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200 Common Themes in Literature

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Sarah Oakley

themes in literature

Table of Contents

What is the theme of a story, common themes in literature, universal themes in literature, full list of themes in literature, theme examples in popular novels.

The theme of a novel is the main point of the story and what it’s really about. As a writer, it’s important to identify the theme of your story before you write it.

Themes are not unique to each novel because a theme addresses a common feeling or experience your readers can relate to. If you’re aware of what the common themes are, you’ll have a good idea of what your readers are expecting from your novel.

In this article, we’ll explain what a theme is, and we’ll explore common themes in literature.

The theme of a story is the underlying message or central idea the writer is trying to show through the actions of the main characters. A theme is usually something the reader can relate to, such as love, death, and power.

Your story can have more than one theme, as it might have core themes and minor themes that become more apparent later in the story. A romance novel can have the central theme of love, but the protagonist might have to overcome some self-esteem issues, which present the theme of identity.

Themes are great for adding conflict to your story because each theme presents different issues you could use to develop your characters. For example, a novel with the theme of survival will show the main character facing tough decisions about their own will to survive, potentially at the detriment of someone else they care about.

Sometimes a secondary character will represent the theme in the way they are characterized and the actions they take. Their role is to challenge the protagonist to learn what the story is trying to say about the theme. For example, in a novel about the fear of failure, the antagonist might be a rival in a competition who challenges the protagonist to overcome their fear so they can succeed against them.  

It’s important to remember that a theme is not the same as a story’s moral message. A moral is a specific lesson you can teach your readers, whereas a story’s theme is an idea or concept your readers interpret in a way that relates to them.

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Common literary themes are concepts and central ideas that are relatable to most readers. Therefore, it’s a good idea to use a common theme if you want your novel to appeal to a wide range of readers.  

Here’s our list of common themes in literature:

Love : the theme of love appears in novels within many genres, as it can discuss the love of people, pets, objects, and life. Love is a complex concept, so there are still unique takes on this theme being published every day.

Death/Grief : the theme of death can focus on the concept of mortality or how death affects people and how everyone processes grief in their own way.

Power : there are many books in the speculative fiction genres that focus on the theme of power. For example, a fantasy story could center on a ruling family and their internal problems and external pressures, which makes it difficult for them to stay in power. 

Faith : the common theme of faith appears in stories where the events test a character’s resolve or beliefs. The character could be religious or the story could be about a character’s faith in their own ability to succeed.

Beauty : the theme of beauty is good for highlighting places where beauty is mostly overlooked by society, such as inner beauty or hard work that goes unnoticed. Some novels also use the theme of beauty to show how much we take beauty for granted.

Survival : we can see the theme of survival in many genres, such as horror, thriller, and dystopian, where the book is about characters who have to survive life-threatening situations.

Identity : there are so many novels that focus on the common theme of identity because it’s something that matters to a lot of readers. Everyone wants to know who they are and where they fit in the world.

Family : the theme of family is popular because families are ripe with opportunities for conflict. The theme of family affects everyone, whether they have one or not, so it’s a relatable theme to use in your story.

themes in literature list

Universal themes are simply concepts and ideas that almost all cultures and countries can understand and interpret. Therefore, a universal theme is great for books that are published in several languages.

If you want to write a story you can export to readers all over the world, aim to use a universal theme. The common themes mentioned previously are all universal literary themes, but there are several more you could choose for your story.

Here are some more universal literary themes:

Human nature


Coming of age

Not all themes are universal or common, but that shouldn’t put you off from using them. If you believe there is something to be said about a particular theme, your book could be the one to say it.

Your book could become popular if the theme of your book addresses a current issue. For example, a theme of art is not as common as love, but in a time when AI developments are making people talk about how AI affects art, it’s a theme people will probably appreciate.

Here’s a full list of themes you can use in your writing:

Abuse of power

American dream


Change versus tradition

Chaos and order

Circle of life

Climate change


Common sense




Convention and rebellion

Darkness and light





Everlasting love

Forbidden love



Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender rights

Good vs evil










Not giving up


Peer pressure


Personal development








Unconditional love

Unrequited love


Winning and losing

Working class struggles

If you’ve decided on a literary theme but you’re not sure how to present it in your novel, it’s a good idea to check out how other writers have incorporated it into their novels. We’ve found some examples of themes within popular novels that could help you get started.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Great Gatsby is famous for the theme of the American dream, but it also includes themes of gender, race, social class, and identity. We experience the themes of the novel through the eyes of the narrator, Nick Carraway, who gradually loses his optimism for the American dream as the narrative progresses.

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

It’s well known that Shakespeare was a connoisseur of the theme of tragedy in his plays, and Romeo and Juliet certainly features tragedy. However, forbidden love and family are the main themes.

Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White

Charlotte’s Web is a classic children’s book that features the themes of death and mortality. From the beginning of the book, the main characters have to come to terms with their own mortality. Charlotte, the spider, does what she can to prevent the slaughter of Wilbur, the pig.

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

George Orwell’s novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four , focuses on themes of totalitarianism, repression, censorship, and surveillance. The novel is famous for introducing the concept of Big Brother, which has become synonymous with the themes of surveillance and abuse of power.

themes in 1984

A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin

The fantasy novel, A Game of Thrones , is popular for its complex storylines that present themes of family, power, love, and death. The novel has multiple points of view, which give an insight into how each main character experiences the multiple themes of the story.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games is a popular teen novel that focuses on themes of poverty, rebellion, survival, friendship, power, and social class. The novel highlights the horrifying consequences of rebellion, as the teenage competitors have to survive the Hunger Games pageant.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Wolf Hall features themes of power, family, faith, and a sense of duty. It’s a historical novel about the life of Oliver Cromwell and how he became the most powerful minister in King Henry VIII’s council.

As you can see, the literary theme of a novel is one of the most important parts, as it gives the reader an instant understanding of what the story is about. Your readers will connect with your novel if you have a theme that is relatable to them.

Some themes are more popular than others, but some gain popularity based on events that are happening in the world. It’s important to consider how relevant your literary theme is to your readers at the time you intend to publish your book.

We hope this list of common themes in literature will help you with your novel writing.

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When someone asks you “What is this book about?” , there are a few ways you can answer. There’s “ plot ,” which refers to the literal events in the book, and there’s “character,” which refers to the people in the book and the struggles they overcome. Finally, there are themes in literature that correspond with the work’s topic and message. But what is theme in literature?

The theme of a story or poem refers to the deeper meaning of that story or poem. All works of literature contend with certain complex ideas, and theme is how a story or poem approaches these ideas.

There are countless ways to approach the theme of a story or poem, so let’s take a look at some theme examples and a list of themes in literature. We’ll discuss the differences between theme and other devices, like theme vs moral and theme vs topic. Finally, we’ll examine why theme is so essential to any work of literature, including to your own writing.

But first, what is theme? Let’s explore what theme is—and what theme isn’t.

  • Theme Definition

20 Common Themes in Literature

  • Theme Examples

Themes in Literature: A Hierarchy of Ideas

Why themes in literature matter.

  • Should I Decide the Themes of a Story in Advance?

Theme Definition: What is Theme?

Theme describes the central idea(s) that a piece of writing explores. Rather than stating this theme directly, the author will look at theme using the set of literary tools at their disposal. The theme of a story or poem will be explored through elements like characters , plot, settings , conflict, and even word choice and literary devices .

Theme definition: the central idea(s) that a piece of writing explores.

That said, theme is more than just an idea. It is also the work’s specific vantage point on that idea. In other words, a theme is an idea plus an opinion: it is the author’s specific views regarding the central ideas of the work. 

All works of literature have these central ideas and opinions, even if those ideas and opinions aren’t immediate to the reader.

Justice, for example, is a literary theme that shows up in a lot of classical works. To Kill a Mockingbird contends with racial justice, especially at a time when the U.S. justice system was exceedingly stacked against African Americans. How can a nation call itself just when justice is used as a weapon?

By contrast, the play Hamlet is about the son of a recently-executed king. Hamlet seeks justice for his father and vows to kill Claudius—his father’s killer—but routinely encounters the paradox of revenge. Can justice really be found through more bloodshed?

What is theme? An idea + an opinion.

Clearly, these two works contend with justice in unrelated ways. All themes in literature are broad and open-ended, allowing writers to explore their own ideas about these complex topics.

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Let’s look at some common themes in literature. The ideas presented within this list of themes in literature show up in novels, memoirs, poems, and stories throughout history.

Theme Examples in Literature

Let’s take a closer look at how writers approach and execute theme. Themes in literature are conveyed throughout the work, so while you might not have read the books in the following theme examples, we’ve provided plot synopses and other relevant details where necessary. We analyze the following:

  • Power and Corruption in the novel Animal Farm
  • Loneliness in the short story “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”
  • Love in the poem “How Do I Love Thee”

Theme Examples: Power and Corruption in the Novel Animal Farm

At its simplest, the novel Animal Farm by George Orwell is an allegory that represents the rise and moral decline of Communism in Russia. Specifically, the novel uncovers how power corrupts the leaders of populist uprisings, turning philosophical ideals into authoritarian regimes.

Most of the characters in Animal Farm represent key figures during and after the Russian Revolution. On an ailing farm that’s run by the negligent farmer Mr. Jones (Tsar Nicholas II), the livestock are ready to seize control of the land. The livestock’s discontent is ripened by Old Major (Karl Marx/Lenin), who advocates for the overthrow of the ruling elite and the seizure of private land for public benefit.

After Old Major dies, the pigs Napoleon (Joseph Stalin) and Snowball (Leon Trotsky) stage a revolt. Mr. Jones is chased off the land, which parallels the Russian Revolution in 1917. The pigs then instill “Animalism”—a system of government that advocates for the rights of the common animal. At the core of this philosophy is the idea that “all animals are equal”—an ideal that, briefly, every animal upholds.

Initially, the Animalist Revolution brings peace and prosperity to the farm. Every animal is well-fed, learns how to read, and works for the betterment of the community. However, when Snowball starts implementing a plan to build a windmill, Napoleon drives Snowball off of the farm, effectively assuming leadership over the whole farm. (In real life, Stalin forced Trotsky into exile, and Trotsky spent the rest of his life critiquing the Stalin regime until he was assassinated in 1940.)

Napoleon’s leadership quickly devolves into demagoguery, demonstrating the corrupting influence of power and the ways that ideology can breed authoritarianism. Napoleon uses Snowball as a scapegoat for whenever the farm has a setback, while using Squealer (Vyacheslav Molotov) as his private informant and public orator.

Eventually, Napoleon changes the tenets of Animalism, starts walking on two legs, and acquires other traits and characteristics of humans. At the end of the novel, and after several more conflicts , purges, and rule changes, the livestock can no longer tell the difference between the pigs and humans.

Themes in Literature: Power and Corruption in Animal Farm

So, how does Animal Farm explore the theme of “Power and Corruption”? Let’s analyze a few key elements of the novel.

Plot: The novel’s major plot points each relate to power struggles among the livestock. First, the livestock wrest control of the farm from Mr. Jones; then, Napoleon ostracizes Snowball and turns him into a scapegoat. By seizing leadership of the farm for himself, Napoleon grants himself massive power over the land, abusing this power for his own benefit. His leadership brings about purges, rule changes, and the return of inequality among the livestock, while Napoleon himself starts to look more and more like a human—in other words, he resembles the demagoguery of Mr. Jones and the abuse that preceded the Animalist revolution.

Thus, each plot point revolves around power and how power is wielded by corrupt leadership. At its center, the novel warns the reader of unchecked power, and how corrupt leaders will create echo chambers and private militaries in order to preserve that power.

Characters: The novel’s characters reinforce this message of power by resembling real life events. Most of these characters represent real life figures from the Russian Revolution, including the ideologies behind that revolution. By creating an allegory around Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, and the other leading figures of Communist Russia’s rise and fall, the novel reminds us that unchecked power foments disaster in the real world.

Literary Devices: There are a few key literary devices that support the theme of Power and Corruption. First, the novel itself is a “satirical allegory.” “ Satire ” means that the novel is ridiculing the behaviors of certain people—namely Stalin, who instilled far-more-dangerous laws and abuses that created further inequality in Russia/the U.S.S.R. While Lenin and Trotsky had admirable goals for the Russian nation, Stalin is, quite literally, a pig.

Meanwhile, “allegory” means that the story bears symbolic resemblance to real life, often to teach a moral. The characters and events in this story resemble the Russian Revolution and its aftermath, with the purpose of warning the reader about unchecked power.

Finally, an important literary device in Animal Farm is symbolism . When Napoleon (Stalin) begins to resemble a human, the novel suggests that he has become as evil and negligent as Mr. Jones (Tsar Nicholas II). Since the Russian Revolution was a rejection of the Russian monarchy, equating Stalin to the monarchy reinforces the corrupting influence of power, and the need to elect moral individuals to posts of national leadership.

Theme Examples: Loneliness in “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”

Ernest Hemingway’s short story “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” is concerned with the theme of loneliness. You can read this short story here . Content warning for mentions of suicide.

