The Definition of Theme in Literature

Discovering the Definition of Theme in Literature
Discovering the Definition of Theme in Literature | Source

One of the Challenges to Understanding Literature

Based on conversations I have had with English teachers from elementary school all the way up through graduate professors in college, it is fair to say that finding theme in literature is a big problem for many people. Young children are often completely lost, middle-level students sometimes find it but can’t clearly articulate it, and those in later high school or college can both find it and articulate it but often lack depth in their ability to clearly explain and expand on the ideas. In each case there is something missing.

This article explains how to identify, understand and explore theme in literature in very direct and concrete terms. Using this approach, the abstractions of theme will no longer be a mystery and you will be see the deeper thematic meanings of the stories you read with clarity.

Background on the Elements of Plot

Understanding theme in literature begins with the basics of story structure. By way of review, here is a brief summary of the fundamental elements of plot that make up the basic framework of most stories:

The Classic Plot Map
The Classic Plot Map | Source
Literary Elements (In literary order)
Exposition (Introduction)
The "exposition" of a story introduces the characters, the setting and the central conflict of the narrative.
Rising Action
After the initial introduction, events follow that intensify or complicate the central conflict, causing it to evolve.
Eventually the intensity of the central conflict will rise to the point where it fundamentally changes, creating a new understanding, situation or direction for the main characters.
Falling Action
Once this change takes place, events will follow that come as a direct result of the shift that took place in the climax.
Resolution (Conclusion)
Finally, the author will end the story, leaving the reader with an impression about the various characters' thoughts and feelings and their responses to what happened in the story.

Understanding the basic plot structure of stories helps readers to recognize the central importance of conflict. All stories are built around problems. In a movie, a TV show or a piece of classic literature, you will always find a character, or a group of characters, who are struggling with a particular problem. The plot of the story is constructed around this.

Themes of any given story grow out of its plot and conflict. Theme, however, is abstract, whereas plot and conflict are much more concrete. Identifying the theme in any story is most easily done by taking that which is concrete and then building a bridge that carries us into the deeper and more abstract ideas of the story. Often those who struggle with the concept of theme don’t know how to build the bridge.

Here’s how it works:

An illustration by L. Leslie Brooke from a version of "The Three Little Pigs" published in 1905.
An illustration by L. Leslie Brooke from a version of "The Three Little Pigs" published in 1905. | Source

A Quick Plot Summary of "The Three Little Pigs"

Three little pigs go out on their own to build their own houses. One of them is not very interested in working hard, so he throws together a house of straw and spends the rest of his time playing.

Another, being a little worried about the safety of living in a straw house, takes a little bit more time to work and puts together a house of wood. It doesn’t take too long, and he still has quite a bit of time for fun.

The third pig thinks the other two are foolish for not taking this seriously and spends a great deal of time and energy building a brick house, leaving little time for fun and play.

With the houses built, the pigs are relaxing when a wolf shows up. He’s hungry, so he goes to the house of straw in pursuit of some bacon. He easily knocks it down, but the pig gets away, running to his brother with the wood house. The wolf follows him there, quickly knocking down the wood house as well. The pigs run to the third brother’s house, who welcomes them in.

The wolf attacks the third house but is unable to knock it down. Thinking himself clever, he climbs on the roof and lets himself down the chimney. In modern children’s versions of the story, the wolf burns himself and runs away. In older, more classic, versions of the story, the wolf falls to a fiery death.

Conflict in Literature: A Quick Review

The most concrete way to approach building this bridge is to use an example. We will use the classic story of “The Three Little Pigs” (please see the side note to the right if you are unfamiliar with the story). To get at the theme, the first thing you must be able to do is summarize the story. Once the reader is able to summarize the basic outline of the story, she will have a basic understanding of the concrete elements that make up the story, the most basic level of reading comprehension.

Next we need to identify the conflict within the story. In “The Three Little Pigs,” the conflict is quite simple: the wolf is hungry and the pigs do not want to be eaten. Of course, the conflict and events in a story like “The Three Little Pigs” are quite simplistic. Even very complex stories, however, follow the same basic rules. When looking for the themes in Tolstoy's War and Peace, you still need to know what happens in the book and be familiar with the central problem that drives the story, for it is in these things that we find theme.

Thinking About the Human Experience

Now comes the part that requires some thinking: building a bridge from the concrete to the abstract. Once the process is understood, it’s not really all that complicated. The bridge is contained within this question, which will directly lead to the definition of theme:

What does the story have to say about the universal human experience?

This question, once understood, is very easy to apply to any story. To understand it, however, you must understand the idea of the universal human experience.

