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What is Theme in Literature?

Updated on April 25, 2013
Love is one of the most common themes in literature.
Love is one of the most common themes in literature. | Source
Theme can be found in every piece of literature, no matter how old or how new.
Theme can be found in every piece of literature, no matter how old or how new. | Source

Definition of Theme in Literature

Theme is arguably the most easily understood literary analysis term out there. Theme in literature is defined as the main idea or message within a text. Whether it is a novel, a poem, or even an essay, understanding just what is theme in literature is essential to literary analysis.

Theme in literature is not a summary of the text, it is a concise statement about the message the author is trying to convey.When looking at a text and trying to come up with what its theme is, ask yourself, what is the author trying to tell his/her audience? Their main message that they are trying to convey is the theme. For essays, the thesis or claim of the paper is the theme.

Below, you will find some examples of themes in literature of all kinds to help you understand the definition of theme in literature. The lists go from common and universal themes, to themes in American literature and themes in British literature.

Common Themes in Literature

The three examples I have listed below are some very common themes in literature. When discussing theme in literature, remember to be more specific than just the one word examples listed below. For example, rather than just saying "the theme of this book is friendship," come up with a theme more specific to the novel, such as "the theme of this book is about loneliness as a destructive force."

These are very broad examples of common themes in literature. If you are stuck trying to decide what is the theme in the book you are reading, these can be a good way to get started with coming up with a more specific theme for whatever piece of literature you are reading.

  1. Love: No matter what kind of ending it has, love and friendship is a theme in literature for many classic novels and popular reads for today. Romance has its very own genre, after all. As long as the main story is about love and/or friendship, that means the overall theme can be summed up into simply saying "the theme of the text is love."
  2. Revenge: On the other side of that coin, we have the revenge theme in literature. Just like a love theme, the revenge ones can turn out with either a happy ending or a sad one but have an overall message surrounding revenge.
  3. Fate: For many heroes and heroines, their main story centers around the idea that they were fated to be in whatever situation they were thrown into. Lovers may even be destined to be together. Whatever the case, fate is one more theme in literature that is very common.

Universal Themes in Literature

Universal themes in literature are very similar to the common themes in literature because they can be used in any different genre within literature and are found in many pieces of literature out there. While the above three can also be considered universal themes, here are some additional examples of themes in literature. These examples as just slightly more specific to better help you understand what is theme in literature:

  1. Gender Roles: What are the roles of men and women in the novel and how do they compare to how they are in society? Themes in literature concerning gender roles can be a very fascinating because of controversy or politics surrounding the author's message.
  2. Tradition and Change: Yet another theme in literature that can be somewhat controversial is the theme of change or tradition. An author may convey that change is a bad thing and that traditions must be kept, or they may go in the completely opposite direction.
  3. Aging and the Destruction of Beauty: Aging can bring on whole new insights into the world as a character grows within a story. When their beauty is lost as well, this theme in literature can be made even more specific to the text and bring the theme into a whole other realm of thought.

Themes in American Literature

While many themes in literature can be found in almost all genres within literature, there are some that can be attributed mainly to certain genres. Here are a few examples of themes in American literature to help you understand what is theme in literature:

  1. The American Dream
  2. The Meaning of Freedom
  3. Individuality
  4. Starting Over
  5. Liberty and Authority

Themes in British Literature

Once again, themes in literature can cross boundaries into almost any genre, so do not be surprised if you find that some themes in American literature also work as themes in British literature. Here are even more examples of themes in literature for British literature:

  1. Nature Versus Civilization
  2. Religious Issues
  3. Differences in Social Class
  4. Individual Freedom
  5. Corrupt Person(s) in Power

© 2013 Lisa


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    • Lipnancy profile image

      Nancy Yager 

      6 years ago from Hamburg, New York

      Theme is important especially when it is not as we had expected.


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