There are very few plot points in Hemingway’s story, so most of the story’s theme is expressed through dialogue and description. In the story, an old man stays up late drinking at a cafe. The old man has no wife—only a niece that stays with him—and he attempted suicide the previous week. Two waiters observe him: a younger waiter wants the old man to leave so they can close the cafe, while an older waiter sympathizes with the old man. None of these characters have names.

The younger waiter kicks out the old man and closes the cafe. The older waiter walks to a different cafe and ruminates on the importance of “a clean, well-lighted place” like the cafe he works at.

Themes in Literature: Loneliness in “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”

Hemingway doesn’t tell us what to think about the old man’s loneliness, but he does provide two opposing viewpoints through the dialogue of the waiters.

The younger waiter has the hallmarks of a happy life: youth, confidence, and a wife to come home to. While he acknowledges that the old man is unhappy, he also admits “I don’t want to look at him,” complaining that the old man has “no regard for those who must work.” The younger waiter “did not wish to be unjust,” he simply wanted to return home.

The older waiter doesn’t have the privilege of turning away: like the old man, he has a house but not a home to return to, and he knows that someone may need the comfort of “a clean and pleasant cafe.”

The older waiter, like Hemingway, empathizes with the plight of the old man. When your place of rest isn’t a home, the world can feel like a prison, so having access to a space that counteracts this feeling is crucial. What kind of a place is that? The older waiter surmises that “the light of course” matters, but the place must be “clean and pleasant” too. Additionally, the place should not have music or be a bar: it must let you preserve the quiet dignity of yourself.

Lastly, the older waiter’s musings about God clue the reader into his shared loneliness with the old man. In a stream of consciousness, the older waiter recites traditional Christian prayers with “nada” in place of “God,” “Father,” “Heaven,” and other symbols of divinity. A bartender describes the waiter as “otro locos mas” (translation: another crazy), and the waiter concludes that his plight must be insomnia.

This belies the irony of loneliness: only the lonely recognize it. The older waiter lacks confidence, youth, and belief in a greater good. He recognizes these traits in the old man, as they both share a need for a clean, well-lighted place long after most people fall asleep. Yet, the younger waiter and the bartender don’t recognize these traits as loneliness, just the ramblings and shortcomings of crazy people.

Does loneliness beget craziness? Perhaps. But to call the waiter and old man crazy would dismiss their feelings and experiences, further deepening their loneliness.

Loneliness is only mentioned once in the story, when the young waiter says “He’s [the old man] lonely. I’m not lonely. I have a wife waiting in bed for me.” Nonetheless, loneliness consumes this short story and its older characters, revealing a plight that, ironically, only the lonely understand.

Theme Examples: Love in the Poem “How Do I Love Thee”

Let’s turn towards brighter themes in literature: namely, love in poetry . Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem “ How Do I Love Thee ” is all about the theme of love.

Themes in Literature: Love in “How Do I Love Thee”

Browning’s poem is a sonnet , which is a 14-line poem that often centers around love and relationships. Sonnets have different requirements depending on their form, but between lines 6-8, they all have a volta —a surprising line that twists and expands the poem’s meaning.

Let’s analyze three things related to the poem’s theme: its word choice, its use of simile and metaphor , and its volta.

Word Choice: Take a look at the words used to describe love. What do those words mean? What are their connotations? Here’s a brief list: “soul,” “ideal grace,” “quiet need,” “sun and candle-light,” “strive for right,” “passion,” “childhood’s faith,” “the breath, smiles, tears, of all my life,” “God,” “love thee better after death.”

These words and phrases all bear positive connotations, and many of them evoke images of warmth, safety, and the hearth. Even phrases that are morose, such as “lost saints” and “death,” are used as contrasts to further highlight the speaker’s wholehearted rejoicing of love. This word choice suggests an endless, benevolent, holistic, all-consuming love.

Simile and Metaphor: Similes and metaphors are comparison statements, and the poem routinely compares love to different objects and ideas. Here’s a list of those comparisons:

The speaker loves thee:

  • To the depths of her soul.
  • By sun and candle light—by day and night.
  • As men strive to do the right thing (freely).
  • As men turn from praise (purely).
  • With the passion of both grief and faith.
  • With the breath, smiles, and tears of her entire life.
  • Now in life, and perhaps even more after death.

The speaker’s love seems to have infinite reach, flooding every aspect of her life. It consumes her soul, her everyday activities, her every emotion, her sense of justice and humility, and perhaps her afterlife, too. For the speaker, this love is not just an emotion, an activity, or an ideology: it’s her existence.

Volta: The volta of a sonnet occurs in the poem’s center. In this case, the volta is the lines “I love thee freely, as men strive for right. / I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.”

What surprising, unexpected comparisons! To the speaker, love is freedom and the search for a greater good; it is also as pure as humility. By comparing love to other concepts, the speaker reinforces the fact that love isn’t just an ideology, it’s an ideal that she strives for in every word, thought, and action.

“Theme” is part of a broader hierarchy of ideas. While the theme of a story encompasses its central ideas, the writer also expresses these ideas through different devices.

You may have heard of some of these devices: motif, moral, topic, etc. What is motif vs theme? What is theme vs moral? These ideas interact with each other in different ways, which we’ve mapped out below.

Theme of a story diagram

Theme vs Topic

The “topic” of a piece of literature answers the question: What is this piece about? In other words, “topic” is what actually happens in the story or poem.

You’ll find a lot of overlap between topic and theme examples. Love, for instance, is both the topic and the theme of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem “How Do I Love Thee.”

The difference between theme vs topic is: topic describes the surface level content matter of the piece, whereas theme encompasses the work’s apparent argument about the topic.

Topic describes the surface level content matter of the piece, whereas theme encompasses the work’s apparent argument about the topic.

So, the topic of Browning’s poem is love, while the theme is the speaker’s belief that her love is endless, pure, and all-consuming.

Additionally, the topic of a piece of literature is definitive, whereas the theme of a story or poem is interpretive. Every reader can agree on the topic, but many readers will have different interpretations of the theme. If the theme weren’t open-ended, it would simply be a topic.

Theme vs Motif

A motif is an idea that occurs throughout a literary work. Think of the motif as a facet of the theme: it explains, expands, and contributes to themes in literature. Motif develops a central idea without being the central idea itself .

Motif develops a central idea without being the central idea itself.

In Animal Farm , for example, we encounter motif when Napoleon the pig starts walking like a human. This represents the corrupting force of power, because Napoleon has become as much of a despot as Mr. Jones, the previous owner of the farm. Napoleon’s anthropomorphization is not the only example of power and corruption, but it is a compelling motif about the dangers of unchecked power.

Theme vs Moral

The moral of a story refers to the story’s message or takeaway. What can we learn from thinking about a specific piece of literature?

The moral is interpreted from the theme of a story or poem. Like theme, there is no single correct interpretation of a story’s moral: the reader is left to decide how to interpret the story’s meaning and message.

For example, in Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” the theme is loneliness, but the moral isn’t quite so clear—that’s for the reader to decide. My interpretation is that we should be much more sympathetic towards the lonely, since loneliness is a quiet affliction that many lonely people cannot express.

Great literature does not tell us what to think, it gives us stories to think about.

However, my interpretation could be miles away from yours, and that’s wonderful! Great literature does not tell us what to think, it gives us stories to think about, and the more we discuss our thoughts and interpretations, the more we learn from each other.

The theme of a story affects everything else: the decisions that characters make, the mood that words and images build, the moral that readers interpret, etc. Recognizing how writers utilize various themes in literature will help you craft stronger, more nuanced works of prose and poetry .

“To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme.” —Herman Melville

Whether a writer consciously or unconsciously decides the themes of their work, theme in literature acts as an organizing principle for the work as a whole. For writers, theme is especially useful to think about in the process of revision: if some element of your poem or story doesn’t point towards a central idea, it’s a sign that the work is not yet finished. 

Moreover, literary themes give the work  stakes . They make the work stand for something. Remember that our theme definition is an idea plus an opinion. Without that opinion element, a work of literature simply won’t stand for anything, because it is presenting ideas in the abstract without giving you something to react to. The theme of a story or poem is never just “love” or “justice,” it’s the author’s particular spin and insight on those themes. This is what makes a work of literature compelling or evocative. Without theme, literature has no center of gravity, and all the words and characters and plot points are just floating in the ether. 

Should I Decide the Theme of a Story or Poem in Advance?

You can, though of course it depends on the actual story you want to tell. Some writers certainly start with a theme. You might decide you want to write a story about themes like love, family, justice, gender roles, the environment, or the pursuit of revenge.

From there, you can build everything else: plot points, characters, conflicts, etc. Examining themes in literature can help you generate some strong story ideas !

Nonetheless, theme is not the only way to approach a creative writing project. Some writers start with plot, others with character, others with conflicts, and still others with just a vague notion of what the story might be about. You might not even realize the themes in your work until after you finish writing it.

You certainly want your work to have a message, but deciding what that message is in advance might actually hinder your writing process. Many writers use their poems and stories as opportunities to explore tough questions, or to arrive at a deeper insight on a topic. In other words, you can start your work with ideas, and even opinions on those ideas, but don’t try to shoehorn a story or poem into your literary themes. Let the work explore those themes. If you can surprise yourself or learn something new from the writing process, your readers will certainly be moved as well. 

So, experiment with ideas and try different ways of writing. You don’t have think about the theme of a story right away—but definitely give it some thought when you start revising your work!

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As writers, it’s hard to know how our work will be viewed and interpreted. Writing in a community can help. Whether you join our Facebook group or enroll in one of our upcoming courses , we have the tools and resources to sharpen your writing.

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Sean Glatch


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Sean Glatch,Thank you very much for your discussion on themes. It was enlightening and brought clarity to an abstract and sometimes difficult concept to explain and illustrate. The sample stories and poem were appreciated too as they are familiar to me. High School Language Arts Teacher

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Hi Stephanie, I’m so glad this was helpful! Happy teaching 🙂

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Wow!!! This is the best resource on the subject of themes that I have ever encountered and read on the internet. I just bookmarked it and plan to use it as a resource for my teaching. Thank you very much for publishing this valuable resource.

Hi Marisol,

Thank you for the kind words! I’m glad to hear this article will be a useful resource. Happy teaching!

Warmest, Sean

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What is Theme? A Look at 20 Common Themes in Literature |

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Hello! This is a very informative resource. Thank you for sharing.

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This presentation is excellent and of great educational value. I will employ it already in my thesis research studies.

John Never before communicated with you!

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Brilliant! Thank you.


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marvellous. thumbs up

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Thank you. Very useful information.

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found everything in themes. thanks. so much

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In college I avoided writing classes and even quit a class that would focus on ‘Huck Finn’ for the entire semester. My idea of hell. However, I’ve been reading and learning from the articles, and I want to especially thank Sean Glatch who writes in a way that is useful to aspiring writers like myself.

You are very welcome, Anne! I’m glad that these resources have been useful on your writing journey.

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Thank you very much for this clear and very easy to understand teaching resources.

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25 Common Themes in Literature, with Examples

literature by theme

by Holly Riddle

Theme is one of those elements of literature that everyone pretends to understand, but that can be a little difficult to wrap your head around.

Theme is present in all mediums of artistic expression—short stories, poems, novels, plays, even visual art. If you ask a group of people what the theme of a particular work is, they might all give you different answers. Theme is personal, open to interpretation, and is what, in many ways, makes art meaningful.

Here’s everything you need to know about common themes in literature, including theme examples.

What is theme in literature?

In creative writing, theme is the core underlying idea or message that the writer wants to communicate to the reader. For example, “the power of social status,” “the destructive nature of love,” or “the fallibility of the human condition” are all common themes. Theme can be expressed through every element of a literary work , including plot , characters , and setting .

Your story’s central idea is what makes your work matter to your readers, and why storytelling has the power to affect real change.

Because most themes are fairly straightforward, they’re often considered universal. “Universal themes” refer to common themes in literature that most people can relate to, regardless of age, gender, or cultural background. For example, most people can understand the hope that comes with new love, or the importance of a strong family.

Literary theme creates a personal connection with the reader.

Beyond overarching major themes, a work may additionally contain smaller, different themes that apply only to certain relationships, specific characters, or particular scenes. You can use literary devices like symbolism and metaphor to help the reader understand these themes on a deeper level.

For example, a story’s theme might be the importance of family, but one character’s arc might also explore the theme of tradition vs. independence.

Remember that literary theme can also be very personal. Even when an author approaches a story with a specific theme in mind, readers may interpret it differently depending on what they need or what they’re experiencing in that moment. Because themes are universal, they allow us to interpret them in ways that are most relevant to our own lived experience.

Common themes in literature

Let’s explore themes found in some of the most recognizable works of literature. In these well known examples, you’ll see how each writer explores popular themes that resonate with the human spirit.

1. Good versus evil

One of the most pervasive themes in literature, the good versus evil theme pits a good character against an evil character in a classic battle of moral dilemmas.

It’s not always a living character , though, that’s the evil or good one. This theme can use any clearly good or bad force , but the message is always the same—good and evil cannot coexist and there will always be a war between the two.