The universal human experience is all of those experiences that are now, and have always been, commonly shared by everyone who is a human being throughout history. There are many things that fall into this category, but the easiest way to really understand it is to look a list of examples:

Aspects of the Universal Human Experience

Social Structures

This list covers many themes, but it is a mere fraction of all the things that would qualify as part of the universal human experience. They do, however, provide a very simple way to look at the concrete events of a story and try to identify ways in which what happens in the story is a reflection of these universal experiences.

The Lotte World Theme Park in Seoul, South Korea.  This is NOT the theme you're looking for.
The Lotte World Theme Park in Seoul, South Korea. This is NOT the theme you're looking for. | Source

This is NOT the theme you're looking for...

Students in the earliest stages of learning about theme will often think of "theme parks" and "What's the 'theme' of your birthday party?" While this is an accurate meaning for the word "theme," it is not the same as a literary theme.

Learning to Ask the Right Questions About Theme

At this point, posing a simple question will lead directly to theme. Once again, let’s take the story of “The Three Little Pigs.”

What does the story of “The Three Little Pigs” have to say about power?

Looking at what happens to the three little pigs, one could say that there is power in the wisdom of hard work. The little pig that worked the hardest saved them all from being eaten. Had they all made houses of straw, none of them would have survived the story.

One could also suggest that a theme of “The Three Little Pigs” could be that it’s important to know the limits of your own power. The wolf demonstrates physical power throughout the story. His power met its limit, however, when he came to the brick house. Had he recognized this and walked away, he would have survived the story.

What does the story of “The Three Little Pigs” have to say about brotherhood?

The story of “The Three Little Pigs” suggests that part of brotherhood is a willingness to share. The third little pig could certainly have closed his doors to his brothers, leaving them to be eaten by the wolf. After all, they were the ones who had been lazy. He did not. He welcomed them in, earning their thanks and gratitude.

Looking at this story from a variety of perspectives, one could come up with all kinds of themes related to the events of the story. Given that such a simple story can create so many different kinds of themes, whole novels have themes everywhere. One can find themes hidden within subplots and minute actions of minor characters. While these observations make wonderful things to talk about in book clubs, we still need a way to identify the big ideas—the central themes—of a given story.

Another illustration by L. Leslie Brooke.  "Hard work pays off."
Another illustration by L. Leslie Brooke. "Hard work pays off." | Source

Finding Theme in a Story

How does one distinguish between minor themes and major themes? You must turn your attention to the central conflict of the story. The details of the events surrounding this central conflict contain the major themes of the story. Once you find one that seems to relate to almost everything in the story, you have located a central theme of the story.

In “The Three Little Pigs” we defined the central conflict of the story as having to do with the wolf and his hunger for the pigs. The turning point of that conflict happens when the wolf finally fails in his attempt to get at the pigs. Given that he fails because of the construction of the brick house, a central theme of this story is: hard work pays off—or—bad things happen to those who are lazy. To put it in slightly more universal terms, those who meet the struggles of life with hard work will be successful where those who meet the struggles of life with as little effort as possible will not.

While finding the central theme of a story is not terribly difficult once these concepts are understood, it cannot be done without applying some thought to the story. Analyzing the events of the story and its central problem from different angles of the universal human experience can take some time, particularly when dealing with larger and more complex stories. If you do it in this way, however, the central themes of the piece will not hide themselves for long.

A Survey of Experience

In school, how often did you encounter teachers who felt there was only one "right way" to interpret literature?

  • All the time
  • Occasionally
  • Very rarely
  • Never
See results without voting

A Word to the Wise

Do not get confused into thinking that stories have one theme. All stories, even simple ones, have multiple themes. Some people, especially teachers, may sometimes suggest that a given story has one theme. All this means is that that is the one theme they consider to be the most important. There will be other themes there, but, when dealing with someone who thinks this way, I suggest keeping them to yourself until you get out of their class or move on to having a discussion with someone else. Bringing them up will simply lower your grade or get you into trouble.

Quick Summary of the Definition of Theme in Literature

To close, here is a summary of how to find and analyze literary theme:

  1. Begin by understanding the concrete events of the story.
  2. Be sure you understand the central conflict that drives the story.
  3. Look at the events of the story in light of the universal human experience.
  4. What do these events have to say about what it means to be a human being.
  5. Clearly state the answers to the questions that you have pursued. These statements will be literary themes.

