What Is a Theme? Definition & 20+ Examples

In the vast and intricate realm of storytelling, themes weave together threads of emotion, perspective, and life experience to create a rich, unforgettable narrative. It provides a deeper meaning to the story or art and offers insights into various aspects of human experiences, such as love, death, betrayal, and friendship.

In this captivating exploration of themes, we will embark on a journey to unravel the essence of this literary element, elucidate its purpose, and examine examples that have stood the test of time.

So, settle in and prepare to embark on a literary adventure!

Definition of Theme

A theme is an underlying message, idea, or concept that runs throughout a piece of literature, art, or performance. It is the central idea or subject that the work explores and tries to convey to the audience.

Themes are often universal, dealing with topics that resonate with people from different backgrounds and experiences.

Themes can be found in all types of literature, including novels, short stories, poetry, and plays. They help readers and viewers connect with the work on a deeper level, enabling them to reflect on the message being expressed and how it relates to their own lives.

Identifying a theme is not always straightforward, as it may be implied rather than explicitly stated. However, paying close attention to elements such as character interactions, plot development, and symbolism can provide valuable clues to the theme.

Theme vs. Motif vs. Symbol

Understanding the differences between theme, motif, and symbol is essential for the analysis of literature. While these terms may seem similar, they play distinct roles in storytelling and carry unique meanings.

Theme refers to the central idea or message that pervades a story. It is a universal concept that the author wants to convey, such as love, overcoming adversity, or the human condition. Themes are intangible and cannot be directly pointed to within the text; instead, they emerge through characters, dialogue, and events in the story.

In contrast, a motif is a recurring element, image, or concept that contributes to the development of a theme. Motifs are tangible and can take various forms, such as objects, symbols, or phrases. They appear repeatedly throughout the narrative, enhancing the reader’s understanding of the theme by making connections between different parts of the story.

Lastly, a symbol is an object, character, or event that represents something more than its literal meaning. Symbols can stand for abstract ideas, emotions, or concepts, and they often contribute to the development of themes by representing them in a tangible way.

However, not all symbols are motifs; a symbol becomes a motif when it recurs throughout a narrative.

ThemeA central idea or message in a story.
MotifA recurring element that contributes to the development of a theme.
SymbolAn object or event that represents something beyond its literal meaning.

Importance of Theme in Storytelling

A well-crafted theme can significantly impact storytelling by providing a unifying idea that resonates with readers.

Reader Connection

One of the primary purposes of a theme is to connect with readers on an emotional level. By addressing universal human experiences, themes create a shared understanding that transcends individual perspectives. This fosters a sense of empathy and encourages readers to reflect on their own lives and experiences.

Themes also serve to create relatability within a story. By incorporating familiar elements or principles, authors establish an emotional connection with the audience that increases their overall engagement and enjoyment of the story.

Social Commentaries

Using themes in storytelling can also function as a tool for social commentaries. A carefully chosen theme can expose societal issues, provoke discussion, and inspire change. By weaving social commentaries into their stories, authors can bring awareness to critical issues and reflect on the human condition.

For example, themes of inequality, prejudice, and discrimination address important social topics and can be used to challenge readers’ understanding of these issues, opening the door to potential change.

Critical Thinking

Themes also promote critical thinking skills in readers by encouraging them to think beyond the surface level of the plot. A strong theme invites readers to examine the text more closely, analyze character motivations, and consider alternative perspectives.

Furthermore, exploring themes allows readers to develop their analytical skills by connecting and comparing different elements within the story. This deepens their understanding of the text and enhances their overall reading experience.

Purpose of Themes

They Provide a Unifying Element to A Piece of Writing

The purpose of themes in literature is manifold. At the core, themes provide a unifying element to a piece of writing, allowing the author to weave together different aspects of the narrative, setting, characters, and plot into a cohesive whole.

They help readers perceive and understand the deeper meanings and messages that a work of art is trying to convey.