The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling

In each book of this bestselling series, the work’s theme is consistent—Harry and his friends are up against the evil forces actively launching attacks against the good and innocent. This theme is unquestionable due to the way Rowling uses the story’s key conflicts to juxtapose the “good” characters in her story against the “bad” characters in her story.

In this world, the good is very, very good and the bad is very, very bad.

2. Forbidden love

Forbidden love happens when two people are in love, but shouldn’t be.

It might be someone like a parent that verbally forbids the two individuals from being together, but it can also be society, class structure, or other forces that “forbid” the relationship.

Love is one of the most common literary themes because, well—who hasn’t been in love?

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

The pervasive theme of forbidden love is most notably found in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet . In the play, every single decision that our titular characters make is connected to their forbidden love. Without the forbidden love, there would be no story.

In Romeo and Juliet , love is both destructive and healing. The love ultimately leads to the tragic undoing of the protagonists, but it also heals the rift between their families.

3. Fated love

Fated love is very similar and this theme can be applied to Romeo and Juliet as well, as one might argue that the two were fated to be with one another regardless of the circumstances. Within works that display this theme, the couple is always drawn back together, even though the odds are seemingly impossible.

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander displays a theme of fated love, with the two main characters of the series, Jamie and Claire, always making their way back to one another and getting their happily ever after, regardless of the circumstances.

This couple is up against some serious odds. In some instances, they’re literally separated by hundreds of years of time, and only one of them can time travel (and the time travel isn’t exactly reliable). In other instances, they’re separated by oceans, and the threats against their happily ever after range from nefarious villains to illness to politics.

4. Sacrificial love

The sacrificial love theme makes the argument that true love always requires a sacrifice. In order to be happy and in order to give your true love happiness, you must make some sort of sacrificial offering, whether large or small.

“The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry

This classic short story published in the early 1900s is a Christmas-set story that follows a young married couple. The two are relatively poor, but still want to give one another a nice Christmas, and so they each, in secret, sell the two things dearest to them in order to buy something for the other person.

However (spoiler!), they eventually discover that, in doing so, they’ve ruined the other’s present. Despite this ironic ending, there’s a happily ever after and the general idea that this is a couple that will do whatever it takes to guarantee each other’s happiness in life.

5. Unrequited love

In this theme, it’s a tragic one-sided love that drives the plot. One person loves another, but those feelings are not returned—which often leads to a series of decisions that set the broader story in motion.

A great example of the unrequited love theme can be found in Great Expectations by Charles Dickens.

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Great Expectations contains multiple themes, and one of those is unrequited love. There are several characters that experience this within the book, and while the protagonist Pip, does fall in love, the majority of the book’s plot hinges on the broken heart of the secondary character Miss Havisham.

6. Coming of age

As one of the most universal human experiences, the coming-of-age literary theme centers around a character who is growing up in some manner. Sometimes, they’re literally growing from a child into an adult.

Other times they may already be an adult, and are just growing into the next stage of their life and maturing in some way. This common theme explores self discovery, change, and growth, ultimately leading to a character’s inner metamorphosis.

A coming-of-age story always shows how the protagonist overcomes internal conflict, so careful attention to characters’ personal development is critical when writing about this literary theme.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Jane Eyre is one of those classic coming-of-age stories, following Jane’s life from childhood to her eventual marriage. However, Jane doesn’t just grow physically over the course of the story. She also grows emotionally and internally as she discovers her own self-worth, confidence, and independence.

7. Righteous justice

In stories about justice, you have a character who’s entirely driven by getting the justice they think they deserve. In the righteous justice theme, most readers can agree that the character in question is in the right and feel a sense of satisfaction when (if) the character obtains it.

It’s human nature to strive for justice, which is why the universal theme of justice is so popular.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is a coming-of-age novel that also features a strong justice theme, as it follows the main character’s father’s quest for justice in the face of a broken, racist system and community.

8. Unrighteous justice

In stories about themes of unrighteous justice, also sometimes called the revenge theme, the character intent on getting their due is either inarguably in the wrong, or they’re going after their justice or revenge in a morally questionable manner.

The character Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights is one example of a character that’s intent on getting their justice, but his behavior as he pursues this justice is often cruel.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

Wuthering Heights certainly has its love themes, but it also can be considered a justice novel. Heathcliff demands the retribution he feels he deserves after his true love marries another person. He begins enacting a long plot to get his revenge, hurting everyone around him, including himself, in the process.

9. Corruption

The corruption theme shows how an external influence changes a character over the course of a story, and serves as a warning to the reader that they, too, could become corrupted if they’re not self aware.

Lord of the Flies by William Golding

In Lord of the Flies , a group of boys find themselves alone, self-governing on an island, where chaos and violence quickly ensue. Although it’s written as a boys’ adventure story, it has a deeper meaning: the story shows how humans, when given enough free rein and their own power, are apt to turn evil.

10. The American dream

Independence, wealth, the nuclear family. The American Dream is hyped up to an extreme degree, and often literary works that use this theme attempt to reveal the complexity behind the whitewashed exterior.

This main idea will most resonate with Americans, but the contrast of expectation and reality can exist anywhere.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

One of the most notable examples of a literary work with this central theme is the jazz-age novel The Great Gatsby .

The titular character has seemingly everything he could want, as do all of his friends around him, living a life of extravagant wealth and freedom. However, our narrator—who is not quite so fortunate in life—reveals that these characters are, in many ways, as emotionally bankrupt as they are physically rich… which leads to their lives falling apart.

11. The circle of life

There are several types of literary themes that deal with life and death, or mortality, and for good reason. Mortality is the one thing that every single human being has in common. As such, these mortality-related themes ask (always) and answer (sometimes) big questions, like, how do humans respond to death? Why do we respond the way we do? What does trying to run from our own mortality do? What’s the purpose of death?

The circle of life theme in particular often paints the inevitability of death in a positive or neutral manner. While death is inescapable, it’s not something to be feared and part of the natural process.

Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White

In Charlotte’s Web , death is presented as a natural part of living. The story begins and ends with death, with Wilbur escaping death at the start of the book, kicking off a series of events that all ends up leading to the death of the spider Charlotte.

Death and mortality are some of the most universal themes in literature.

12. The inevitability of death

In this theme, the take on mortality is often one that strikes fear and anxiety. Death is an all-powerful, antagonistic force that the characters spend most of their time trying to avoid at all costs, often going to great lengths to escape death’s clutches.

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

In this classic example , Dorian spends all his efforts attempting to escape death and aging, going to extreme lengths. But even then, he can’t escape his ultimate fate.

13. Family dynamics

Family themes in literature often ask readers to look beyond blood ties and to analyze what the true meaning of family is. Characters may lose their biological family in some manner and then discover a new one, either with another literal blood family or with a group of friends. Or, a character’s biological family may become threatened in some way.

Whatever the case may be, a family unit is always a prominent part of the story and guides the plot points and conflict. Interpersonal relationships and character development should be at the forefront for anyone writing a story with these recurring themes.

In the family dynamics theme, the story examines how family members interact with one another, and how those dynamics are capable of driving a plot.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Anna Karenina deals with family complexities and looks at three different families that are all experiencing different degrees of success in their interpersonal relationships. This book shows how the family theme doesn’t always need to trend positive.

14. The power of family

In contrast to the above example, the power of family theme is always positive. These stories show how family is a powerful force that can help a character overcome challenges, both internal and external.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

In Little Women , the story reaches its happy ending all because the main characters rely on one another and their family unit, supporting each other through times of hardship.

Think of the hubris theme as the central character saying, “I’m great, am smarter than everyone else, and will do whatever I want because of it.” One of the most tragic themes in literature, this theme is designed to teach the reader a lesson about the limitations of human nature.

In books with this underlying focus, you’ll always have a character who plows forward into whatever they think is best, to disastrous consequences—because, of course, pride always comes before the fall.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

A well-known example is Frankenstein , in which Victor Frankenstein feels he can channel the power of God by creating life. When his little experiment goes awry, he digs his heels in and continues to think of himself as blameless and worthy of admiration—which ends up being his downfall.

The hubris theme serves as a real-life warning about the dangers of pride.

Faith might refer to religious belief, or a belief in another spiritual entity, people around them, a political system, or a culture. A character might lose their faith, or develop a new one.

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

The Poisonwood Bible explores the great lengths we’ll go to when we have faith in something, and what happens when we lose it. A family follows their missionary father to Africa, where he intends to convert the locals and blindly digs in his heels at every challenge. However, as the challenges increase, his family begins losing their faith in both his message and him.

17. Fate vs. Free will

Are you really in control of your own actions? Or has fate determined the course of your life? Those are the questions that these stories ask, and they can be answered in limitless ways.

Oedipus Rex by Sophocles

The Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex explores what happens when you try to outwit fate. Oedipus gets into his horrible situation (marrying his mother and murdering his father) because he tried to outrun his destiny, which only brought him closer to it.

18. Self-identity

Most of us have an idea of who we are or, if we don’t, it’s a question we’re trying to figure out. Since this is such a universal experience, it should come as no surprise that this is also a theme you’ll see in a range of literature and other art mediums.

The self-identity theme follows a character who is asking: Who am I?

Jane Eyre is a coming-of-age novel that also explores the theme of self-identity. These themes often overlap because coming of age is about discovering ourselves. Jane, through the various difficulties and challenges she faces over her life, learns who she is and isn’t, who she wants to be, and how to be it.

19. Isolation

Extended isolation can do a lot to a person. Being removed from other humans can impact our mental health and cause us to think or act in ways we might not normally. In some instances, we may feel more free to act like our true selves. In others, we might behave rather poorly. The isolation theme explores these possibilities.

“The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

In this classic short story , we see how isolation impacts our protagonist in a negative manner. The main character is isolated at home, in a single room, and eventually that isolation drives her to madness. As a result, the story brings up questions regarding mental health, gender, and domesticity, and how isolation interplays with all three.

20. The power of nature

In this theme, it’s typically the case that your hero is up against the power of nature in some way.

Often, the power of nature theme introduces nature as an antagonistic force.

Nature may serve as the antagonist within the story. If not the story’s central conflict , nature may play a role in moving the plot along, forcing your character to make decisions that they might not otherwise. Nature is all-powerful and your characters are powerless in contrast.

This is not to say that a power of nature-themed book or story always has an unhappy ending. Sometimes, characters learn to live with nature, adapt to it and survive—but nature always wins.

Hatchet by Gary Paulsen

This classic childhood favorite about a boy who survives a plane crash and finds himself stranded in the wilderness is a good example of how a “power of nature” story can provide plenty of conflict without ending unhappily. Over the course of the story, the protagonist must overcome various challenges within his natural surroundings, but he eventually learns to overcome and survive.

21. The influence of the mob

Similarly to the power of nature theme, the mob mentality theme forces characters to face group dynamics that pose a large-scale problem. Maybe the social order is a threat to a character’s life. Maybe the social order is harming everyone around them, but other characters are just too blind to see it.

The message in these stories is that, under the right circumstances, a group or society’s strength can become too powerful for the group’s own good. Man becomes corrupted and that corruption is even stronger when it pervades an entire group.

“The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson

“ The Lottery ” says quite a lot about the universal human condition, and maybe that’s why so many first readers of this early horror story found it to be so disturbing. One of its main themes is how a group of people can become so blind to their own problems that there are fatal consequences.

22. Self destruction

This theme explores another relatable universal truth—sometimes, you’re just your own worst enemy. Sometimes, all of the problems around you, all of the worst things happening to you, can all be traced back to you and you alone.

Stories with these literary themes can be tragic, or they can be learning experiences.

Emma by Jane Austen

While this classic novel is a lighthearted romantic tale following our titular character’s matchmaking mishaps, Emma soon learns that all of her problems are her own fault. She has to do some soul searching before her problems can be solved and before the book can come to a satisfying conclusion.

23. Survival

The survival theme intersects with many other popular themes on our list. For example, you might have a survival theme story that’s also a power of nature story or a power of the group story. In these stories, your main characters are fighting for survival throughout the course of the book, and that continued survival is the entire focus of the plot.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

In this popular young adult novel, our main character Katniss spends nearly the entirety of the book trying to ensure her own survival, as well as the survival of those she cares about. The book also weaves in other themes, such as mob mentality and corruption, as Katniss wouldn’t need to be so focused on her own survival if her society hadn’t become so corrupt.

24. Heroism

In the heroism theme, our story’s hero is courageous, they make sacrifices, they’re saving someone or something. The heroism theme shows that sometimes life calls you to discover extraordinary strength in order to save something worth fighting for.

A story with a heroism theme often includes sacrifice and daring feats of bravery.

The Lord of the Rings series by J. R. R. Tolkien

In this book and series, as well as in many high fantasy books , a large number of characters act as heroes. They bravely walk into dangerous situations to fight for what they feel is right.

25. Redemption

The redemption theme is a hopeful one that shows how, even when our main characters behave poorly, there is often always a chance of redemption. These stories might follow a character seeking redemption throughout the entire plot, or it might follow a character’s downfall before their chance at redemption in the end.

Atonement by Ian McEwan

Atonement is often considered a coming-of-age story, but, as the title suggests, it also offer a redemptive literary theme. One of the main characters makes a tragic mistake as a child and then spends the rest of their life dealing with the fallout of that mistake, trying to find redemption in their old age.