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Comments 29 comments

goosegreen profile image

goosegreen 4 years ago

Very nice hub. Well constructed

wayseeker profile image

wayseeker 4 years ago from Colorado Author


Thanks. I appreciate your visit.


sandrabusby profile image

sandrabusby 4 years ago from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, USA

This is a fantastic hub on a difficult subject. I wish I had know this 40 years ago when I was teaching high school English. You must be a super teacher. Thanks.

wayseeker profile image

wayseeker 4 years ago from Colorado Author


I so appreciate you taking the time to read. I've been pleased with the results of this approach in my classroom, thought there are many who continue to struggle with the concept. In any case, I sincerely appreciate your enthusiasm for the piece. I hope that it proves valuable.


Jason Sanchez profile image

Jason Sanchez 4 years ago from White Plains, New York

I honestly learned something! Thank you!

wayseeker profile image

wayseeker 4 years ago from Colorado Author

There couldn't be a better comment than that. Thanks for reading!


Marcy Goodfleisch profile image

Marcy Goodfleisch 4 years ago from Planet Earth

I like the way you used a common children's story to illustrate plot and conflict! That brings the information into a context anyone can understand. I will be sharing this with my class - we are analyzing literature, and I think you covered many points they will learn from! Voted up and up!

wayseeker profile image

wayseeker 4 years ago from Colorado Author


Your positive support with everything that everyone is doing in our Hubscribers group is absolutely inspirational. I imagine that your classes must be a joy given how meeting with you in person must amplify the amiable nature of your character.

It's just a joy to work with you, and your comments are sincerely appreciated. I hope that the work serves your students well. Thanks for such an open willingness to share it!


summerberrie 4 years ago

wayseeker, this is such a nice resource for teachers. Asking the right type of questions is so important especially about the themes. I wish I had your chart on Universal Human Experience when I was still teaching.

wayseeker profile image

wayseeker 4 years ago from Colorado Author


I have found that deep understanding is almost always about questions and not about answers. Even these must come from the students, not from me. If it can find a way to be useful for someone, then it will have done its work.

Sincere thanks for stopping in!


alliemacb profile image

alliemacb 4 years ago from Scotland

Great hub, wayseeker. I teach undergrads and some of them still don't entirely grasp the concept of themes in literature. The example I tend to use in analysing a story is Red Riding Hood, so amused to see you've chosen The Three Little Pigs. Awesome stuff.

wayseeker profile image

wayseeker 4 years ago from Colorado Author


Refreshing to hear that this is relevant stuff for undergrads as well. Fairy Tales, as seemingly simplistic as they are, have stuck around throughout history for a reason. I use them all the time for instructional references like this because most everyone knows the stories.

Thanks for taking the time to read!


donnah75 profile image

donnah75 4 years ago from Upstate New York

I am a high school English teacher, and I think this is a brilliant discussion of theme. I so often get one word answers if I ask a student what the central theme is. Getting my students to dig deeper and discuss theme is always a goal. Voted up and awesome. Sharing.

SPK5367 profile image

SPK5367 4 years ago from Pennsylvania, USA

Excellent! As a former English teacher and current homeschool teacher, I understand the concept of theme, but I love how succinctly you expressed it. I will definitely be using your ideas in my work with homeschool students! Thank you!

wayseeker profile image

wayseeker 4 years ago from Colorado Author


Thank you so much for your thoughts and positive feedback. It is reassuring to me to have someone else in the teaching field find value in this. Sometimes we get caught up in what we are doing in the classroom and have difficulty seeing our own work with clarity. This lesson seems to help simplify an abstract concept for the kids, making it easier for them to discuss it with comfort and purpose.

I sincerely appreciate the sharing and the time you've taken to read. I hope that you find it useful!


wayseeker profile image

wayseeker 4 years ago from Colorado Author


I had not thought how this might also be helpful on the home school front, but, of course, that makes perfect sense. I so appreciate the positive feedback and hope that your students find the idea helpful. It has certainly done some good things for my students.



chef-de-jour profile image

chef-de-jour 3 years ago from Wakefield, West Yorkshire,UK

What a very useful article and beautifully presented - even the pigs have their rightful place in this hub!

Finding the important themes in a story is crucial for learning and full understanding as so much extra material can be worked on and researched into. You have set out how to do this in a straightforward manner - helpful for me at this present time as I'm 'building' a hub on King Lear! When it'll be finished I do not know!

Votes for this.

wayseeker profile image

wayseeker 3 years ago from Colorado Author


Sincere thanks for this wonderful comment. I'm very pleased that you find it useful, and I hope that it serves your King Lear Hub well. King Lear remains among my favorites of Shakespeare's work. Good luck with your writing!