They Can Provoke Thought and Introspection

Themes can provoke thought and introspection, driving readers to question their own experiences, attitudes, and beliefs. They make a story more immersive and relatable by transcending mere storylines and characters, connecting them to universal human experiences and emotions.

They Offer a Framework for Analyzing and Comparing Different Works of Literature

By identifying common themes in diverse texts, readers can gain insights into the author’s perspectives and values, as well as the cultural and historical context in which the work was created.

For writers, employing themes can serve as a guiding principle for the narrative arc and character development, allowing them to create more profound and meaningful stories. They can also use themes to improve the structural and emotional power of their work, creating memorable and impactful compositions.

Functions of Themes

They Establish a Sense of Unity and Coherence in A Story

Themes are key in weaving a captivating narrative:

  • Connecting elements: Themes act as threads linking characters, plotlines, settings, and motifs, giving stories purpose and direction.
  • Unified experience: Focusing on specific themes provides a unified audience experience. The characters’ actions and motivations, the conflicts they face, and the resolutions they reach can all be related to the central theme(s), making the story more meaningful and impactful.
  • Deeper engagement: Thematic coherence allows audiences to delve into the story on a deeper level, recognizing and relating to the underlying messages and ideas.

By using themes to create unity and coherence, stories come alive and leave a lasting impression on the audience.

They Enable Authors to Convey Deeper Meanings and Messages Within Their Work

Themes enable authors to convey deeper meanings and messages within their work, allowing them to explore complex ideas, emotions, and issues that go beyond the surface-level narrative.

By using elements like plot, character growth, and symbols, authors create stories that encourage us to think, discuss, and reflect on our own experiences and values. 

Whether it’s exploring redemption in human nature or power dynamics in society, themes make reading a thought-provoking journey.

They Facilitate the Development of Memorable and Relatable Characters

Using themes in character development allows authors to create relatable characters that deeply connect with audiences. When characters grapple with emotions and issues related to the story’s central themes, they become more complex and engaging. This allows readers to better grasp their motivations, actions, and growth, making them unforgettable. 

Moreover, by creating characters that reflect the story’s themes, authors can powerfully convey deeper meanings and messages. For example, a character facing identity struggles in a self-discovery themed story helps explore self-identity, personal growth, and the challenges of finding one’s true self.

They Act as A Vehicle for The Exploration and Discussion of Universal Human Experiences

By focusing on themes that are relevant to a wide range of audiences, creators can delve into the complexities of the human condition, addressing emotions, issues, and questions that resonate with people across different cultures and time periods.

Themes often touch on essential aspects of human life, such as:

  • love
  • loss
  • identity
  • power
  • justice
  • the passage of time

By exploring these themes, authors, and artists can create works that provoke thought, reflection, and empathy, encouraging audiences to consider their own experiences, values, and perspectives with the themes being presented.

Moreover, themes provide a common ground for discussion and interpretation. 

Types of Themes

There are numerous types of themes found in literature, each highlighting distinct human experiences, emotions, and values.


The theme of beauty often emphasizes the importance of inner beauty and the appreciation of aesthetics. Works with this theme usually encourage readers to recognize and cherish the beauty in various forms, such as nature, art, and human relationships.


Family themes explore the dynamics, relationships, and values within a familial structure. They often revolve around love, conflict, and the challenges faced by family members.


Loyalty is a prevalent theme in literature, highlighting the importance of commitment and dedication to a cause, person, or belief. The consequences of loyalty, both positive and negative, are often central to stories exploring this theme.


Betrayal often serves as a contrasting theme to loyalty, exploring the repercussions of disloyalty and deception. It can demonstrate the impact of broken trust on individuals and relationships.


The concept of justice involves fairness, equality, and the pursuit of moral rightness. Literature often portrays justice as a central theme, addressing questions of morality, ethics, and individual versus societal values.


Power examines the effects of authority and control on individuals and societies. This theme can explore the struggle for power, the abuse of power, and the balance between power and responsibility.

Good vs. Evil

Good versus evil is a classic theme in literature, often illustrating a moral conflict between characters or forces. This theme encourages readers to reflect on the nature of good and evil and the choices that define one’s character.