What’s your story’s literary theme?

When it comes to theme in your fiction writing, your options are near-endless. There will always be an abundance of central ideas, experiences, and emotions that remain universal throughout time and across cultures.

The next time you pick up a novel or a book of short stories, pay special attention to the major themes and how the author weaves their message into each plot point. They can help you learn how to apply story elements like character development or conflict to create and enforce that underlying message.

What’s the theme of your current work in progress or the last thing you wrote? Can you amplify it with some attention to detail?

Once a theme emerges from your plot, taking care to weave that theme into every aspect of your work will result in a story that’s more impactful and universally appealing.

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Understanding & identifying popular literary themes.

We all love a good story, and when we find a new favorite, we can't wait to tell our friends about it. When we explain why we love it and get beyond the basics of narrative, we often touch on the concept of literary themes. Setting tells where a story happens, characters tell who the story's action happens to, and plot tells what happens. A work's theme, however, doesn't just describe parts of what make up a story, but instead gets to the why of that story—its purpose. 

There are almost always themes—often several—in poetry, drama, and nonfiction, as well as novels and stories. Themes help us understand why a work is significant, how it relates to others, and illuminates ideas about identity, culture, and history. 

Let's take a deeper look at why literary themes matter and review some of the most common one you’ll find in literature.  

What Is a Theme in Literature?

“Theme" refers to a literary work's subject beyond the circumstances it describes, projecting an underlying meaning to readers. For example, while Homer's ancient Greek epic poem The Illiad is "about" the battle between Greeks and Trojans during the Trojan War, one of its key themes is revenge. This is because much of the epic centers on the Greek warrior Achilles' attempt to avenge the death of his companion Patroclus. When we read The Illiad, we naturally think about what role revenge plays in our own lives.

What Themes Help Us Understand About Literature

Literary themes help us understand literature on a deeper level by highlighting connections and commonalities between literary works. For instance, when we consider a novel like Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games in terms of the subject of dystopian societies, we can compare it to works like Aldous Huxley's Brave New World or Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower.  

Because of this, themes help us discover broad ideas within a body of literature, a time period, a culture, a genre, and so on. We can view Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre in relation to the subjects of coming of age and gender, which in turn can be a window into thinking about the role of women and the possibilities available to them in 19th-century British society. By considering broad ideas through universal themes, we can also see how literature matters to our own lives. 

Why Authors Use Literary Themes

Themes help readers define and discuss the basic message of a literary work. On the other hand, when authors think of their works in these terms, it helps them focus on what they want readers to take away from their text. In this way, theme functions as a powerful literary element or device. Of course, the greatest works of literature are rich and complex and can involve many layers of meaning and multiple themes, including those that the author might not have even thought about.

Common Themes in Literature

When you think about your favorite stories, they probably "speak" to you in some way. Perhaps there’s a character's struggle that you strongly identify with or a focus on a topic that matters to you, like identity, family, or politics. Authors focus on many of the same popular themes across cultures and history because they speak to the common human experience and human nature. The most familiar themes tend to be ones that many people can identify with in some way. 

Let's look at some examples of significant themes in English literature. 

Coming of Age

Some of the most gripping stories describe the personal development of a character over time. Coming of age stories, as they are known, share how a character faces and grows from challenging experiences. Coming of age stories are common across cultures, genres, and history because so many people experience the struggle to discover their "real" selves and to assert their own independent identities.

For instance, James Baldwin's novel Go Tell It on the Mountain tells the story of John Grimes, a young man who was raised in a strictly religious household. Over the course of the novel, we learn how Grimes comes to confront the impact of his overbearing household, his religious upbringing, his identity as a Black man , and his emerging sexuality as he attempts to realize his identity as an adult and come to terms with his past. 

Stories exploring the theme of courage are often exciting and dramatic because they depict characters displaying heroism in the face of dangerous, fearsome, or complex obstacles.

J.R.R. Tolkein's stories of Middle Earth, such as The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, are well-known examples depicting courage. In The Hobbit , for example, the hobbit Bilbo Baggins, the wizard Gandalf, and a band of dwarves are on a quest to recover the vast treasure guarded by the fearsome dragon Smaug. While the obstacle in this case might be larger than life, the universal significance of the theme is clear: Literary works like The Hobbit express the main idea that even when problems seem insurmountable, humans can muster the courage to succeed.

Good Versus Evil

This theme uses the classic dramatic scenario of a good character pitted against an evil character or dark force that they must overcome. Good versus evil raises powerful questions about truth, justice, and the ability to overcome wrongdoing. Often characterized by larger-than-life representations of evil—monsters, villains, and the like—the theme speaks symbolically to the more everyday manifestations of evil we encounter every day. 

It is evident in works as familiar as the Harry Potter series, which depicts Harry and his close wizarding friends in their attempt to stop the evil wizard Voldemort. Another classic example of the good versus evil theme in literature is Robert Louis Stevenson's novel The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde . Dr. Jekyll, who has developed a way to split his personality into two distinct personalities (one good and one evil), must try to overcome his evil alter ego, Mr. Hyde, who becomes increasingly powerful. In this way, the novel explores the idea of good versus evil to consider the darkness inside people that may be present alongside the good. 

Humans Versus Society 

Sometimes the conflicts represented in creative writing aren't between one character and another, but rather between a character or group of people against society as a whole. History shows that individuals sometimes have to struggle against the political, legal, domestic, and other constraints that might restrict freedom. Writers explore these real-life challenges in many works of literature. 

In Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale , for instance , the protagonist Offred and other women fight to find identity and overcome oppression in a radically restructured society in which the majority of women are forced to become the property, servants, and reproductive surrogates for a small ruling class. Works exemplifying the theme of humans versus society speak to us because they provide an opportunity to consider these kinds of problems and how we would react to or prevent them. 

Humans Versus Nature

Humans are often at conflict with themselves, but often stories can describe the struggles presented by the awesome and sometimes terrifying forces of nature. Jack London's classic short story " To Build a Fire " is a powerful exploration of this common theme. In London's story, the unnamed narrator is traveling alone in Alaska during a harsh winter, accompanied only by his husky dog. Facing severe cold and frostbite in the wilderness, the narrator attempts to build a fire but fails, ultimately dying in the wilderness.

Nature can be destructive, and some stories provide a way to reflect on how humans attempt to survive nature's threats. Other, more ecologically minded literary works take this in another direction, urging us to think about how human society can be at odds with or destructive to nature and what we can do to live in harmony with the Earth. 

One of the most celebrated themes in literature involves the bonds between people and the romantic attraction they feel for each other. Love poems , romance novels, and similar works provide an opportunity to think about the wonder of feeling passion for another person. Other works explore the heartaches that can result when love goes wrong, as in the unrequited love of Heathcliff for Catherine Earnshaw in Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights or the doomed star-crossed lovers in William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet . Love poems like Elizabeth Barret Browning's Sonnet 43 ("How do I love thee") are also excellent examples of the theme of love in literature. Browning's sonnet begins "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways," and then it lists a range of things the speaker loves about the addressee of the poem. 

The complexities of relationships within families, as well as the potential strength of its bonds, make this one of the most compelling and relatable themes in literature. Some literary works explore the impact that familial relations can have on individuals. As Leo Tolstoy's novel Anna Karenina famously begins , "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

Other works concentrate on showing how the bonds of families can both endure and evolve over time. Yaa Gyasi's novel Homegoing tells the story of an Akan family across seven generations, tracing its roots in Africa through the slave trade to the 20th century civil rights movement in America. Homegoing depicts a family that is split on account of the trauma of slave trade, but also how members of the family in Africa and those in America rediscover each other and reflect on their long separation and shared trauma. 

Power and Corruption

Some works of literature will examine political ideas, whether to meditate on historical events or to think about the possibilities of the future. Literature can use its imaginative qualities to consider what can happen when political ideas go well—or horribly wrong. 

For example, George Orwell's novel Animal Farm is an excellent example of a central theme of power and corruption at work. This work, centered around a group of anthropomorphic animals, begins with the animals having the noble intentions of overthrowing the cruel farmer who owns them and establishing their own society in which animals are treated as equals. Once the animals have the power over the farm, however, their good intentions give way to greed, arguments, and violence. Ultimately, a dictator pig, Napoleon, takes over. Orwell's novel makes the point that unfettered access to power can lead to corruption.

Works of literature can offer a powerful way to explore questions of identity, including race, gender, sexuality, class, ethnicity, religious belief, and much more—as well as intersections of any of these. There is a strong history of literature that considers the theme of gender, whether to examine the position and possibilities of gender within society or to consider the very idea of gender itself. 

Ursula K. Le Guin's science fiction novel The Left Hand of Darkness , for instance, presents a hypothetical situation in which characters have a biology by which they may shift back and forth between genders while keeping other aspects of their identity. In this way, the novel prompts readers to consider how ideas about gender impact the ways that gender is perceived within culture, as well as the ways in which ideas about gender impact culture. 

The idea of a character who has fallen because of a mistake, curse, loss, or other woe pulling through challenges to emerge redeemed is a compelling literary theme centered on the idea of hope. Since we're all imperfect, literary works exploring the theme of redemption convey an idea that can really resonate: We all have the chance to make up for our mistakes or failures and live a renewed life. 

The theme of redemption is evident in a story as familiar as Charles Dickens' " A Christmas Carol ," in which the greedy, spiteful Ebeneezer Scrooge transforms into a generous, caring person after meeting spirits that cause him to reflect on his past, present, and future. Likewise, Fyodor Dostoevsky's novel Crime and Punishment famously shows the young student Raskolnikov go from senselessly murdering an old woman for money to becoming a repentant, renewed man after being plagued by guilt and then confessing his crime. 

Other Examples of Themes in Literature

Those are just a few common literary themes. Some others include:

  • Change versus tradition 
  • The circle of life
  • Colonialism
  • Courage and perseverance 
  • Disillusionment  
  • Environment
  • Faith versus doubt 
  • Fate versus free will 
  • Female roles 
  • Friendship 
  • Humans versus the self
  • Immortality 
  • Knowledge and ignorance
  • Loneliness 
  • Loss of innocence 
  • Motherhood 
  • Nationalism 
  • Nature 
  • Overcoming 
  • Poverty 
  • Rebellion 
  • Revenge 
  • Rural versus city life
  • Self-awareness 
  • Social class
  • Social mobility 
  • Survival 
  • Technology 
  • The will to survive 
  • Totalitarianism 
  • Tragedy 

Other Resources for Themes in Literature

Of course, this is just scratching the surface when it comes to the wide range of literary themes. SuperSummary's large library of related articles, Literary Devices and Genre Resources , can help you discover more about major themes in literature and how they inform our understanding of literary works.

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25 Themes Examples (In Literature)

themes examples, explained below

In literature, a theme is a central topic, subject, or message that the author is presenting for us to ponder.

It represents the underlying meaning or main idea that the writer explores in the book.

In my last article, I explored the six types of conflict in literature , and these represent six key literary themes as well:

  • Man vs Nature
  • Man vs Society
  • Man vs Technology
  • Man vs Self
  • Man vs Destiny

But, of course, we can tease out many more themes in literature.

Themes can be as simple as love, friendship, or survival, or they can be more complex, such as the critique of societal norms, exploration of human mortality, or the struggle between individual desires and societal expectations. They often provoke thought and offer insight into the human condition.

So, in this article, I want to present 25 of them to you (which include some of those listed above, of course). For each theme, I hope to present you with an example within literature that you’ll likely be familiar with.

Themes Examples

1. love and sacrifice.

Love, as one of the most intense of human emotions, also features as a core theme in not only literature, but also music, film, and theater.

This theme can go in a variety of directions, but often examines the extent to which we will go in order to experience and maintain love (often at great personal cost), the way love makes us irrational or conduct extraordinary deeds of both good and evil, and of course, the experience of heartbreak.

Examples in Literature

Notable examples include “Romeo and Juliet” by William Shakespeare, where the two main characters sacrifice their lives for their love, and “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry, where a couple each sacrifice their most prized possessions to buy a gift for the other.

2. The Individual versus Society

The individual vs society theme – one of the six key types of conflict in literature – occurs when one person grapples with and stands up against established social norms, mores, and powers-that-be.

It may be just one person or a group who stands up against society. An example of the former is Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games who starts off as a solo fighter against a dystopian government, when no one else is willing. An example of the later is the group of children in Tomorrow When the War Began who form a band of friends standing up as a guerilla group against an occupying army.

“To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee is a strong example, with Atticus Finch standing up against societal racism. He is an outcast lawyer who is the only man willing to represent a Black man who is framed for a crime in a deeply racist town.

3. The Hero’s Journey

This theme, derived from Joseph Campbell’s monomyth theory, features characters undertaking great journeys or quests.

According to the monomyth theory, there is a common motif throughout stories – both historical and fabricated – that gain currency in the social imagination. In these theories, the journey sets out on an adventure, faces challenges that lead to a dramatic personal transformation for the better, and returns home anew.

