensure that the narrative’s tone aligns with the chosen theme. Consistency in tone enhances the overall impact and coherence of the storytelling.
  5. The Role of Dialogue: Leverage dialogue to convey and reinforce the theme. Characters’ interactions and conversations can be powerful tools for expressing the underlying message.

Want to dive more into narrative components? Explore our guide on narrative elements.


In literature, themes serve as the lighthouses guiding readers through the complexities of human experience. Understanding, identifying, and harnessing these thematic elements enriches our reading experiences and empowers writers to craft narratives that resonate on a profound level.

Let us appreciate the significance of themes – the silent orchestrators that give depth and meaning to the stories we hold dear.

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