Theme (literature)

Theme (literature)

A theme, from Old French "tesme", is a broad idea in a story or literary work, or a message or lesson conveyed by a written text. This message is usually about life, society or human nature. Themes often explore timeless and universal ideas. Most themes are implied rather than explicitly stated. The theme is different from the superficial outlay of the text; it is normally the meaning of the text on a deeper, more abstract level.


Themes arise from the interplay of plot, setting, character, conflict, and tone. Deep thematic content is not required in literature; however, certain types of literary analysis (like reader's response and socio-cultural analysis) hold that all stories inherently project some kind of outlook on life that can be taken as a theme.


Themes are often interpreted in diverse ways by different people or critics, regardless of whether or not the discussed theme was the original intent of the author. The same story can also be given very different themes in the hands of different authors. For instance, the source for Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet", Matteo Bandello's "The Tragical History of Romeo and Juliet" emphasizes the perils of dishonesty and disobedience.


The word 'theme' comes from the Old French word "tesme" (French: thème), from Latin "thema", from Ancient Greek "θέμα" (théma), from τίθημι (tithemi), meaning “‘I put, place’”, which in turn is reduplicative from the Proto-Indo-European word *dʰeh₁-, meaning ‘to put, place, do’.

Classic themes

Themes differ from culture to culture, but there is a general set of "classic themes" that are prevalent in all cultures and histories. These themes have their roots in the oral traditions of different cultures, and recurr in a range or literary works.


Conflict is the essence of fiction, whether oral or written. Conflicts are generally born of one of several main types. cite web|url=|title=Literary elements|last=Bokesch|first=Laura |language=English|accessdate=2008-08-22 ]
* Man versus man: this is conflict in which one character or historic figure is made to fight against another person or group of people.
* Man versus society: conflict of this sort is generally between one man and the society to which he belongs, or the beliefs to which he adheres. In this form of conflict, the values and customs of a specific place or community are challenged by the individual, generally the protagonist of the text.
* Man versus self: this is the classic example of internal turmoil. The character is at conflict with himself, with his ideals, thoughts or the memories of his past actions. An excellent example of this, as well as conflict between man and society is the play "The Crucible", by Arthur Miller. The character John Proctor is in conflict with himself as he had, in the past, committed the sin of adultery. He is also at odds with the community of Salem thus providing an example of conflict between man and society. [cite book|last=Arthur|first=Miller|title=The Crucible|publisher=Heinemann Publishers|location=London, UK|date=1952|isbn=0-435-23281-9|language=English]
* Man versus nature: This form of conflict occurs when one man has to struggle against the forces of nature, when it be wilderness survival, or, for instance, a struggle against the use of biological weapons. This conflict can also be called when a character is racing against time.


The theme of redemption is also a major literary device. The protagonist of the text will often have committed a past crime, and must succeed in a quest in order to atone for their sins. Their journey is often both mental as well as physical, as they struggle against their inner demons and base desires.


External links

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