Theme - Examples and Definition of Theme as a literary device (2022)

Definition of Theme

As a literary device, theme refers to the central, deeper meaning of a written work. Writers typically will convey the theme of their work, and allow the reader to perceive and interpret it, rather than overtly or directly state the theme. As readers infer, reflect, and analyze a literary theme, they develop a greater understanding of the work itself and can apply this understanding beyond the literary work as a means of grasping a better sense of the world. Theme is often what creates a memorable and significant experience of a literary work for the reader.

Themes are often subject to the reader’s perception and interpretation. This means that readers may find primary and/or secondary themes in a work of literature that the author didn’t intend to convey. Therefore, theme allows for literature to remain meaningful, “living” works that can be revisited and analyzed in perpetuity by many readers at once or by a single reader across time.

For example, William Shakespeare’s well-known tragedy,Romeo and Juliet, has been performed and read countless times and by countless people since its publication in 1597:

Come, gentle night; come, loving, black-browed night;
Give me my Romeo; and, when I shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night

Even those who have not directly heard or read the lines of this play are familiar with its theme of the power of romantic love and its potentially devastating effects.

Common Examples of Literary Themes

Many works of literature share common themes and central ideas. As a literary device, theme allows the author to present and reveal all aspects of human nature and the human condition. This enhances the enjoyment and significance of a literary work for readers by encouraging thought, interpretation, and analysis. Discovery and analysis of theme is also one of the primary reasons that readers return to “classic” literary works that are centuries old. There is no end or expiration to the significance and impact theme can have on readers of literature.

(Video) Theme (Literary Devices)

Here are some common examples of literary themes:

  • Love
  • Redemption
  • Mortality
  • Human versus nature
  • Good versus evil
  • Power
  • Isolation
  • Coming of age
  • Revenge
  • Courage and perseverance
  • Quest
  • Individual versus society
  • Faith versus doubt
  • Chaos versus order
  • Gender roles

Famous Examples of Disney Movies and Their Themes

Of course, theme is an essential literary device in terms of written works. However, nearly all works of art feature theme as an underlying meaning to be understood and interpreted by the audience. Here are some famous examples of Disney movies and their related themes:

  • Peter Pan: out-growing the world of childhood
  • Mulan: girls/women can do battle as honorably as boys/men
  • The Sword in the Stone: education and courage are stronger than brawn and force
  • Cinderella: kindness and inner beauty are rewarded
  • Pinocchio: dishonesty leads to trouble
  • Aladdin: the best course of action is to be who you are
  • The Rescuers: it doesn’t take great size to make a difference
  • Snow White: jealousy can lead to cruelty
  • The Fox and the Hound: the importance of friendship
  • The Little Mermaid: love often requires choices and sacrifices

Difference Between Theme and Subject Matter

Sometimes it can be difficult to determine the difference between the theme and subject matter of a literary work. They are both closely related to each other; however, the subject matter is the topic that is overtly addressed and presented by the writer whereas the theme is the meaning or underlying message that is imparted through the writing.

The subject matter of a written work is what the text is about and is, typically, clearly indicated by the writer. The theme of a literary work reflects why it was written and what the author hopes to convey on a deeper level to the reader without direct statements. A reader may infer and a writer may imply a theme within a literary work. However, the subject matter of a literary work is not inferred by the reader or implied by the writer; it is overtly stated and understood.

For example, in Shakespeare’sRomeo and Juliet, the subject matter is two young people from feuding families who fall deeply in love with each other. One theme of this play, and Romeo and Juliet certainly features several themes, is the power of romantic love and the futility of others to stop it. The subject matter is almost exclusively related to the foundational elements of the story, such as what happens and to which characters. The theme, in contrast, is the lingering meaning and thought left to the reader as a means of reaching a greater understanding of the play itself and the larger concept of love.

