ENH 110:  Theme
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ENH 110: Theme. Definition. Theme: it is the controlling idea or central insight of a piece of fiction. It is the unifying generalization about life stated or implied by the story. It is often synonymous with a story’s purpose. Theme exists only (1) when an author has seriously

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Theme: it is the controlling idea or central insight

of a piece of fiction. It is the unifying generalization

about life stated or implied by the story. It is often

synonymous with a story’s purpose.

Theme exists only (1) when an author has seriously

attempted to record life accurately or to reveal

some truth about it or (2) when an author has deliberately

introduced as a unifying element some concept or theory

of life that the story illuminates.

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“Daddy, the man next door kisses his wife every morning

before going to work. Why don’t you do that?”

“Are you kidding? I don’t even know the woman.”

“Daughter, your young man stays until a very late hour.

Hasn’t your mother said anything to you about

this habit of his?”

“Yes, father. Mother says men haven’t changed a bit.

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Ways of discovering theme

1. Explore the central conflict and its outcome

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Ways of discovering theme

2. Ask in what way the protagonist has changed in the course of the story and what, if anything, he or she has learned before its end.

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Ways of discovering theme

3. Consider the title of the story as providing an important clue.

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Ways of discovering theme

4. Consider if there are any significant symbols which may point to a central truth.

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Theme Statements

for Seven Previously

Read Stories

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Possible Theme for “Barn Burning”

based on an analysis of the primary

conflicts: protagonist vs self, protagonist vs


For a young, uneducated, dilemma-stricken man who

is trapped in a life governed by an abusive and intransigent

patriarch--one who tyrannically espouses a view that blood

ties (kinship) must supplant even truth and justice--the path

to maturation and self-actualization may begin with his

freeing himself from the chains of parental dictates in an

effort to cease inimical behavior.

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“A Rose for Emily”

If the spirit of youthful exuberance

is unable to find release due to the

forces of oppressiveness, its energy may

later manifest itself in a need to be secluded

and in a steadily evolving eccentric pertinacity

that at once may evoke pity and horror--both

shrouded by the mystery inherent in reclusivity.

based on: central conflicts: protagonist vs father and self;

protagonist vs. town, and change in the protagonist

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Theme for “The Chrysanthemums”

For some strong, energetic women who want to

break free of traditional barriers, to realize their

spiritual and erotic cravings, to release their

nuturing qualities and feminine talents in a wider

world, the forces of a male dominated society may

too powerfully stunt their capacities for growth

and expression, thus perpetuating the frustration

of their present condition.

based on: central conflict, title, symbolism

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Theme for “Interpreter of Maladies”

Some men that experience midlife tribulations--whose domestic life is physically comfortable but spiritually unfulfilling and lacking in romance--may construct a fantasy life around another woman to bolster their attachment to idealistic romance and youthful dreams, not expecting a sudden truth to shatter their world and effect the continuation of their melacholy solitude.

based on: central conflict, title, change in protagonist

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Barriers tend to break down when people

effectively communicate with one another.

Even those not physically blind sometimes

need to be taught “to see.”

Stereotyping often renders sighted people

“blind” to the common humanity we all share.

based on: central conflict, title, symbolism, change in protagonist

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“The Storm

A woman who is confined to a marriage that is

dispassionate may be sparked to sexual desire

by mysterious forces which help to effect in her

a sense of liberation from repression.

based on: central conflict, title, symbolism

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Possible Theme for “Greasy Lake”

based on an analysis of the primary

conflict: narrator vs. himself

The various experiences young adults have on their

road to maturity may lead them to unleash violent passions,

confront their own mortality, and recognize the need for

an exploration of self as well as a recognition of human

limitations; these lessons, perhaps due to careless behavior

and a distraction of their ideals, often, if the people are not

obdurate, provide them the strength to move from

innocence to potentiality.

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Chinua Achebe

Born 1930


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Those who embrace modernity--progressive

international standards, rigid rationality-- to the exclusion

of customs deeply rooted in emotion and intuition and

who do not make an attempt at tolerance and sensitivity

for the latter’s beliefs when in confrontation, may effect

a terrible cost upon themselves and others.

Focused on central conflict:

modernity vs. traditional

African values; idealistic

obstinacy vs.deeply rooted

local custom; rationalism

vs. emotion and intuition

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“The Parable of the Podigal Son”

Genuine virtue requires the power to forgive.


True goodness requires love and compassion,

not just outward virtue.


There is more joy in finding what was lost than

there would be in merely keeping it.

Focused on central conflicts, protagonist

vs. self, sons vs Father; on title, on symbolic value of


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Kurt Vonnegut



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"[...] dystopian fiction looks at totalitarian

dictatorship as its prototype, a society

that puts its whole population

continuously on trial, a society that

finds its essence in concentration camps,

that is, in disenfranchising and enslaving

entire classes of its own citizens, a society

that, by glorifying and justifying violence by

law, preys upon itself. [...] dystopian society

is what we would today call dysfunctional;

it reveals the lack of the very qualities

that traditionally justify or set the reason

for existence of a community." (Erika Gottlieb's

Dystopian Fiction East and West:

Universe of Terror and Trial)

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“Harrison Bergeron”

Those societies which are intent on

embracing extreme legal egalitarianism

due to a distrust of intellectuality may perversely

condemn and penalize all individual freedoms, all

striving for excellence, including beauty,

physical grace, and imagination.

Focused on central conflict: protagonist vs society;

on title; on representativeness of characters

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Margaret Atwood

Born 1939 Biography

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Metafiction is a type of fiction which self-consciously

addresses the devices of fiction.

It is the term given to fictional writing which

self-consciously and systematically draws attention

to its status as an artifact in order to pose questions

about the relationship between fiction and reality. It usually

involves irony and is self-reflective. It can be compared to

presentational theatre in a sense; presentational theatre

does not let the audience forget they are viewing a play,

and metafiction does not let the readers forget they

are reading a work of fiction.

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Possible theme for “Happy Endings”

Spoofing fictional techniques, some authors may

effect significant points: that many narrative endings

are unconvincing and inauthentic and that mortality

is the central fact of human existence, implying that

possibilities are more pleasant than actualities,

“beginnings are always more fun.” These abstract

themes can be made accesible in a comic fashion.