How to Find a Theme

How to identify Theme

5 Things - Flocabulary

Theme in Literature

Identifying Theme in Literature


Additional Practice:

Practice Games:

Theme, I’ve always thought, is one of the most important concepts we (English and reading  teachers, I mean) teach and also one that almost no one can really define.  This should probably suggest that we don’t understand it very well either.  And this is cause for concern.

We all talk about theme… but can we define it? Explain it and how it is different from a main idea for example? 

Can we go a step further and clearly help a student understand why their first effort at describing a theme is not in fact a theme and then tell them what they need to add to make them into legitimate themes.  For most of us, I’m pretty sure, the answer is no. So we go on teaching theme without being able to really define it and just hoping perhaps that our students infer the general idea from enough mucking about. And perhaps as a result we graduate students who become teachers with hazy ideas of how to define theme.

Include me in the ranks of said teachers. Always had a difficult time describing how and why I think Theme is different about Main Idea and how they get conflated even if I believe both to be true.

Ms. Larson’s Definition:  “Theme is the message conveyed by a text that applies to multiple other texts.” In other words it’s not just the important idea a text is about. For that idea to be a theme it has to be relevant to the discussion of multiple other texts.  What I love about this definition is that it’s testable for students.  If a student said the theme of Macbeth was “Macbeth’s ambition” you could say, “Well are there other books about Macbeth? Have you read book after book about Macbeth’s ambition?  No? Well then it sounds like that can’t be a theme.”

A theme cannot be a single word.  “Justice” is not a theme.  A theme could be about justice—how it is hard to come by when people dehumanize each other, for example, or even “man’s inhumanity to man,” which I remember learning was an all-time most important theme in high school.    A theme also should reflect on a conflict or an argument and usually both.  This is because all literature has a problem and/or conflict of some sort and its resolution is why we write books.  The two plausible themes, “justice  is hard to come by when people dehumanize each other,” and  “man’s inhumanity to man,” both pass this test.  There’s a problem implicit in a shortage of justice or in the presence of inhumanity.  “Goodness overcomes” could also be a theme… it implies the difficulty in goodness’ transcendence.    But on the “must contain an argument” from “man’s inhumanity to man” fails… what about it?  Man’s inhumanity to man endures? Wears many faces? Dehumanizes the inhuman?” For me a theme has to say something about the idea.

So… where does that leave us?

How about here as a version 1.0:

Definition: Theme is the message conveyed by a text that applies to multiple other texts. Sub-definition:  It cannot be described in a single word and it implies a conflict or an argument about the core idea and usually both.

Again, what I like best here is that the definition implies a series of tests you can pretty easily apply and say: ‘yes that qualifies’ or ‘no it doesn’t too.’

Now on to readers for improvement and discussion!

document Theme Lesson 1 PowerPoint   --  Differentiating the Story's Topic, Main Idea, and Theme
document Theme Lesson 2 PowerPoint   --  Finding a Subject of a Story
document Theme Lesson 3 PowerPoint   --  Rewrite Character's Traits and Story Events to find the Subject and Theme
document Theme Lesson 4 PowerPoint   --  Universal Theme Checklist
document Theme Lesson 5 PowerPoint   --  Determining Theme Using TEST Acronym
document Theme Lesson 6 PowerPoint   --  Create a Story Using a Theme and Assessment