A quintessential example of the hero’s journey can be seen in “The Lord of the Rings” by J.R.R. Tolkien, where Frodo sets out a shy hobbit having never left his shire. He goes on a journey where he develops self-belief and gains the respect of powerful people, before returning home.

4. Coming of Age

This theme, also known as the Bildungsroman, focuses on the growth and maturation of a young protagonist, usually a teenager.

Over the course of the story, they confront and overcome personal or societal hurdles, ultimately leading to self-discovery and self-acceptance.

Oftentimes, such storylines explore the unique experience of teenagers as they are developing cognitively and emotionally. Indeed, as my wife often tells me when we watch this storyline on television: “only a teenager would ever do that!”

These storylines do also have important place in society because they offer young people empathetic and supportive stories that can help young people through the important coming-of-age period of life.

“The Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger is a key example, where the main character, Holden Caulfield, goes on a journey on his own after being kicked out of school. The journey ends with him learning that he does truly value his education and family, leading him to professing he will attend school again in the Fall.

5. Power and Corruption

This theme explores how power can corrupt individuals and societies, and the destructive consequences that can result.

This theme generally tells an important story about how power operates in society, makes commentary about injustice, and the ways in which power can bring out the worst (and best) in people.

This theme is often seen in political or dystopian literature, such as “Animal Farm” and “1984” by George Orwell. Similarly, in Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”, the titular character’s quest for power leads to his tragic downfall.

6. Redemption and Forgiveness

Another common theme is the exploration of the human capacity for making mistakes and the subsequent need for redemption or forgiveness.

Characters may be haunted by their past actions, seeking atonement, or striving to make amends.

We see this, for example, in the trope of the ghost who is stuck in this life until they achieve some degree of inner peace and redeption.

It is also seen in Christian literature, where forgiveness following repentance is an important moral underpinning of the faith.

Similarly, as with in the man vs self conflict trope, the character is seeking self-forgiveness and self-atonement.

Khaled Hosseini’s “The Kite Runner” is a powerful exploration of this theme, where the protagonist, Amir, spends a significant portion of his life seeking to redeem himself for his past betrayal of his friend Hassan.

7. War and Peace

Literature that explores war and peace might depict the physical and psychological impact of war on individuals and societies, the politics of war, or the tireless pursuit of peace.

They may also explore the aftermath of war on people’s lives. It can follow people’s struggles to achieve inner peace after a conflict and the trouble of returning to civilian life.

Or, they may explore the deep brotherhood forged in battle, such as in the epic Band of Brothers storyline.

Of course, there are many directions we can take with this theme, but at the center is the extraordinariness of wartime, which opens the door for exploration of intense aspects of humanity.

“All Quiet on the Western Front” by Erich Maria Remarque provides a harrowing look at the physical and emotional trauma endured by soldiers in World War I. On the other hand, Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” is an expansive work that explores war from various perspectives, including the experiences of soldiers, families, and politicians.

8. Death and Mortality

Literature is at its best when it grapples with the themes at the core of the human experience – and the inevitability of death is certainly one of these.

Some works might meditate on the grief and loss associated with death, while others might use the prospect of death as a device to reflect on the meaning of life, or to explore how people live knowing they will die.

Oftentimes, this theme overlaps with religiosity, or themes about seeking meaning in life.

“The Death of Ivan Ilyich” by Leo Tolstoy explores the protagonist’s confrontation with his own mortality, leading him to reflect on the life he has lived and the value of genuine human connection.

9. Nature and Environment

With the rising threat of climate change, this theme has seen renewed attention in recent decades.

Environmental themes often explore humanity’s relationship with the natural world (oftentimes, for example, showing how small and insignificant we are in comparison to nature).

At the same time, other themes examine the environmental consequences of human action during the age of the anthroposcene.

Themes that explore conflict between man and nature represent one of the key conflicts in literature, such as when a person is challenged by being stuck in the desert or isolated from civilization and nature becomes the main antagonist or challenge to overcome.

Some literature might emphasize the spiritual or therapeutic aspects of nature, as seen in “Walden” by Henry David Thoreau, where Thoreau embarks on a two-year retreat to a cabin in the woods to explore simple living and the natural world. Alternatively, environmental literature, like “The Lorax” by Dr. Seuss, uses storytelling to convey warnings about environmental destruction and the importance of conservation.

10. Identity and Belonging

This theme delves into the exploration of the protagonist’s place in society and their personal identity.

The earlier theme of coming of age overlaps significantly here, and so too does the hero’s journey, which commonly examines a hero’s developing sense of self.

Characters in this type of theme might struggle with societal expectations, personal self-discovery, or feelings of alienation, seeking a place or group where they feel they belong.

“Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison, for instance, explores the protagonist’s struggle to define his identity within a society that refuses to see him as an individual rather than a racial stereotype. Similarly, “The Joy Luck Club” by Amy Tan navigates the complexities of cultural identity and generational differences among a group of Chinese-American women and their immigrant mothers.

11. Good versus Evil

One of the most fundamental themes in literature, good vs evil features a clear conflict between forces of good and forces of evil.

This theme often pits heroes against villains in a struggle that often represents larger moral, philosophical, or societal issues.

One of my complaints about many contemporary ‘pop lit’ and blockbuster films is that they fail to adequately examine the subjectivity of this false dichotomy – good vs evil themes are at their best when ‘evil’ is an elusive concept, and where we even are able to empathize with the evil character while still seeing the wrongs in their views.

J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series is a prime example, with Harry Potter and his friends constantly fighting against the dark wizard Lord Voldemort and his followers. The struggle between good and evil also underlies C.S. Lewis’s “The Chronicles of Narnia.”

12. Freedom and Confinement

This theme highlights the dichotomy between the desire for freedom and the reality of confinement.

Confinement might be physical, such as imprisonment or slavery, or it could be psychological, stemming from societal expectations or personal fears.

The ‘freedom’ element might emerge as a wistful theme, as in many coming-of-age narratives about the young character wanting to escape their hometown confines and beat culture narratives of the 1950s; or it might emerge as a struggle with physical constraint, such as themes surrounding imprisoned POWs.

“The Shawshank Redemption” by Stephen King, for example, explores both the physical confinement of prison and the ways in which characters can find freedom despite their circumstances. Similarly, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” by Ken Kesey features characters confined in a mental institution, highlighting their struggle for autonomy against oppressive authority.

13. Rebellion and Conformity

This theme centers on the tension between individual freedom and societal norms.

Characters might challenge authority, resist societal expectations, or fight against oppressive systems. (Here, we’re looking at strong overlap with the man vs society conflict narrative).

The theme may also explore an individual’s rebellion against a cult or religious group which they wish to escape, rebellion against parents, or search for an extraordinary life in an ordinary world. Sometimes, characters return to their roots, embracing conformity, while others escape the orbit or their cultural norms , achieving freedom through rebellion.

In Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451,” the protagonist, Guy Montag, rebels against a dystopian society that has outlawed books and free thought. Montag’s transformation from a conformist fireman who burns books to a rebel who seeks knowledge demonstrates the struggle between conformity and rebellion.

14. Innocence and Experience

The theme of innocence vs experience often demonstrates a transition from a naive idealism to wisdom earned through experience .

For example, this theme may also explore the transition from the naivety of childhood to the disillusionment of adulthood.

Characters often face harsh realities or undergo experiences that shatter their innocence and lead them towards a more complex understanding of the world.

In “Lord of the Flies” by William Golding, a group of boys stranded on an uninhabited island gradually lose their innocence as their attempts at creating a society descend into savagery.

15. Reality versus Illusion

This theme investigates the nature of reality and the power of illusion.

Characters might grapple with distinguishing between what is real and what is not. In these situations, the story may play with the reader, not even allowing the reader an objective vision of what’s true and what not (such as in the unreliable narrator trope).

Similarly, the theme might explore how characters intentionally choose illusion over reality to escape unpleasant circumstances.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” explores this theme through the character of Jay Gatsby, who constructs a grand illusion of wealth and social status to win the love of Daisy Buchanan. Similarly, in “A Streetcar Named Desire” by Tennessee Williams, Blanche DuBois often retreats into her fantasies, unable to cope with her harsh reality.

16. The Search for Self-Identity

The theme of self-identity revolves around the process of understanding oneself, and it often involves characters undergoing significant personal growth or change.

This theme often begins with characters experiencing a sense of unease or dissatisfaction with their present circumstances or sense of self.

This feeling of discomfort acts as a catalyst for the characters to embark on a quest for self-identity, an inner journey often mirrored by an outward physical journey or experience.

Example in Literature

In Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis”, Gregor Samsa wakes up one day to find himself transformed into a monstrous insect. This shocking transformation forces him to reassess his identity, no longer defined by his role as a family provider, and navigate the alienation from his family and society.

17. The Injustice of Social Class

This theme explores the division of society into different social classes and the resulting inequity and conflict.

One of my favorite American authors, John Steinbeck, explores this theme in much of his literature. He takes the perspective of working-class Americans, examining how corporate interests make their life hard, how fellow Americans discriminate against them, and how they persevere through the relationships they build with other people in their social class.

In “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen, the theme of social class is prevalent, influencing characters’ attitudes, behavior, and prospects for marriage. The story continually highlights the injustices of a rigid class system , such as the Bennet sisters’ limited prospects due to their lower social status and lack of dowries.

18. Isolation and Loneliness

The theme of isolation involves characters experiencing physical or emotional separation from others.

This isolation can be self-wrought, caused by an individual’s actions or decisions, or externally imposed, such as societal exclusion, geographical displacement, or unforeseen circumstances.

This theme explores the various forms and impacts of isolation, offering a deep dive into the psychological and emotional ramifications it has on individuals.

I am often compelled by storylines that use physical isolation as a metaphor for the sense of loneliness and isolatedness within the hearts and minds of the protagonists.

In Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” the creature, despite his desire for companionship, is shunned and rejected by society because of his monstrous appearance. This isolation leads to profound loneliness and ultimately, a desire for revenge against his creator, Victor Frankenstein.

19. Survival

This theme is often explored in literature through characters facing extreme conditions or challenges that test their will to survive.

There is generally a conflict here, which could be man vs nature (surviving the elements), man vs man (surviving against a foe), or even man vs technology (fighting against rogue technology, such as in Terminator ).

Survival themes can be a window into exploration of the tenacity and resilience of the human spirit against the odds.

In “Life of Pi” by Yann Martel, the protagonist Pi Patel finds himself stranded in the Pacific Ocean on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. Pi must use his intelligence and faith to survive in this hostile environment, with the story exploring themes of resilience, faith, and the human will to live.

20. The Human Condition

This theme delves into the shared experiences of being human, exploring a wide range of emotions, relationships, and moral dilemmas .

This theme is an examination of the joys, sorrows, conflicts, and complexities that define the human experience.

This theme has been prevalent in literature across all ages and cultures, as it captures the universality of human experiences, making it timeless and deeply relatable.

The human condition looks at the constants in human life, such as birth, growth, emotionality, aspiration, conflict, mortality, and how these shape our individual and collective experiences.

Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” provides a complex and insightful exploration of the human condition. Through its diverse cast of characters, the novel delves into various facets of humanity, such as love, infidelity, societal pressure, and the search for meaning in life.

21. The American Dream (Illusory or Real?)

This theme critiques the idealized vision of the American Dream — the belief that anyone can achieve success and prosperity through hard work.

Some all-American storylines (Like the film Pursuit of Happyness featuring Will Smith) show how the American dream is a worthy ideal .

Similarly, in politics (and even real life, for American nationalists), the American dream is something people hold onto as an ever-present fundamental truth: if you work hard and dream big, you’ll make it in the end. It just takes hard work.

But there are many texts that challenge this idea, demonstrating how the pursuit of the American dream can sometimes be a fickle and pointless task. Below are just two examples.

In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” the protagonist Jay Gatsby’s pursuit of wealth and social status, driven by his love for Daisy, ultimately leads to his downfall. Similarly, in “Death of a Salesman” by Arthur Miller, Willy Loman’s obsession with success and social acceptance blinds him to his family’s love, leading to tragedy.

22. The Absurdity of Existence

This theme underpins most texts that emerge out of existentialism and absurdism.

At the core of this theme is the exploration of the idea that life really has no meaning behind it. This can create some engaging and post-modernist texts whose storylines tend to meander, cut back in on themselves, and leave us at the end thinking “what a wild ride!”

This theme will tend to bring to the fore the chaotic, irrational, and meaningless features of a storyline.

In “The Stranger” by Albert Camus, the protagonist Meursault’s indifferent reaction to his mother’s death, his senseless murder of an Arab, and his subsequent philosophical musings in prison all point to the absurdity and meaninglessness of life.

I explore 5 more examples of existential literature here.

23. The Power of Faith

This theme looks at the role of faith or belief systems in shaping our lives and experiences.

While generally based on religion, it could also more generally represent faith in oneself, the journey of life, or family and friends.

Commonly, the theme will explore how having faith – and releasing stress, anxiety, and discontent when faith underpins our worldview – can provide strength, and hope.

For example, we’ll commonly see this theme when exploring an unbelievably tough journey – either physically (e.g. crossing a desert) or psychologically (e.g. coming to terms with death).