Examples of Theme in Literature

As a literary device, the purpose of theme is the main idea or underlying meaning that is explored by a writer in a work of literature. Writers can utilize a combination of elements in order to convey a story’s theme, including setting, plot, characters, dialogue, and more. For certain works of literature, such as fables, the theme is typically a “moral” or lesson for the reader. However, more complex works of literature tend to have a central theme that is open to interpretation and reflects a basic aspect of society or trait of humanity. Many longer works of literature, such as novels, convey several themes in order to explore the universality of human nature.

(Video) Term # 2|What is Theme?|Definition of Theme|What is meant by Theme in Literature|Best English Notes

Here are some examples of theme in well-known works of literature:

Example 1:The Yellow Wall-Paper(Charlotte Perkins Gilman)

If a physician of high standing, and one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the
matter with one but temporary nervous depression – a slight hysterical tendency – what is one to do?

My brother is also a physician, and also of high standing, and he says the same thing. •

So I take phosphates or phosphites whichever it is, and tonics, and journeys, and air, and exercise, and am absolutely
forbidden to “work” until I am well again.

Personally, I disagree with their ideas.

Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good.

(Video) Theme #Examples # Literary Devices # linguistics terms # terms of literature #figures of speech

In her short story, Charlotte Perkins Gilman holds forth a revolutionary theme for the time period. The protagonist of the story is kept in a room with sickly yellow wall-paper as a means of “curing” her emotional and mental difficulties. Her husband, brother, and others are committed to keeping her idle. She is even separated from her baby. Rather than allow the narrator any agency over her daily life, they disregard her words and requests for the fact that she is a woman and considered incompetent.

Gilman conveys a theme of rebellion and feminism to the reader as the narrator begins to embrace the “trapped” woman she has become. Therefore, this allows the reader to perceive the narrator as an empowered figure in many ways, as opposed to one that is oppressed or incompetent.

Example 2:Harlem(Langston Hughes)

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

(Video) What is Theme ?| Definition of Theme | Theme In Novel and Short Stories For BA 1st CCSU Meerut

Hughes’s well-known poem explores the universality of hope and dreams among humans and the devastating legacy of oppression in deferring such hope and dreams. Hughes structures the poem in the form of questions and responses addressing what happens to a dream deferred. This calls on the reader to consider their own dreams as well those of others, which underscores the theme that dreams, and the hope associated with them, is universal–regardless of race, faith, etc.

Tied to this theme is the deferment of dreams, reflecting the devastating consequences of racism and oppression on the hopes of those who are persecuted. Therefore, the underlying theme of the poem that Hughes conveys to the reader is that, though dreams and hopes are universal, the dreams and hopes of certain members of society are put off and postponed due to the oppression of their race.

Example 3:A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man(James Joyce)

I will tell you what I will do and what I will not do. I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it calls itself my home, my fatherland, or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defense the only arms I allow myself to use — silence, exile, and cunning.

Joyce incorporates several themes in his novel. However, as this passage indicates, the central theme of this literary work is the tension between individual artistic expression the demands of society for conformity. The novel’s main character, Stephen Dedalus, faces conflicting loyalties on one side to his family, church, and country, and on the other side to his life as an artist and dedication to artistic expression.

Through the experiences and conflicts facing the novel’s protagonist, Joyce is able to convey his exploration of the theme of the artist’s role in society. This includes freedom of individual expression versus the constraints of societal conventions. As a result, this theme is imparted to the reader who is able to interpret and analyze aspects of the novel’s central meaning. By the end of Joyce’s novel, the theme culminates in Stephen Dedalus’s decision to isolate himself from family, church, and country, to pursue his art. Therefore, the reader’s inference of the novel’s theme impacts their perception and understanding of the story’s resolution as well as the broader concept of the artist’s role in society.

(Video) Literary Devices: Theme // Poetry // English


Theme - Examples and Definition of Theme as a literary device? ›

The theme of a story is, by its nature, an abstract concept or idea. For example, think love, revenge, war, and deceit. These are all examples of literary theme. The subject of a story, however, is more concrete. The subject of a story is simply the topic on which the author has chosen to write.