Rae Saylor profile image

Rae Saylor 2 years ago from Australia

Great wee discussion on the said topic -- love it! Thanks for writing this hub, pal. Voted up :)

wayseeker profile image

wayseeker 2 years ago from Colorado Author


My thanks for taking the time to read it. I hope you find it useful!


Ericajean profile image

Ericajean 2 years ago

A particularly great, hub Wayseeker! I remember I had to think hard about central theme when I was in high school. As I read books, I find that subplots and minor characters give off more themes as well, and your hub explored that issue. Thanks!

In high school and college, teachers tried beating their themes into my head and wanted me to write an exposition explaining that theme. Of course, their themes were not wrong- not totally, but there can be more than one central theme in a work.

The Three Little Pigs example was perfect, by the way.

wayseeker profile image

wayseeker 2 years ago from Colorado Author


I'm so pleased that this resonated with your experience. I've had more than one person talk to me about how English teachers through their history spoke of the "THE" theme in a given poem or story and either beat their students over the head with it, or simply implied that it was the only "correct" way to interpret the piece. While there are certainly some themes that are more justifiable within a given piece than others, to suggest that there is only one is elitist and shortsighted.

Fortunately, I had a few great English teachers in high school who emphasized the importance of being able to defend your opinions far more heavily than whether or not they were "correct." This gave me the freedom to explore, and that's where the joy of reading comes from anyway. It also validates people, which—ultimately—actually matter far more than the stories themselves.

Happy Reading!


Fred Arnold profile image

Fred Arnold 2 years ago from Clearwater, FL

Excellently laid out Hub!

I remember I had a literary professor who really had it in his head that there is only one right answer. When it came to literature I took the stance that a story can mean anything as long as you can explain it logically.

I remember I wrote a paper in that exact class to prove my point. We had read "Waiting for Godot" and I wrote on a very abstract topic which landed me a B-. What was interesting was that I used similar abstract concepts in another literary class the next semester and I was getting A's.

All in all, I hate the ideas of absolute subjectivism.

wayseeker profile image

wayseeker 2 years ago from Colorado Author


Thanks for this thoughtful comment! There are certainly better interpretations than others, and it is very possible to be flat out wrong if you are arguing for something that runs directly contrary to the "facts" of the literature you are studying. As a teacher, however, I feel it is vitally important to encourage adventurous thinking in my students. The degree to which my personal interpretation as the teacher is "correct" is of very little importance. The kids need to learn to think on their own, not learn to simply accept what I say.

Happy Writing!


Fred Arnold profile image

Fred Arnold 2 years ago from Clearwater, FL

I agree that there are interpretations that are closer to a correct correlation than not. But unless you are directly citing a quote by the author to a meaning of a piece of literature then any interpretation we can come up with is nothing but conjecture.

It is important for students to be able to follow the flow of logical thinking, which is not black and white. When it comes to arguing one's point, arguments are based off of logically sound statements, and someone who defines an argument with logically sound statements is indeed correct.

Unless there is something given to the person to state otherwise. IE: A quote from the author that specifically states their meaning.

I also do agree someone can be flat out wrong, but that also means that the persons argument includes fallacy, unsound facts, or illogical statements.

- Fred

wayseeker profile image

wayseeker 2 years ago from Colorado Author

The idea that a "wrong" response includes unsound facts and illogical statements is excellent. That's precisely what I try to teach--albeit very imperfectly.

On an interesting side note, I actually think that even the author's interpretation of their own work is not definitive. Good literature is very complex. Good writers certainly have certain ideas in mind as they write, but much of what they create can hold themes that are running within the story about which the author is completely unconscious. I feel this is one of the many wonderful things about how literature works!

My best to you, Fred.


Fred Arnold profile image

Fred Arnold 2 years ago from Clearwater, FL

Thank you! And I'm glad that is what you strive for in your teaching! Through school I've sat through a lot of non motivated teachers and professors and it is not a pleasant experience!

And I agree. A story should not be absolute. Sometimes I think on what the author might say to us about our thinking? I can see Faulkner up there laughing and thinking, "Man I wrote like that just to confuse people... But hey that actually works!" Haha.

Best regards,


Homeplace Series profile image

Homeplace Series 2 years ago from Hollister, MO

This is the best explanation of this topic I've seen. Excellent hub. Thanks, so much, for sharing!! ;-)

wayseeker profile image

wayseeker 2 years ago from Colorado Author

Homeplace Series,

Thank you so very much for your generous comment here. I just hope that it helps to demystify what is so often viewed as a complex topic. This is not to suggest that theme cannot be very complex, but the basics are really pretty straight forward.



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