A darker turn, however, may demonstrate how faiths can clash and cause conflict.

In “Life of Pi” by Yann Martel, the protagonist Pi maintains his religious belief despite his extraordinary circumstances. His faith provides him comfort, hope, and strength to survive his ordeal at sea.

24. The Struggle for Women’s Rights

This theme involves the fight for gender equality, focusing on the experiences, struggles, and triumphs of women in a patriarchal society.

This theme could fit into the category of “protagonist vs society”, or rather “woman vs society!” It generally attempts to reflect real social, cultural, and political circumstances to make a social commentary about current social inequalities and the underlying patriarchy.

It may explore a woman’s attempts to assert her place in society, her struggles with discrimination, or women’s solidarity in the face of an oppressive outside world.

There has been a resurgence of so-called “bonnet dramas” in recent years that explore this theme, harking back to times when the patriarchy was far more overt.

Nevertheless, it can still be used in contemporary literature because, of course, the patriarchy does still exist in many areas of society and women often feel this intensely.

In Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a dystopian future is depicted where women are reduced to their reproductive functions, stripped of their rights, and segregated according to their societal roles. The protagonist Offred’s experiences and memories underscore the theme of women’s subjugation and their struggle for autonomy. In contrast, “Little Women” by Louisa May Alcott explores this theme through the everyday experiences of the March sisters as they navigate societal expectations and strive for their dreams in 19th century America.

25. Fear of the Unknown

This theme plays on the inherent human fear of the unfamiliar or unknowable and is most commonly employed in horror, drama, and murder mysteries.

The fear of unknown motif is very effective for authors who want to create suspense, dread, or anticipation. By prolonging the mystery of an unknown threat, the author can compel the reader to keep on reading until the suspense is overcome.

This fear could stem from various sources: the future, death, the supernatural, or anything beyond human comprehension. A good example in film is the ongoing narrative of the ‘monster’ in the woods in the hit television series, Lost .

H.P. Lovecraft’s body of work, often grouped as Lovecraftian horror, prominently features this theme. His stories frequently involve characters who encounter cosmic horrors or ancient, malevolent beings that defy human understanding, highlighting the insignificance and vulnerability of humankind in the face of the unknown.

Some Closing Thoughts

There are a few notes worthy of providing as we wrap up this exploration of examples of themes in literature.

First, a theme isn’t usually stated explicitly . Instead, it is revealed gradually through elements such as the actions of characters, their thoughts and dialogue, the setting, and the plot. These elements come together to express the theme or themes of the work. So, as consumers of texts, themes might be bubbling under the surface, ready to surprise us toward the end of our experience, making us finally realize the message our author is presenting us about society or humanity.

Secondly, one literary work can, and often does, contain multiple themes . For example, George Orwell’s “1984” explores themes of totalitarianism, censorship, the manipulation of information, and the loss of individuality and privacy.

So, enjoy playing with themes – whether as a consumer or producer of literary content – and always remember to reflect on how those themes can help us dig ever deeper into an empathetic understanding of the complexity of the human condition.


Chris Drew (PhD)

Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]

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What is a Theme in Literature? || Definition & Examples

"what is a theme in literature": a literary guide for english students and teachers.

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What is a Theme in Literature? Transcript (English and Spanish subtitles available in video. Click HERE for the Spanish transcript)

By J.T. Bushnell , Novelist and Oregon State University Senior Lecturer in Literature

Be yourself. We’ve all heard it before, but is it good advice?

Well, sure, except that it’s maybe a little too simplistic to cover every situation. Yes, be yourself—unless you don’t know who that is, or unless you think it’s someone different from who you actually are, or unless you’ve got too many selves to be all of them at once, or unless you’re mean or selfish or closed-minded or conceited or dishonest, in which case—yeah, go ahead and work on that.

Usually, the more we look at an issue, the more we can see the complexity lurking behind the easy answers, and the less useful we find simplistic advice, like be yourself . That’s why the best stories and novels usually try to avoid it. Instead, they show the big, complicated questions beneath the advice, like how do you know who you are , and where does identity come from? They develop themes, in other words. Not morals.

A theme is a central, unifying idea. It’s the bigger issue that emerges as the characters pursue their goals. It has less to do with whether they’ll win the race, or get the date, or find the treasure, and more to do with the deeper questions and conflicts about identity, philosophy, or morality that arise during their attempts.

A moral, on the other hand, is a message, a recommendation for how to live. They can be useful for children, who need guidance and simplicity to make sense of the world, but usually the more we experience the world for ourselves, the more these simplistic answers feel unsatisfying, even insulting. What good is advice like “be yourself,” when the “self” inside us is still emerging, and ambiguous, and half-finished, and full of contradictions?

There's a famous writer and writing teacher named John Gardner, and this is what he had to say about it: "By 'theme' we do not mean 'message--a word no good writer likes applied to his work." There's another famous writer named Anton Chekhov, and here's how he said it: "You are confusing two concepts, the solution of the problem and the correct formulation of the problem. Only the second is required of the artist." In other words, it’s not a writer’s job to answer the world’s difficult questions, only to show those questions clearly with their stories.


Chekhov What is a Theme

In the story “Boys and Girls” by Alice Munro, for example, a girl growing up on a farm gets nudged from the traditionally masculine activities she enjoys, such as doing outdoor chores with her father, to the traditionally feminine activities she doesn’t, such as helping her mother in the kitchen. She rebels, trying to stay in her father’s world, but then, near the end, when he’s trying to chase down a mare he wants to slaughter, he orders the girl to close a gate, and she swings it open instead. In doing so, she’s still rebelling. She’s refusing to trap the girl horse as she herself refuses to be trapped by her gender. But she’s also choosing sides—and choosing the female side instead of her father’s—which the father then uses as proof that she’s, quote, "just a girl."


What is a theme image

So what’s the story’s theme? Well, one perfectly valid answer would be “gender roles.” That’s the deeper issue that emerges from the action. It’s what the story is about. But if you want to take it further, you could also state the theme as a more complex and specific question about that topic. How do gender roles define who we are? How legitimate is that definition? Are gender roles cultural or innate? What are the consequences of enforcing them and participating in them? These are the more specific, complex versions of the story’s theme.

But the story never recommends what to do about any of this. It doesn’t make a case for defying gender roles or accepting gender roles. It doesn’t show you how to live with them or escape them. It doesn’t offer any moral.

Why not? Well, probably because there are no easy answers to these questions, not in life and not in the story, which is why I think it’s appropriate to phrase themes as questions. The best stories honor the difficulty of these questions by demonstrating them clearly, with all their maddening mystery and complexity intact, rather than slapping on some half-valid answer. That’s what makes a story “true” even when it’s fiction, and it’s why it’s so important for us to understand a story’s theme rather than searching in vain for a moral.

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Posted on Jun 30, 2021

12 Common Themes in Literature Everyone Must Know

By nature, literary themes are broad and universal. It’s no wonder, then, that certain themes come up again and again across the spectrum of literature, from novels and short stories to poetry and creative nonfiction . That’s not to say that works which share a common theme tackle it in the same way — indeed, the beauty of themes in literature is that they can be approached from multiple perspectives that offer different thematic statements (in other words opinions on said themes).

Here, we’ll be focusing on broader thematic concepts, with some examples of how themes are being used. Whether you’re looking to identify common themes or searching for the right kind of inspiration for your next writing project, this list is just what you need. 

literature by theme

Like you might see anytime you turn on the news, power (or the desire for it) makes people do crazy things. This is naturally reflected in fiction. From dystopias (Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games trilogy, for example) to fantasy (like that other famous trilogy The Lord of the Rings , or that little-known series by George R. R. Martin called A Song of Ice and Fire ) and classics like George Orwell’s Animal Farm , the concept of power has fueled countless literary projects. Sometimes the focus is power’s corruptive abilities, sometimes it’s the exchange of power between oppressive states and individuals, sometimes it’s simply the power of dreams. Regardless, the element of power remains central.

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literature by theme


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literature by theme

Family relationships and dynamics make for the most interesting and complex sources of conflict in literature . From intergenerational epics like Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko and Gabriel García Márquez’s 100 Years of Solitude to contemporary novels like Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves , books have always asked what the meaning of a family is, and will continue to highlight both the dysfunctional and wholesome relationships within them. 

literature by theme


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3. Identity 

literature by theme

Questions of identity and the labels that come with them are powerful animating forces in much of literature. From representing one’s ethnic or racial identity (Brit Bennet’s The Vanishing Half and Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake , for example) to gender identity (e.g. George by Alex Gino) and mental health diagnoses like in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar , who we are is one of the fundamental questions we must face. For some writers, literature is a place to try and answer that question for themselves or the group they identify with; for others, it’s a place to dismiss the need for labels and embrace a self that exists at the intersections of various groups. This is also a theme connected to the way society impacts the way we perceive ourselves and others. 

🏳️‍🌈 Check out some more book recommendations about queer identity over on our list of the best LGBT books !

4. Loneliness 

literature by theme

Is there anything more writerly (or typically associated with writerliness, anyway) than the image of a lone, isolated scribe visible inside a lit window at night, typing away into the dark? Or (let’s face it) the loner in school, symbol of misfits all over? From the famous alienated high schoolers in The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Catcher in the Rye to more recent bestsellers like Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine , there’s no shortage of loners, isolated misfits, or content-to-be-alone introverts in literature. Whether the theme is used to show that human nature is inherently lonely, to criticize dependence, or to argue that loneliness is a societal privilege ( A Room of One’s Own -style), these are stories that never fail to be deeply affecting.

5. Friendship 

literature by theme

Friends, it’s often said, are the family we choose for ourselves — and the bonds we have with them are just as complex, potentially tense, or heart-warming as familial bonds. Childhood friends are often at the heart of children’s classics like The Secret Garden or Charlotte’s Web . In books for young readers, friendship is commonly praised for its selflessness and camaraderie. It remains a common theme for books that deal with young adulthood, coming-of-age narratives, and even later life, as titles like Teddy Wayne’s Apartment , Zadie Smith’s Swing Time , Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life and Carolina de Robertis’ Cantoras show. In such stories, friendship is also thematized for its absence, its tensions, shortfalls, and failings. No single friendship is the same, and the same is true of their literary representations.

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6. Free will vs. Fate

literature by theme

A common type of conflict as well as a literary theme, the friction between one’s ability to determine their own future and their externally determined fate can be found in many enduring classics, especially plays! From the ancient Greek play Oedipus Rex , Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus to beloved children’s series Harry Potter and Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore , the tension arising from the sense of external expectations and pressures and the notion of self-fulfilling prophecies is, ahem, fated to be a part of literature forever.

Fate is often what knocks at the door of the hero in the first act of a novel. Learn about the 3-act story structure in our free course. 

literature by theme

How to Plot a Novel in Three Acts

In 10 days, learn how to plot a novel that keeps readers hooked

literature by theme

Hope springs in the most unlikely places — and for books, that often means stories of loss, despair, or disaster. Memoirs of suffering or hardship, like Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air , tend to end on a note of hope, whereas stories about social issues like racism or climate change also tend to locate reasons for optimism. Examples here include Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give , Richard Powers’ The Overstory , and Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being .

📚 Our list of the best memoirs is sure to find you some more hopeful books to read.

literature by theme

* Sighs in lovestruck ❤️ * Ah, yes. Romance is yet another of those undying forces that has sustained works of literature since the beginning of time, and it’s not about to stop. From literary fiction and classics like Romeo and Juliet to YA heartwarmers like Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park and Casey McQuiston’s Red, White, and Royal Blue and epic historical fiction like Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander , romantic love (or the heartbreak resulting from the lack of it) lies at the center of books from more genres than just romance. Some authors use this theme to write delightfully comforting works that offer readers an escape from their routine, while others ask what it means to be dependent on another person, or observe the changing dynamics within a relationship. Whatever the overarching opinion, stories that focus on love promise to be deeply emotionally resonant.

literature by theme

From war poets like Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen who wrote about the toll of World War I to modern novels exploring its emotional and social consequences (e.g. Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun ), violence and conflict works could constitute an entire genre of fiction in themselves. 

10. Childhood

literature by theme

Our childhood years might not necessarily define us, but they’re still pretty integral in terms of changing who we want to be. So whether it’s to look back at our childhoods with nostalgia, to acknowledge the bitter realizations that followed it, or to simply consider the point of view of a child, childhood keeps coming back as a prevalent theme in literature — and three examples that do just these things are Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, The Red Pony by John Steinbeck, and Room by Emma Donoghue.

11. Coming of age

literature by theme

Entering adulthood is another period that brings many changes, and so the time during which people come of age tends to be a common theme. In books as varied as Jane Austen’s Emma , Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex , and Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend , growing up, maturing, and coming into your own are thematized to show the uncertainty and empowerment that comes with this stage of life. 

💡 Head to our list of the 70 best coming-of-age books for more examples!

12. Environment and climate change

literature by theme

Unfortunately, the planet is warming up. And as the planet’s temperature grows, so do concerns about our future as a species — which leads to an increased prevalence of the environment or climate change appearing as core themes in literature. Now that ecofiction and “cli-fi” are becoming more popular, books like Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior , John Lanchester’s The Wall , and Dr Seuss’s The Lorax will see their themes discussed more than ever. 