What is theme in literature Definition & Examples? ›


A theme is the inferred stance taken on the central topic or message of a story. Think love for example: love may be the topic, but learning to love yourself may be the theme.

What is the literary definition of theme? ›

What Is a Literary Theme? A literary theme is the main idea or underlying meaning a writer explores in a novel, short story, or other literary work. The theme of a story can be conveyed using characters, setting, dialogue, plot, or a combination of all of these elements.

What is an example of a literary theme? ›

Examples. Some common themes in literature are "love," "war," "revenge," "betrayal," "patriotism," "grace," "isolation," "motherhood," "forgiveness," "wartime loss," "treachery," "rich versus poor," "appearance versus reality," and "help from other-worldly powers."

What are some examples of theme? ›

Common Theme Examples
  • Compassion.
  • Courage.
  • Death and dying.
  • Honesty.
  • Loyalty.
  • Perseverance.
  • Importance of family.
  • Benefits of hard work.

What is the best definition of theme? ›

theme. / (θiːm) / noun. an idea or topic expanded in a discourse, discussion, etc. (in literature, music, art, etc) a unifying idea, image, or motif, repeated or developed throughout a work.

What is a simple definition of theme? ›

Definition of theme

1a : a subject or topic of discourse or of artistic representation guilt and punishment is the theme of the story. b : a specific and distinctive quality, characteristic, or concern the campaign has lacked a theme. 2 : a melodic subject of a musical composition or movement.

What is a theme statement example? ›

A thematic statement is a simple yet powerful message an author is trying to convey in their work. For example: Love is the glue that binds the Universe together. There is no such thing as true love.

How do you identify theme in literature? ›

the idea the writer wishes to convey about the subject—the writer's view of the world or a revelation about human nature. To identify the theme, be sure that you've first identified the story's plot, the way the story uses characterization, and the primary conflict in the story.

What is the theme of Romeo and Juliet? ›

Love is naturally the play's dominant and most important theme. The play focuses on romantic love, specifically the intense passion that springs up at first sight between Romeo and Juliet. In Romeo and Juliet, love is a violent, ecstatic, overpowering force that supersedes all other values, loyalties, and emotions.

What are the themes of the story? ›

The theme of a story is what the author is trying to convey — in other words, the central idea of the story. Short stories often have just one theme, whereas novels usually have multiple themes.

Is theme a literary device? ›

As a literary device, theme allows the author to present and reveal all aspects of human nature and the human condition. This enhances the enjoyment and significance of a literary work for readers by encouraging thought, interpretation, and analysis.

What is a theme statement example? ›

A thematic statement is a simple yet powerful message an author is trying to convey in their work. For example: Love is the glue that binds the Universe together. There is no such thing as true love.

How do you identify a theme in literature? ›

Ask these three questions to find your theme.
  1. What is the story about? This is the plot of the story. ...
  2. What is the meaning behind the story? This is usually an abstract result of his actions. ...
  3. What is the lesson? This is a statement about the human condition.
Sep 17, 2013

What is an example of a theme in poetry? ›

First, poems can cover a wide variety of topics: love, nature, identity, and society are just a few examples. Naturally, a writer may have quite a lot to say about these topics, which would lead to the development of a theme. Some examples of themes in poems include: Love can tear people apart.

Why is theme important in literature? ›

Often the theme of a story is a broad message about life. The theme of a story is important because a story's theme is part of the reason why the author wrote the story. The author has a message he wants to share with readers, and he uses his story as a way to get that message across.


1. Literary Terms: Theme
2. What is theme in literature? II Definition of Theme II Elements of Literature II BA BS English
(Study Lovers by Dr. Vipul V. Kapoor)
3. Literary Devices (structure, Tone and Theme)
(New English aspirants)
4. Literary Devices: Identifying Theme in Poetry
(Herbel Santiago)
5. Theme vs Motif
(Kim Finnegan)
6. Literary Elements: Theme
(Emily Clutter)

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