Definition of Theme

As a literary device, theme refers to the central, deeper meaning of a written work. Writers typically will convey the theme of their work, and allow the reader to perceive and interpret it, rather than overtly or directly state the theme. As readers infer, reflect, and analyze a literary theme, they develop a greater understanding of the work itself and can apply this understanding beyond the literary work as a means of grasping a better sense of the world. Theme is often what creates a memorable and significant experience of a literary work for the reader.

Themes are often subject to the reader’s perception and interpretation. This means that readers may find primary and/or secondary themes in a work of literature that the author didn’t intend to convey. Therefore, theme allows for literature to remain meaningful, “living” works that can be revisited and analyzed in perpetuity by many readers at once or by a single reader across time.

For example, William Shakespeare’s well-known tragedyRomeo and Juliet, has been performed and read countless times and by countless people since its publication in 1597:

Come, gentle night; come, loving, black-browed night;
Give me my Romeo; and, when I shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night

Even those who have not directly heard or read the lines of this play are familiar with its theme of the power of romantic love and its potentially devastating effects.

Common Examples of Literary Themes

Many works of literature share common themes and central ideas. As a literary device, theme allows the author to present and reveal all aspects of human nature and the human condition. This enhances the enjoyment and significance of a literary work for readers by encouraging thought, interpretation, and analysis. Discovery and analysis of theme is also one of the primary reasons that readers return to “classic” literary works that are centuries old. There is no end or expiration to the significance and impact theme can have on readers of literature.

Here are some common examples of literary themes:

  • Love
  • Redemption
  • Mortality
  • Human versus nature
  • Good versus evil
  • Power
  • Isolation
  • Coming of age
  • Revenge
  • Courage and perseverance
  • Quest
  • Individual versus society
  • Faith versus doubt
  • Chaos versus order
  • Gender roles

Famous Examples of Disney Movies and Their Themes

Of course, theme is an essential literary device in terms of written works. However, nearly all works of art feature theme as an underlying meaning to be understood and interpreted by the audience. Here are some famous examples of Disney movies and their related themes:

  • Peter Pan: out-growing the world of childhood
  • Mulan: girls/women can do battle as honorably as boys/men
  • The Sword in the Stone: education and courage are stronger than brawn and force
  • Cinderella: kindness and inner beauty are rewarded
  • Pinocchio: dishonesty leads to trouble
  • Aladdin: the best course of action is to be who you are
  • The Rescuers: it doesn’t take great size to make a difference
  • Snow White: jealousy can lead to cruelty
  • The Fox and the Hound: the importance of friendship
  • The Little Mermaid: love often requires choices and sacrifices

Difference Between Theme and Subject Matter

Sometimes it can be difficult to determine the difference between the theme and subject matter of a literary work. They are both closely related to each other; however, the subject matter is the topic that is overtly addressed and presented by the writer whereas the theme is the meaning or underlying message that is imparted through the writing.

The subject matter of a written work is what the text is about and is, typically, clearly indicated by the writer. The theme of a literary work reflects why it was written and what the author hopes to convey on a deeper level to the reader without direct statements. A reader may infer and a writer may imply a theme within a literary work. However, the subject matter of a literary work is not inferred by the reader or implied by the writer; it is overtly stated and understood.

For example, in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the subject matter is two young people from feuding families who fall deeply in love with each other. One theme of this play, and Romeo and Juliet certainly features several themes, is the power of romantic love and the futility of others to stop it. The subject matter is almost exclusively related to the foundational elements of the story, such as what happens and to which characters. The theme, in contrast, is the lingering meaning and thought left to the reader as a means of reaching a greater understanding of the play itself and the larger concept of love.

Examples of Theme in Literature

As a literary device, the purpose of theme is the main idea or underlying meaning that is explored by a writer in a work of literature. Writers can utilize a combination of elements in order to convey a story’s theme, including setting, plot, characters, dialogue, and more. For certain works of literature, such as fables, the theme is typically a “moral” or lesson for the reader. However, more complex works of literature tend to have a central theme that is open to interpretation and reflects a basic aspect of society or trait of humanity. Many longer works of literature, such as novels, convey several themes in order to explore the universality of human nature.

Here are some examples of theme in well-known works of literature:

Example 1: The Yellow Wall-Paper (Charlotte Perkins Gilman)

If a physician of high standing, and one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the
matter with one but temporary nervous depression – a slight hysterical tendency – what is one to do?

My brother is also a physician, and also of high standing, and he says the same thing. •

So I take phosphates or phosphites whichever it is, and tonics, and journeys, and air, and exercise, and am absolutely
forbidden to “work” until I am well again.

Personally, I disagree with their ideas.

Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good.

In her short story, Charlotte Perkins Gilman holds forth a revolutionary theme for the time period. The protagonist of the story is kept in a room with sickly yellow wall-paper as a means of “curing” her emotional and mental difficulties. Her husband, brother, and others are committed to keeping her idle. She is even separated from her baby. Rather than allow the narrator any agency over her daily life, they disregard her words and requests for the fact that she is a woman and considered incompetent.

Gilman conveys a theme of rebellion and feminism to the reader as the narrator begins to embrace the “trapped” woman she has become. Therefore, this allows the reader to perceive the narrator as an empowered figure in many ways, as opposed to one that is oppressed or incompetent.

Example 2: Harlem (Langston Hughes)

What happens to a dream deferred?

      Does it dry up
      like a raisin in the sun?
      Or fester like a sore—
      And then run?
      Does it stink like rotten meat?
      Or crust and sugar over—
      like a syrupy sweet?

      Maybe it just sags
      like a heavy load.

      Or does it explode?

Hughes’s well-known poem explores the universality of hope and dreams among humans and the devastating legacy of oppression in deferring such hope and dreams. Hughes structures the poem in the form of questions and responses addressing what happens to a dream deferred. This calls on the reader to consider their own dreams as well those of others, which underscores the theme that dreams, and the hope associated with them, is universal–regardless of race, faith, etc.

Tied to this theme is the deferment of dreams, reflecting the devastating consequences of racism and oppression on the hopes of those who are persecuted. Therefore, the underlying theme of the poem that Hughes conveys to the reader is that, though dreams and hopes are universal, the dreams and hopes of certain members of society are put off and postponed due to the oppression of their race.

Example 3: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (James Joyce)

I will tell you what I will do and what I will not do. I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it calls itself my home, my fatherland, or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defense the only arms I allow myself to use — silence, exile, and cunning.

Joyce incorporates several themes in his novel. However, as this passage indicates, the central theme of this literary work is the tension between individual artistic expression the demands of society for conformity. The novel’s main character, Stephen Dedalus, faces conflicting loyalties on one side to his family, church, and country, and on the other side to his life as an artist and dedication to artistic expression.

Through the experiences and conflicts facing the novel’s protagonist, Joyce is able to convey his exploration of the theme of the artist’s role in society. This includes freedom of individual expression versus the constraints of societal conventions. As a result, this theme is imparted to the reader who is able to interpret and analyze aspects of the novel’s central meaning. By the end of Joyce’s novel, the theme culminates in Stephen Dedalus’s decision to isolate himself from family, church, and country, to pursue his art. Therefore, the reader’s inference of the novel’s theme impacts their perception and understanding of the story’s resolution as well as the broader concept of the artist’s role in society.