Test your theme-detecting skills!

See if you can identify five themes from five questions. Takes 30 seconds!

We hope this list has been handy! Remember that your own book doesn’t need to tackle a new-found, unbelievably novel theme to have merit: as long as you approach a theme in a fresh way, it’s completely natural for others to have discussed it before you. 

If you're a writer who wants to start working themes into your stories, be sure to check out the final section of this guide.

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Examples of Themes in Books and Literature: Definition & Types

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Do you love reading books or watching movies and want to know more about the different themes that run through them?

A big part of my writing journey has been to better understand the importance of theme in the stories I write. At first, it was something I felt more than actively explored, but over the years, I’ve grown to understand that it’s as important an element to a good story as plot , characters , and dialogue .

In terms of the five W’s of any good story, theme answers the WHY. For example, in my rom-com screenplay, The Unsent Letter , the plot revolves around a woman trying to win back her lost love after finding a previously unread letter he wrote her years before. The WHY of the story is that she discovers she’s still in love with him, and resolves to win him back at all costs.

That’s the power of theme. It’s what the story is really about at its most basic level.

That’s why I wrote this article about examples of themes in books and literature! Let’s explore some of the most popular themes and discuss how they are used by authors to convey their messages.

A literary theme is like the heart of a story. It’s what the tale is really about underneath its plot. Love, betrayal, courage, redemption, coming of age, survival, and the battle between good and evil are among the most common literary themes found in books and movies.

Reading and watching movies are great ways to learn more about the world around you, and by understanding the different themes in literature, you can gain a deeper appreciation for the stories that are told.

Let’s start our exploration of the theme of a story by defining, “What is a literary theme?”

what are literary themes

What is a Literary Theme?

A literary theme is a central idea or concept that runs through a text.

It can be an abstract idea like love, loss, or redemption, or a more concrete motif like the seasons, night and day, or birds.

Themes can be used to help readers understand the author’s message or the “moral of the story.”

In some cases, the themes of a text are stated explicitly by the author. However, more often than not, these literary devices must be inferred by the reader based on the events of the story.

By identifying and understanding the themes in a text, readers can deepen their understanding of the author’s intent (see article here ) and find a deeper meaning in the story.

Why are Story Themes Important?

Story themes are the beating heart of a tale. They are the underlying message that the author is trying to communicate, and they give the story its shape and purpose.

Without a strong theme, a story can feel aimless and directionless.

Themes can provide a sense of cohesion between disparate elements, and they can give readers a reason to care about the characters and the outcome of the story.

But more than that, by exploring complex themes that relate to everyday life, stories can help us to understand ourselves and the world around us. In addition, well-developed themes can make a story more memorable and enjoyable.

In short, themes are what make a story matter. They are what give the literary work deeper meaning and resonance. Without them, stories would be little more than entertainment; with them, they can be transformative.

15 Great Examples of Themes in Literature

1. good versus evil.

Good vs evil theme

One of the most common themes in literature is the classic battle between good and evil. This can take many forms, but at its heart, it is a struggle between those who seek to do right and those who don’t care if they do wrong.

This theme often manifests itself as a conflict between two characters, one representing good and the other representing evil. In some stories, such as those featuring superheroes, this conflict is literal, with the hero fighting against the villain.

In others, the battle is more abstract, with the characters representing different ideologies or worldviews.

But regardless of how it is expressed, the battle between good and evil is a timeless theme that pretty much everyone can relate to!

2. Coming of Age

coming of age literary theme

There are few human experiences more universal than coming of age. It is a time of great change and growth as we leave childhood behind and step into the world as adults.

This transition is often marked by confusion and uncertainty as we grapple with who we are and what we want to do with our lives. But it can also be a time of great hope and possibility as we explore the world and discover new things about ourselves.

Literature has long been fascinated by this journey, and many of its greatest works explore the theme of coming of age.

From Homer’s Odyssey to J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye , these stories offer insight into the human experience and remind us that we are not alone in our struggles.

They also give us hope that there is light at the end of the tunnel, no matter how difficult the journey may be.

3. Survival

survival literary theme

One of the most universal themes in literature is survival. This is often seen in stories where the main character faces some obstacle or challenge that they must overcome.

In many cases, the story is told from the perspective of the protagonist , who is struggling to survive.

This theme can be traced back to some of the earliest stories ever written, and it continues to be a popular theme in modern literature. There are several reasons why this theme is so enduring.

First, it speaks to our universal fear of death and our desire to live.

Second, it is a reminder that even in the darkest of times, there is always hope.

Third, it allows us to experience the thrill of victory over adversity vicariously, or at the very least, to know that there is a measure of reward in the struggle.

Whatever the reason, survival is a timeless theme that will continue to be popular for many years to come.

4. Courage and Heroism

theme of heroism and courage

It’s no secret that many of the most popular stories in literature feature courageous heroes who face danger and overcome incredible odds.

What may be less well-known is that these tales often carry deep and meaningful messages about the human experience. In particular, they often explore the theme of what it means to be courageous.

On the surface level, stories about courage and heroism can simply be entertaining escapism. But on a deeper level, they can teach us about the importance of stepping up in the face of adversity.

They can show us that even “ordinary” people have the potential to do extraordinary things. And they can remind us that even in the darkest times, there is always hope.

In a way, then, stories about courage and heroism are stories about real life.

They offer insight into the human condition and remind us of what it means to be brave – not in the absence of fear, but willing to act in the face of fear. In times of trouble, these tales can provide comfort and inspiration.

It is no wonder that they continue to resonate with people all over the world, regardless of culture or background.

Whether we are facing our own challenges or simply cheering on our favorite characters from afar, these stories remind us that anything is possible if we dare to dream and dare to fight for what we believe.

5. Redemption


One of the most explored themes in literature is redemption. This is the idea that a person can change for the better and be forgiven for their past mistakes.

It is a powerful theme that can resonate with readers on a personal level. We have all made choices that we regret, and the idea that we can be redeemed is both hopeful and inspiring.

Literature often explores the idea of redemption through the lens of tragedy. In many stories, the protagonist makes a series of errors that lead to disaster.

However, in the end, they can redeem themselves by learning from their mistakes and making things right.

The character’s journey is one of growth and transformation, and it is this journey that ultimately speaks to us as readers. We may not all be able to fix our mistakes, but we can learn from them and become better people as a result.

The theme of redemption is a universal theme that touches us all, and it is sure to resonate with readers for generations to come.

6. Power and Corruption

theme of power and corruption

Corruption is a pervasive theme in literature. It is often used to describe the misuse of power, whether it be by an individual or by an institution.

Corruption can take many forms, from bribery and nepotism to fraud and extortion. It can result in the abuse of authority, the betrayal of trust, and the oppression of the weak.

In literature, corruption is often used as a metaphor for the corrupting influence of power. It is a way to explore the dark side of human nature and warn against the dangers of giving in to temptation.

Corruption is a universal literary theme because it is something that everyone can relate to. We have all experienced it in some way, whether it be through witnessing it firsthand or being the victim of it.

Corruption is a reminder that no one is above temptation and that even the most good-hearted person can be seduced by power.


It’s no secret that love is a popular literary theme. Whether it’s unrequited love, forbidden love, or just plain old soulmate love, readers can’t seem to get enough of stories about people falling head over heels.

Maybe it’s because we can all relate to the experience of being in love, or maybe we’re just suckers for a good romance.

Either way, love is a pervasive theme in literature, one that shows up again and again in books and films from all genres and eras.

What makes love such a compelling theme? Perhaps it’s because it’s one of the most universal human experiences. No matter who we are or where we come from, we all know what it feels like to fall in love.

Love can be joyful and exciting, but it can also be painful and confusing. It can lift us to the heights of ecstasy or plunge us into the depths of despair.

In other words, it’s pretty much the perfect fodder for fiction!

Whether you’re a sucker for a romantic comedy or a die-hard fan of tragic romance, there’s no denying that love is one of the most powerful and timeless themes in literature!

8. Perseverance

theme of perseverance

One of the most common themes in literature is perseverance. This is the idea that despite challenges and setbacks, it is possible to overcome them and achieve success.

This theme is often represented through the journey of a protagonist who must overcome obstacles to reach their goal.

In some cases, the challenges faced by the protagonist are physical, such as in the story of a character who must find their way through a maze or climb a mountain.

In other cases, the challenges may be more psychological, such as a character who must overcome their fears or self-doubt.

No matter what form they take, these challenges test the strength of the protagonist and their resolve to reach their goal.

Through their journey, they learn important lessons about themselves and gain the skills and confidence necessary to achieve their objectives.

In many ways, this journey represents the human experience, which is why perseverance is such a common theme in literature and film.

It speaks to our universal desire to overcome challenges and achieve our goals, no matter how difficult they may seem.

literary theme of revenge

From the works of William Shakespeare to modern-day thrillers, the theme of revenge is universally understood and appreciated.

There is something inherently satisfying about seeing someone who has wronged another get their comeuppance. In many ways, it is a way of restoring balance to the world.

The act of revenge also allows the victim to take back some measure of control over their life. After experiencing a traumatic event, it can be empowering to see the person responsible brought to justice.

In literature, the theme of revenge often serves as a motivating factor for the protagonist.

It can drive them to overcome incredible odds and persevere in the face of adversity, but it can also become self-destructive or obsessive if left unchecked.

As such, it is unsurprising that revenge continues to be a popular theme in stories across cultures and generations.

10. Prejudice

prejudice theme

Another universal theme in literature is prejudice. Prejudice can take many forms, from racial discrimination to classism to sexism to homophobia.

No matter what form it takes, prejudice is always unjust and harmful. In literature, prejudice often leads to conflict between characters and groups of characters.

For example, in Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird , racial prejudice is a major source of tension between the white and black communities in Maycomb, Alabama.

The novel explores the injustice of racism and the damage that it does to both those who are victimized by it and those who perpetrate it.

Similarly, in William Golding’s classic novel Lord of the Flies , prejudice takes the form of fear and mistrust of others.

This fear leads the boys to violence, as they turn on each other in an attempt to assert their own power. Once again, Golding shows how prejudice can lead to destruction.

These are just two examples of how literature often uses prejudice as a way to explore larger themes of justice, morality, and humanity.

book theme of death

Death is another common theme in literature. This theme is often explored through the lens of loss, grief, and mourning. Characters may experience the death of a loved one, or they may come to terms with their own mortality.

In either case, death is a powerful force that can bring about profound changes in a person’s life and worldview.

While some characters may be able to move on relatively quickly, others may be forever changed by their experience with death.

No matter how a character deals with death, it is always a significant event that leaves a lasting impact.

book theme: family

Family is often the most important thing in our lives. It’s not surprising then that there are so many stories about them!

It is through our families that we learn about love, responsibility, and what it means to be part of a community. We also learn about our culture and heritage and how to navigate the world around us.

In many ways, our families are our first teachers. As we grow up, we may not always appreciate them, but they are always there for us, shaping and molding us into the people we become.

For better or for worse, our families leave a lasting impression on us!

And it is through literature and film that we can explore the complexities and nuances of family relationships. We can see ourselves in the characters and learn more about what it means to be part of a family.

From the nuclear family to the extended family, from the adoptive family to the foster family, there are endless possibilities when it comes to exploring the theme of family in literature.

13. Justice

theme in books: justice

The need for justice is a common theme found in many books. This theme can manifest in many different ways, but it often revolves around the idea of fairness and equality.

In some stories, justice is achieved through acts of revenge, while in others, it is attained by ensuring that everyone is treated fairly. But no matter how it is achieved, the result is always the same: a sense of satisfaction and resolution.

The theme of justice is often explored in stories about crime and punishment. In these tales, the characters must wrestle with the question of whether or not an eye for an eye is the best way to achieve justice.

Oftentimes, the answer is not clear-cut, and the characters are forced to balance their sense of morality with the need for revenge. These stories usually end with a mix of triumph and tragedy, as some forms of justice are attained while others are lost.

The quest for justice can also be seen in stories about social injustice. In these narratives, the characters fight against discrimination or unfair treatment. They may be striving to end racism, sexism, or any other form of prejudice.

Many of these stories typically have a more hopeful tone, often ending with the oppressed group achieving equality or understanding.

14. Identity (“Who Am I?”)

theme of identity

One widely-used theme in literature is the search for identity. This can take many forms, from a character’s internal struggle to find their place in the world to a more literal quest to discover their true parentage or origins.

In some cases, the search for identity is fueled by a need to find out who someone really is beneath the masks they wear for the people around them.

In others, it is driven by a desire to understand why they are different from everyone else or how they fit into the world.

However, the journey to find one’s identity is always a personal one, and it is often through exploring the lives of others that we gain the most insight into our own.

By reading about the characters who have gone before us, we can see that we are not alone in our search for answers and that, ultimately, we all share the same need to identify with something larger than ourselves.

literary theme: war

War is a universal theme that has appeared in literature since the dawn of storytelling . In fact, one could argue that war is the very first story ever told.