Life and Death

Life and death themes explore the cyclical nature of existence, highlighting the inevitable passages of life, the fear of mortality, and the significance of living a meaningful life.


Coming-of-age themes center around the growth and development of a character as they transition from youth to adulthood. These stories typically involve experiences that lead to self-discovery, personal growth, and the formation of identity.

Change vs. Tradition

Change versus tradition explores the tension between progress and preservation, often addressing the challenges of adapting to new circumstances while honoring cultural or personal legacies.

Examples of Themes in Literature

Classic Works

Classic works of literature often contain themes that continue to resonate with readers today.

Here are some examples of timeless themes found in well-known classic works:

  • “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee (Social Injustice and Moral Growth)
  • “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen (Love, Social Class, and Individuality)
  • “1984” by George Orwell (Dystopia, Individualism, and the Dangers of Totalitarianism)
  • “The Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger (Adolescence, Identity, and Alienation)

Contemporary Works

Contemporary literature also delves into a variety of themes that speak to modern readers.

Here are a few examples:

  • “The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins (Power, Resistance, and Survival)
  • “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas (Racial Identity, Prejudice, and Activism)
  • “Life of Pi” by Yann Martel (Spirituality, Storytelling, and the Nature of Truth)
  • “A Man Called Ove” by Fredrik Backman (Aging, Loss, and the Power of Community)

Examples of Themes in Everyday Life


Themes in music can be represented through lyrics, melody, or tone. For example, the theme of love is commonly explored in numerous songs across different genres. Some songs celebrate the joys of love, while others deal with heartbreak and loss.

Examples include:

  • “Symphony No. 9” by Beethoven (Human Unity and Freedom)
  • “All You Need Is Love” by The Beatles (Love and Relationships)
  • “Born This Way” by Lady Gaga (Empowerment and Self-Acceptance)
  • “You’ve Got a Friend” by Carole King (Friendship and Loyalty)
  • “Time” by Pink Floyd (Mortality and the Passage of Time)

Visual Arts

Visual arts often incorporate various themes that evoke emotions, provoke thought, and inspire viewers. These themes can be found across different mediums and styles, from paintings and sculptures to photography and street art.

For example:

  • “The Starry Night” by Vincent van Gogh (Nature and Human Connection)
  • “Guernica” by Picasso (War and its devastating impact on humanity)
  • “Water Lilies” series by Claude Monet (Nature and Landscapes)
  • “The Kiss” by Gustav Klimt (Love and Relationships)
  • “The Creation of Adam” by Michelangelo (Spirituality and the Divine)

Cinema, Film, and Television

Cinema, film, and television often explore various themes that resonate with audiences, evoking emotions and prompting thought and discussion. These themes can be found across different genres and styles, from drama and comedy to science fiction and documentary.

Here are some everyday examples:

  • “The Notebook” (2004) (Love and Relationships)
  • “Indiana Jones” franchise (1981-2008) (Heroism and Adventure)
  • “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004) (Identity and Self-Discovery)
  • “Modern Family” (2009-2020) (Coming of Age and Family Dynamics)

Impact of Themes on Literary Works

Themes in literary works play a vital role in the overall understanding and appreciation of the piece. They serve as a unifying element that ties together various components such as plot, character, and dialogue. Themes can help to convey the author’s message or shed light on the human experience.

When exploring the impact of themes in literature, it’s essential to recognize the connection between the reader and the text. As various themes resonate with different audiences, a single literary work can be interpreted in numerous ways depending on the reader’s perspective and cultural background.

Consider the following potential impacts themes can have on both the work of literature and the reader:

  • Emotional Engagement: Themes evoke emotions in the reader, ranging from happiness to sadness, anger to empathy. These emotions help the reader connect with the story and its characters on a deeper level.
  • Intellectual Stimulation: A well-developed theme can challenge a reader’s intellect, prompting them to contemplate societal issues, philosophical questions, or even personal values and beliefs.
  • Moral Development: Some themes present a moral dilemma, allowing readers to reflect on their own principles and ethical decision-making processes.
  • Cultural Awareness: Themes may expose readers to different cultures, traditions, or historical contexts, broadening their understanding of the world and fostering empathy for diverse perspectives.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the difference between a theme and a subject?

