A rainbow-colored unicorn might be easier to find than a theme in a work of literature. At least these fabulously mythical creatures would certainly stand out, if they existed. A theme, on the other hand, might be more elusive. If I could personify a theme—give it a voice—a conversation in the woods with it would go something like this:
Me: Excuse me, are you a theme?
Theme: Why, yes. How did you know?
Me: I didn’t really, I was just looking at that tree and something moved—and you were the same color as the tree and blended in—but then I looked closer and realized you weren’t exactly invisible, but you didn’t quite stand out either.
Theme: Well, I get that a lot. What can I do for you?
Me: What kind of theme are you? I’m thinking I can’t go wrong with “love,” so I’m guessing “love.”
Theme: That’s kind of vague now, isn’t it? If I’m “love,” what kind of love am I?
(Theme now scampers wildly about the forest.)
Me: Oh! We’re playing charades! I love charades! Okay, so you’re running about, but I can’t catch you. How about unattainable love?
Theme: Getting warmer. What happens when you try to catch me?
(Theme runs harder and faster, but I trip on a tree root in the forest and fall.)
Theme: There! What just happened, right there?
Me: I fell and I’m kind of not happy about it. I don’t want anything to do with you now.
Theme: So, if I’m unattainable love, what happens when you chase me?
Me: Nothing good, that’s for sure.
Theme: Bingo! In this case, if I’m “love” and “love” is unattainable, but you try to catch me anyway, nothing good can come from it.
In the conversation above, my first response to Theme’s question is vague. Many writers try to convince readers that the theme of a novel or poem is “love” because it’s an emotion universally felt by lots of people, but it’s also vague. “Love” is hard to picture sometimes because it takes many forms. So, a theme might have something to do with a universal feeling or emotion many humans share, but a theme isn’t always just that feeling or emotion. In a work of literature, the universally shared emotion or feeling can also be attached to a specific lesson learned and a result that follows.
So how does a writer find a theme?
Step 1: Read with an open mind. The first thing I do when I read is to just enjoy it with an open mind—highlighting passages I like—that “speak” to me in some way. I may not love everything I read, but I can always find something useful or meaningful. When I do, I make a note of it and read it again out loud to myself to hear the effect of the words written on the page. Then, I’ll ask myself, “Why do I like this?” Sometimes it’s because I like the word choices the author uses or the melody the words make when I speak them out loud. I’m not even looking for the theme at this point. I’m just looking for things that I like. In fact, in the conversation above, I was looking at a tree when Theme emerged. Sometimes that’s how discoveries happen. Writers are looking at something else before the theme finally appears—maybe several hours or days later. So, if you are looking for a theme, let yourself be distracted.
Step 2: Get distracted by “shiny things.” In a poem, a short story, a novel, or a movie, I look for things that repeat—just for fun. By “things” I mean concrete objects—objects I can see, taste, smell, touch, or hear—not abstract “things” like love or power or oppression. I also like to make a game of it, which goes something like this: I ask myself, “How many times will Character X spot a crow from his window in this chapter?” The crow, in the window, might mean something, but I’m not even worried about the meaning at this point, because this crow keeps popping up several times and I find that interesting. So, I’ll start making a list of how many times the crow appears and what happens or is going on in the plot of the story when it comes into view.
Step 3: Pause to think about the connections between the “shiny things” and the emotions felt as a reader. I’ll never forget the first time I read The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. That snake! And the Prince’s reaction! The Prince just nonchalantly talks to the snake, knowing he is dangerous, but he’s also just having a matter-of-fact conversation. This poisonous snake could certainly kill the Prince and the Prince knows it, but accepts it. When I closed the book, I couldn’t stop thinking about this scene. That snake, in this scene, more so than the stars or the rose, for some reason, is my “shiny thing” from which I can’t turn. So, at that moment, I asked myself, “What am I feeling?” I felt some comfort, knowing the Prince knows what he’s getting himself into, but I also felt sadness, when I realized that something inevitable in this story does come: Death.
Step 4: Link the emotion felt to a broader, universally human experience, then add the lesson learned. From Saint-Exupéry’s story, I felt sadness when I witnessed the snake and the Prince talking about death. I know that death and life are universal, human experiences—just like love, fear, oppression, revenge, power, conflict, struggle, survival, identity, isolation—and many other themes. However, in this scene, in this work, there is a very specific lesson I’m beginning to grasp. The conversation is so calm and “normal,” that even though the snake does represent death, he also represents a way of life for the Prince. In the Prince’s case, death is a very necessary part of his life and vice versa.
Step 5: Check to make sure the theme can be applied to other parts of the story. If I decided, from my one scene in Saint-Expuréy’s story, that the theme is: Death is not the enemy of life, but a very necessary part of it, I would have to apply this idea to the narrator who tells the story as well. So, I’d ask myself, “How does the narrator learn this lesson?” To find the answer, I might turn to more “shiny things,” like the stars he gazes at each night.
Finding a theme then, is a process, so if you’re having trouble spotting one right away, don’t despair. Sometimes it seems like a theme is just supposed to pop out of the pages of a book or poem, but it doesn’t always happen that way. Spending time reading and reacting to the actions and word choices in a work of literature is not wasted time at all. It can lead to great discoveries hiding in plain view.
If you need help identifying themes in a poem or work of literature—or help coming up with a thesis statement for a literary analysis paper—I’m happy to lend a hand. Contact me: firstname.lastname@example.org