Theme - Examples and Definition of Theme as a literary device (2023)

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 tragedy,Romeo 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.

(Video) What is Theme

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’sRomeo 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.

(Video) Theme (Literary Devices)

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.

(Video) "What is a Theme in Literature?": A Literary Guide for English Students and Teachers

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?

(Video) Themes in Literature

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.

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(Video) Literary Devices (structure, Tone and Theme)


What is an example of theme in literary devices? ›

The theme of a story is, by its nature, an abstract concept or idea. For example, think love, revenge, war, and deceit. These are all examples of literary theme.

What is theme in literature Definition & Examples? ›

A theme is the inferred stance taken on the central topic or message of a story. Think love for example: love may be the topic, but learning to love yourself may be the theme. Themes are used to communicate important ideas and messages about issues that face the characters and the setting of a narrative.

What are 5 themes examples? ›

Some common themes in literature are "love," "war," "revenge," "betrayal," "patriotism," "grace," "isolation," "motherhood," "forgiveness," "wartime loss," "treachery," "rich versus poor," "appearance versus reality," and "help from other-worldly powers."

What is the definition of theme in literature? ›

A literary theme is the main idea or underlying meaning a writer explores in a novel, short story, or other literary work.

What is a good example of a theme? ›

Examples of Theme Topics: Love, Justice/Injustice, Family, Struggle, the American Dream, Wealth, Inhumanity Examples of Themes: People risk their own identity to find love; Power corrupts humanity; Without empathy, there can be no justice. 2.

What is theme example sentence? ›

The album focuses on themes of love and loss. Adventures are popular themes in children's books. The growing deficit was a dominant theme in the election. The party had a Hawaiian luau theme.

What are three examples of a theme? ›

What are some common themes?
  • Beauty.
  • Good vs. evil.
  • Coming-of-age.
  • Loyalty.
  • Betrayal.
  • Life and Death.
  • Justice.
  • Family.
Jun 29, 2022

Which is the best definition for theme? ›

(θiːm ) noun. an idea or topic expanded in a discourse, discussion, etc. (in literature, music, art, etc) a unifying idea, image, or motif, repeated or developed throughout a work.

What is the best definition of theme *? ›

/ (θiːm) / noun. an idea or topic expanded in a discourse, discussion, etc. (in literature, music, art, etc) a unifying idea, image, or motif, repeated or developed throughout a work.

What are the 12 common themes? ›

  • Power.
  • Family.
  • Identity.
  • Loneliness.
  • Friendship.
  • Free will vs. Fate.
  • Hope.
  • Love.
Jun 30, 2021

How do you write a theme example? ›

When you write a theme statement, start by listing some of the topics of the text; for example, alienation, prejudice, ambition, freedom, love, loyalty, passion, etc.). The topic can also be a longer phrase, such as the relationship between love and hate. Can the meaning of a work be love?

What is a simple definition of theme? ›

1. : the main subject that is being discussed or described in a piece of writing, a movie, etc. The quest for power is the underlying theme of the film. A constant theme in his novels is religion.

How do I explain a theme? ›

A theme is an important idea that is woven throughout a story. It's not the plot or the summary, but something a little deeper. A theme links a big idea about our world with the action of a text.

How do you identify theme in literature? ›

the idea the writer wishes to convey about the subject—the writer's view of the world or a revelation about human nature. To identify the theme, be sure that you've first identified the story's plot, the way the story uses characterization, and the primary conflict in the story.

What is a theme * Your answer? ›

A theme in a piece of writing, a discussion, or a work of art is an important idea or subject in it.

What words describe the theme? ›

Synonyms of theme
  • topic.
  • motif.
  • matter.
  • question.
  • subject.
  • content.
  • idea.
  • essence.

Which of the following is an example of a theme? ›

Answer: Some common themes in literature are "love," "war," "revenge," "betrayal," "patriotism," "grace," "isolation," "motherhood," "forgiveness," "wartime loss," "treachery," "rich versus poor," "appearance versus reality," and "help from other-worldly powers."

Which choice is the most accurate definition of a theme? ›

Which response most accurately states the definition of theme? A story's theme is the central message or universal truth that the author conveys through the characters and plot.

What are the 10 themes? ›

The ten themes are:
  • 1 CULTURE.

What are the 5 elements of theme? ›

This song covers the five main elements of a story: setting, plot, characters, conflict and theme. Whether you're studying a short story, a novel, an epic poem, a play or a film, if you don't find these five elements, you're not looking hard enough.

What are key themes? ›

Definition. A key theme is a perception or observation that recurs throughout the scorebook, and. across processes and results, reflecting major strengths, opportunities, or vulnerabilities.

How do you write a theme for a story? ›

How to write a theme statement
  1. Read the work thoroughly. Before writing your theme statement, it's important that you read and fully understand the material. ...
  2. Identify conflicts and central ideas. ...
  3. Consider the author's perspective. ...
  4. State the theme. ...
  5. Edit for clarification. ...
  6. Keep it general. ...
  7. Avoid cliches.
Jun 15, 2021

Is theme a literary device? ›

Consider the different ways love is portrayed in Pride and Prejudice, all the while leading to the one idea of marrying for love. Themes are the framework of stories – a literary device that shouldn't be forgotten. They add meaning to your work, draw your reader in and pull everything together as a whole.

How do you find the theme of a text answer? ›

First, you need to read the entire text. Second, you summarize the plot by asking yourself a series of relevant questions. Third, you use the answers from those questions to see if you can spot a pattern, or theme.

How do you identify a theme? ›

the idea the writer wishes to convey about the subject—the writer's view of the world or a revelation about human nature. To identify the theme, be sure that you've first identified the story's plot, the way the story uses characterization, and the primary conflict in the story.

What is the best definition of theme? ›

noun. a subject of discourse, discussion, meditation, or composition; topic: The need for world peace was the theme of the meeting. a unifying or dominant idea, motif, etc., as in a work of art.

What is a theme answer? ›

The term theme can be defined as the underlying meaning of a story. It is the message the writer is trying to convey through the story. Often the theme of a story is a broad message about life. The theme of a story is important because a story's theme is part of the reason why the author wrote the story.

What is an example of theme in a story? ›

A book's central theme can be anything the author chooses to focus on. Certainly, courage, death, friendship, revenge, and love are five themes that abound. Let's take a closer look at these common themes, as well as some interesting examples from popular works of fiction.


1. Literary Devices: Identifying Theme in Poetry
(Herbel Santiago)
2. Literary Elements: Theme
(Emily Clutter)
3. Fun Animation Showing How to Identify a Theme within a Story
(McGraw Hill PreK-12)
4. Literary Devices: Theme // Poetry // English
(Herbel Santiago)
5. Literary Element: Theme
(Mark Alegre)
6. Understanding theme | Reading | Khan Academy
(Khan Academy)
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