A theme and a subject are related concepts in literature, arts, and media, but they serve different purposes and convey different aspects of work.

A subject refers to the primary topic, idea, or focus of a work. It is the superficial or literal aspect of a narrative or piece of art that is often more directly recognizable to the audience. The subject is what the work is essentially “about” on a surface level.

For example, the subject of a painting could be a landscape, a portrait, or a still life, while the subject of a novel could be a specific historical event, a family drama, or a love story.

On the other hand, a theme is an underlying message, meaning, or central idea that runs through a work. It is an abstract concept that goes beyond the subject matter, exploring deeper issues, emotions, or aspects of the human experience.

Themes are often universal, resonating with audiences across different cultures and time periods. They give a work depth and significance, allowing the audience to connect with the material on a more emotional and intellectual level.

For example, the theme of a novel might be redemption, power, identity, or the passage of time.

How can I identify the theme of a story?

To identify a theme, begin by examining the main characters, their actions, and the conflicts they experience. Pay attention to symbols, recurring images, or patterns within the story.

Consider the story’s resolution and what lessons can be inferred from the outcome. Lastly, look for any overarching message, idea, or moral that connects these elements throughout the narrative.

How can authors develop themes in their works?

Authors develop themes by using literary techniques such as symbolism, foreshadowing, motifs, and characterization. These techniques help convey the theme by adding layers of meaning and nuance to the story’s events and characters.

By skillfully weaving the theme into the fabric of the narrative, authors can create a compelling and thought-provoking work of literature.

Can a single work have multiple themes?

Yes, a single work can have multiple themes. Many works of literature, arts, and media explore several themes simultaneously, often intertwining and complementing each other to create a more complex and nuanced narrative.

The presence of multiple themes can add depth and richness to a work, allowing for a broader exploration of human experiences, emotions, and issues.

For example, a novel could explore themes of love and loss, identity, and the passage of time, all within the same narrative.

Similarly, a film might address themes of power, corruption, and morality, along with themes of family and loyalty. The integration of multiple themes can enhance the overall impact and significance of a work, offering multiple layers of meaning for audiences to engage with and interpret.

Can themes change over time or across different cultures?

Yes, themes can change over time or across different cultures. While some themes are universal and timeless, resonating with audiences across different cultures and time periods, others may be more specific to a certain time period or cultural context.

The interpretation and significance of themes can also evolve over time as societal values, perspectives, and historical contexts change.

For example, a theme that was relevant and powerful in a particular historical period might become less significant or take on new meanings in a contemporary context.

Additionally, cultural differences can lead to varying interpretations of the same theme, as people from diverse backgrounds might have different perspectives on certain issues, emotions, or experiences.

This dynamic nature of themes allows for a continuous exploration and reinterpretation of works of literature, arts, and media, reflecting the evolving nature of human experiences and cultural contexts.


A theme is a central idea, message, or moral that prevails throughout a literary work. It helps to give meaning and depth to a story, allowing readers to connect on a deeper level. Themes can be expressed in various ways, and they can be both simple and complex.

Exploring examples of themes in literature, such as love, courage, and perseverance, highlights how these concepts bring a narrative to life. They not only unify the plot but also provide insights into the human experience.

When analyzing a piece of literature, one should recognize the theme(s) present and reflect upon their significance. Understanding a story’s theme can ultimately lead to a more profound appreciation of the work and its relevance to our own lives.

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Aerielle Ezra is an enthusiastic student of architecture who has a wide range of interests, including psychology, lifestyle, and relationships. Apart from her studies, she also likes to engage in athletic activities, particularly volleyball. When she is not playing, she spends her free time watching her preferred sitcoms or reading her favorite books, which include fiction, science fiction, fantasy, and horror.