What Is Theme In Literature?

No narrative or a story is complete without the key elements of stories: setting, characters, plot, conflict, resolution, and a central theme. Let’s discuss what is theme in literature?

What Is The Theme?

Theme is an important element of any story because it is the main underlying message the author wants to convey through his/her story. Authors don’t write stories for entertainment purposes only, but they also aim to teach readers life-long lessons through their stories. But the authors seldom state the theme directly in their stories. Through the characters, the story’s plot, and conflict, the authors want the readers to infer the theme. They want us to learn from the characters’ mistakes, their actions, their treatment of others, and how they act in different situations that can teach us some life-long lessons.

Remember, the theme is not the main idea or the central idea of a story. Simply, the main idea answers the question, ‘What the story is all about?” and the theme simply answers, ‘What messages does the author want us to learn?”

In other words, the main idea is the compact version of the story’s summary. To find the main idea, you only have to look at the key events of the story, and ask yourself these questions:

  • What happened in the story?
  • What is the shortest version of the story? 
  • Can I summarize the summary?

On the other hand, to find the theme of a story, you need to think about these questions:

  • Based on the story’s plot, what lessons can the characters learn?”
  • What can I learn from the story?
  • If I were to advise the character, what would it be? Based on that advice what might I learn?
  • Did the characters make any mistake? Did they learn anything from their mistakes? 
  • Can I write down the lesson in a sentence that might read like a life-long lesson?

Quick Tip: Try writing down the key questions I shared with you on sticky notes and write down the answers as you read the story. This will help you come up with the main themes of the story.

Examples Of A Theme:

Whether you are reading Moving Day Surprise by Stolberg to your 2nd grader or are reading Holes by Louis Sachar to your 6th grader, the work is the same; learning the theme (the life-long lesson) from the stories.

Some common examples of themes are:

  • Bravery
  • Hard work
  • Friendship
  • Love
  • Importance of family
  • Compassion
  • Sympathy
  • Empathy
  • Perseverance 
  • Loyalty
  • Revenge
  • Corruption
  • Lies
  • Hate
  • Envy

And many more…Let’s explore some famous books and their themes:

The Catcher in the Rye

by J.D Salinger tells the story of a character, Holden who is averse to growing up. He struggles against growing up and detests the adult world. The main theme of this story is innocence.

Lord of the Rings: ONE VOLUME

by J.R.R Tolkien shows a man murdering his friend for his lust for power, which further leads to many problems for the character.


by J.K Rowling we learn about the power of love as the protagonist becomes even more powerful than Voldemort, the antagonist.

To Kill A Mockingbird

by Harper Lee teaches us the existence of evil in the world and also the power of courage.

Books That Teach Powerful Strategies To Understand Themes In Literature:

The Reading Strategies Book: Your Everything Guide To Developing Skilled Readers

In her number 01 Best Seller book, The Reading Strategies Book, Jennifer Serravallo dedicates an entire chapter to ‘Understanding Themes and Ideas in Fiction Texts’. The strategies empower the teachers and students in developing excellent learning techniques that help readers better understand themes in fiction.

Chart Sense: Common Sense Charts to Teach 3-8 Informational Text and Literature

In her book, Chart Sense, Dr. Rozlyn Linder shares excellent strategies to understand themes and main ideas in fiction and non-fiction texts. The second chapter addresses the second Common Core Reading Standard about determining themes and central ideas, which Dr. Roz has broken down into grade-wise goals for literary and informational text. With the strategies to understanding themes in literary texts, come the simple and useful anchor charts for students to remember the strategy in action.

Fresh Takes on Teaching Literary Elements: How to Teach What Really Matters About Character, Setting, Point of View, and Theme

Dr. Jeffery D. Wilhelm shows how the readers can improve their understanding of literature including character, setting, point of view, and theme by using the innovative strategies given in the book. Chapters 11, 12 & 13 focus on improving students’ thinking about themes in literature, preparing them to understand themes through inquiry, and teaching it with the given texts and units. The chapters allow you to approach the element of theme in great detail through great introductory examples. No doubt, the lessons, texts, and classroom activities provided in the book are worth trying.

I hope this post was helpful to most of you. Do let me know in the comments the books you like the most for their themes and if you used any strategies that helped you better understand themes in literature.

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