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Literary Elements: Theme. is a central idea which unifies the whole literary work. It is an expression of the work’s possible meaning. A story can have more than one theme. Different readers may find one theme more intriguing or more important than another. Theme is like Thesis.

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literary elements theme

Literary Elements:Theme

is a central idea which unifies the whole literary work.

It is an expression of the work’s possible meaning.

A story can have more than one theme.

Different readers may find one theme more intriguing or more important than another.

theme is like thesis
Theme is like Thesis

In a non-fiction work, the thesis expresses the central idea. A writer offers a position statement -- a thesis -- expressing his or her attitude on a problem or question and then “proves” or supports that position. (“Thesis”).

In a work of fiction, the theme is somewhat like a thesis, although there may be multiple themes.

looking for theme
Looking for Theme

Look for some “truth or insight” which the writer reveals (Kennedy and Gioia 176).

Express that insight in your own complete sentence and make that sentence general enough to be universal, though not so general that your comment could apply to any story.

Avoid boiling all down to “the moral of the story.” Although some writers do have a didactic (a teaching) purpose, many writers are not necessarily trying to teach moral lessons. Instead, they are often simply commenting on life or sharing a personal/philosophical observation.

still looking for theme
still looking for theme. . . .

The other literary elements in a short story, such as plot, point of view, setting, and character all contribute to the whole, to the communication of a story’s theme (or themes): Remember, a story can have more than one theme. You and I don’t have to present the same interpretation of a story. What fun would that be?

By analyzing the other elements, one can gradually come up with an idea about the larger meaning of a story, about the theme.

confusing aspects of theme
Confusing Aspects of “Theme”

The adjective “thematic” is used to label topics which relate to theme. If a theme seems to focus on nature, for example, one might find the word “nature” on a “thematic” list.

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Themeis usually presented indirectly through the elements or strategies of fiction. A "thematic statement" is something the reader creates after the story, like a thesis statement in an essay. Themes are interpretive in nature; although an author may introduce a thematic element into a work, the response of the reader also contributes.

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Any given work will have multiple meanings. For example, Margaret Atwood's "Happy Endings" is a treatise about how one should savor the development of one's life, and move beyond its structure to focus on its meaning, or a treatise on how to write, or both--all depending upon one's reading of the work.

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In working with theme, be aware of the following. Be careful to distinguish subjects from themes, a necessary skill much like the need to distinguish between topics and theses. A theme tells how the subject is developed within the work

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Finally,

A theme is applicable outside the written work, not only with the world created by the narrative; it is a generalization. A work may contain several themes, or none that may be determined. The author's claim is not definitive and neither is the reader's: there may be many potential themes in a work. Finally, some themes may be descriptive rather than prescriptive, exposing problems rather than offering solutions.

related web sites
Related Web Sites

Dodd, David. “Motif and Theme Index to The Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics.” < http://arts.ucsc.edu/GDead/AGDL/motif.html > Dec. 22, 1999.

This site offers an ongoing project to annotate and place Grateful Dead lyrics into thematic categories. It is an excellent example of a topic list.

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Kennedy, X. J. and Dana Gioia, eds. Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. New York: Longman, 1999. 175-177.Peterson, D.K. “Theme.” Wayne State University. September 3, 2002. http://www.english.wayne.edu/~peterson/Fiction/elements.html#theme

“Theme.” A Handbook to Literature. Holman, C. Hugh and William Harmon, eds. New York: MacMillan, 1986.

“Thesis.” A Handbook to Literature. Holman, C. Hugh and William Harmon, eds. New York: MacMillan, 1986.

Works Cited