The stories of the Trojan War and the Iliad are some of the oldest examples of literature in existence, and they both revolve around the theme of war. Even in more modern works, war remains a popular subject.

Today, stories about war are often used to explore the human condition and to make commentary on the deeper aspects of human nature.

In many ways, war provides a microcosm for understanding the human experience. Through war stories, we can learn about courage and sacrifice, honor and betrayal, and love and loss.

In short, war stories have the power to teach us about the best and worst of what it means to be human.

Theme Examples in Books

Handmaid’s tale.

Handmaid's tale

In Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale , the themes of control and oppression, perseverance, and survival, are explored through the struggles of the book’s protagonist, Offred.

Offred is a handmaid, a woman who has been forced into sexual servitude in order to produce children for the ruling class. Throughout the novel, Offred fights against the oppressive regime that controls her life, ultimately leading to her escape.

The above themes are also mirrored in the book’s setting, which is a totalitarian society that strips away individual freedoms.

As a result, The Handmaid’s Tale is a powerful exploration of how our lives can be controlled by those in power and the high cost of fighting for individual freedoms.

The Great Gatsby

silver ring on silver ring

The Great Gatsby , by F. Scott Fitzgerald, is a novel that deals with many different themes, including the American Dream, love, and loss.

The central character, Jay Gatsby, seemingly embodies the ideal of the American Dream, that anything is possible if you work hard enough for it.

However, his obsession with Daisy Buchanan leads him down a dark path with an “at all costs attitude”, and he ultimately loses everything that he has worked for.

The novel also explores the theme of love, both in its romantic sense and in terms of the bond between friends.

Gatsby’s love for Daisy is ultimately what destroys him, but his friendship with Nick Carraway is one of the few things that remains constant throughout the novel.

The theme of loss is also evident in the story through the failed relationships, tragedies, and ultimately Gatsby’s own death, which marks the end of an era.

Harry Potter

Close-Up Shot of a Spell Book and a Wand

There are many examples of literary themes in the Harry Potter series, by J.K. Rowling. One theme is the battle between good and evil.

This is seen in the battle between Harry and Voldemort, as well as in the struggle between the Order of the Phoenix and the Death Eaters.

Another theme is the importance of friendship. This is seen in the relationships between Harry, Ron, and Hermione, as well as between Harry and Dumbledore.

The power of love and the importance of family are also recurring themes in the series, as Harry’s journey to reconnect with his lost parents helps him discover a new family in his friends.

It is also seen in the way that Lily’s love for Harry protects him from Voldemort, as well as in the way that Snape’s love for Lily leads him to protect Harry.

The Difference Between Theme and Subject Matter in a Story

A story can be about anything, but there’s usually something deeper going on beneath the surface.

The theme of a story is the broader statement or main message that the story is trying to communicate. It’s often an abstract concept, such as love, loss, betrayal, or redemption.

The subject matter, on the other hand, is the specific events and details that make up the story. In other words, it’s the plot.

To put it another way: the theme is what the story is about, and the subject matter is how the story goes about exploring that theme. The “why” vs. the “what”.

For example, the subject matter of The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen is that of a young mermaid who dreams of becoming human and marrying a prince. The themes, however, are alienation, unrequited love, redemption, and even “be careful what you wish for”.

As you can see, the theme is not always immediately apparent, and stories may have multiple themes. Sometimes, it takes a close reading – or multiple readings – of the text to discover all the things the author is trying to say.

There are endless possibilities for both themes and subject matters in stories, but ultimately it’s up to the author to decide what they want their story to be about.

a beautiful old fashioned library

How Does a Writer Choose a Theme?

A writer’s choice of literary theme in their creative writing often reflects their own experiences and values.

For example, a writer who has experienced loss may explore the theme of grief in their work. Alternatively, a writer who is passionate about social justice may choose to write about the marginalization of certain groups of people.

In some cases, a writer may be drawn to a particular theme simply because it is underrepresented in the current literary landscape.

Whatever the reason, choosing a literary theme is an important part of the writing process. It is through our exploration of themes that we can create meaningful and resonant stories.

Here are some questions to ask yourself as you think about the potential central theme of your short story, novel, or screenplay:

  • What topics are you passionate about?
  • What question or issue keeps you up at night?
  • What makes you angry or frustrated?
  • What have been some formative personal experiences in your own life?

Once you have a list of potential themes for your book, consider the following:

  • What is the genre of your story? Is it a light-hearted romance or a gritty mystery? The genre will often dictate the overall tone of the book, and this can help to narrow down your choices.
  • Who are the main characters in your story? What motivates them? What do they hope to achieve? What drives their actions? By understanding your characters, you can begin to identify the key conflicts in your story and choose a theme that speaks to these issues.
  • What is the setting of your book? Is it an idyllic small town or a bustling metropolis? The location can help to shape the theme of your story. For example, if your book is set in a small town, you might want to explore themes of community and family. If it is set in a city, you could focus on themes of isolation and alienation.

How Does a Writer Develop a Theme?

Every good story has a theme or the main idea that the author is trying to communicate.

To develop this theme, the author must first have a clear understanding of what they want to say.

Once they have a general idea, they can begin to flesh out the details of the story. The characters, setting, and plot all contribute to the development of the theme.

For instance, if the author wants to explore the theme of loss, they might write about a character who is grieving the death of a loved one. The way that the character deals with their grief will help to illustrate the theme for readers.

Similarly, the choice of setting can also be used to develop the theme. A story set in a war-torn country, for instance, might explore themes of violence and conflict, or family and perseverance.

At the end of the day, it is up to the author to decide how they want to develop their literary theme. There are many different ways to do so, and each story will be unique.

Common Questions About Themes in a Narrative

What are 4 common literary themes.

No doubt about it, literature is huge. It seems like there’s a book for just about everything and everyone out there. But even with all of the different genres and authors, there are still some common themes that seem to pop up over and over again. Here are four of the most common literary themes:

1. Love: This is probably the most popular theme in literature. Whether it’s unrequited love, forbidden love, or true love, it seems like every story features a character searching for that special someone.

2. Good vs. evil : Another classic theme that has been around for centuries. In many stories, there is a clear battle between good and evil, with the protagonists fighting against an evil force in order to preserve justice and protect the innocent.

3. Redemption: Everyone lives with some form of regret, for things they have done or chances they have missed, and we would all love a second chance in life – to better ourselves and to correct the past – which is why this resonates so well.

4. Coming of age: This theme is especially popular in young adult fiction, but it can be found in other genres as well. Oftentimes, the main character goes through some sort of profound inner change and growth – in other words, they must grow up – and that’s something we all must do sooner or later.

What are the themes in a story?

In literature, themes are the central ideas or moral lessons of a story. Authors often use themes to address social or political issues, such as corruption or prejudice. However, themes can also be more personal, exploring universal ideas such as love or loss. Regardless of their subject matter, all stories contain at least one theme. Themes can be communicated in several ways, including through the characters, plot, setting, and even the choice of words.

books on brown wooden shelf

Can a story have more than one theme?

Yes, a story can have more than one theme. Many stories have multiple themes that work together to create a richer and more complex narrative. For example, a story about a young girl who is forced to leave her home due to civil war might have themes of loss, hope, and resilience. Or a story about a boy who is bullied at school might have themes of friendship, courage, and determination. By exploring multiple themes, stories can offer greater insights into the human experience.

How do you find the theme in a story?

There are many ways to find the theme in a story. One way is to look at the characters and see how they change throughout the course of the story. Another way is to look at the events that take place and see how they relate to each other. Finally, you can look at the symbols and images that are used in the story and see how they contribute to the overall meaning.

Where in my story should the theme be evident?

When it comes to theme, there’s no single answer as to where it should be evident in a story. It can be introduced in the very first sentence, or it could be something that gradually reveals itself over the course of the tale. The important thing is that the theme is present throughout the story, from beginning to end.

In the introduction , the theme might be hinted at or even stated outright. This can be a good way to grab readers’ attention and set the stage for what’s to come. During the inciting incident and rising action , the theme can be explored in more depth as characters face conflicts and challenges.

The theme may become more evident in the climax , as events come to a head and everything hangs in the balance. Finally, in the falling action and resolution , the theme can be tied up neatly or left open-ended for interpretation.

Can I use AI to help me find a theme for my story?

When it comes to choosing a theme for your story, there are endless possibilities. But sometimes, it can be helpful to use a tool to help you narrow down your options. AI story generator software can be a great way to get some ideas for themes that might work well for your story.

By inputting some keywords about the kind of story you want to tell, the software can generate a list of potential themes for you to choose from. You can then read through the list and see if any of the themes jump out at you as being a good fit for your story.

Themes in books

Final Thoughts – Literary Theme & Fiction Writing

Literary themes are a great way to add depth and intrigue to your fiction writing. By exploring different themes, you can open up new possibilities for your story and engage your readers on a deeper level.

We’ve looked at many theme examples, but there are countless others to explore. What theme will you choose for your next literary work?

Interested in learning more about writing great stories? Check out these articles:

How to Write a Story with Three-Act Structure [with Examples!]

What is Pacing in a Story? Tips for Story Pacing for Writers

What is The Resolution in a Story? [Definition and Examples]

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Neil Chase is an award-winning, produced screenwriter, independent filmmaker, professional actor, and author of the horror-western novel Iron Dogs. His latest feature film is an apocalyptic thriller called Spin The Wheel.

Neil has been featured on Celtx, No Film School, Script Revolution, Raindance, The Write Practice, Lifewire, and, and his work has won awards from Script Summit, ScreamFest, FilmQuest and Cinequest (among others).

Neil believes that all writers have the potential to create great work. His passion is helping writers find their voice and develop their skills so that they can create stories that are entertaining and meaningful. If you’re ready to take your writing to the next level, he's here to help!

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  1. Teaching about Themes in Literature

    literature by theme

  2. Theme in Literature Poster Set

    literature by theme

  3. 101 (Literary) Theme of a Story Examples: A Huge List of Common Themes

    literature by theme

  4. 5 Theme Examples: How to Develop Story Themes

    literature by theme

  5. Upper Elementary Snapshots: Teaching about Themes in Literature

    literature by theme

  6. 10 Extremely Common and Critical Themes in Literature

    literature by theme


  1. Summary Music

  2. 👎👎👎 67 Google literature theme

  3. Difference between plot and theme #Literature@Brightnotes

  4. Common Core Literature 2: What are Themes and Central Ideas in Literature and Writing?

  5. literary terms BA sem 1 #ba #electiveEnglish #puchd #sonnet #ballad #ode #lyric #dramatic #monologue

  6. CMC (Cutie Mark Crusaders) Song [8BIT + REAL]


  1. What Does Theme Mean in Literature?

    In literature, a theme is a common thread or main idea that is repeated throughout a literary work. The theme of a novel or story is the major message that organizes the entire work.

  2. What Are Some Examples of Themes in American Literature?

    Common themes in American literature include the great journey, the loss of innocence, the great battle, love and friendship, and revenge. The theme of a book is the underlying meaning within the story.

  3. What Are the Common Themes in African Literature?

    African literature can be divided into three distinct categories: precolonial, colonial and postcolonial. Precolonial literature often takes the form of oral narratives that are sometimes accompanied by music and center around the trickster...

  4. 200 Common Themes in Literature

    Universal Themes in Literature · Human nature · Free will · Self-awareness · Coming of age · Hope · Jealousy · Justice · Fear. Freedom.

  5. What is Theme? A Look at 20 Common Themes in Literature

    What is theme in literature? A literary theme is an idea plus an opinion, allowing great works of literature to explore complex problems.

  6. Complete Guide to Literary Themes: Definition, Examples, and How

    6 Common Themes in Literature · 1. Good vs. evil · 2. Love · 3. Redemption · 4. Courage and perseverance · 5. Coming of age · 6. Revenge

  7. A Guide to Themes in Writing and Literature

    10 common themes in writing · 1 Beauty · 2 Good vs. evil · 3 Coming-of-age · 4 Loyalty · 5 Betrayal · 6 Life and death · 7 Justice · 8 Family.

  8. 25 Common Themes in Literature, with Examples

    Common themes in literature · 1. Good versus evil · 2. Forbidden love · 3. Fated love · 4. Sacrificial love · 5. Unrequited love · 6. Coming of age · 7.

  9. Common Themes in Literature

    Common Themes in Literature · Coming of Age · Courage · Good Versus Evil · Humans Versus Society · Humans Versus Nature · Love · Family · Power and Corruption.

  10. 25 Themes Examples (In Literature) (2023)

    Themes Examples · 1. Love and Sacrifice · 2. The Individual versus Society · 3. The Hero's Journey · 4. Coming of Age · 5. Power and Corruption.

  11. Themes in Literature

    Lesson Summary. The theme in literature is the overarching idea, or construct that is consistent throughout the piece. There are major themes, which occur

  12. What is a Theme in Literature? || Oregon State Guide to Literary Terms

    A theme is a central, unifying idea. It's the bigger issue that emerges as the characters pursue their goals. It has less to do with whether they

  13. 12 Common Themes in Literature Everyone Must Know

    ABOUT · 1. Power · 2. Family · 3. Identity · 4. Loneliness · 5. Friendship · 6. Free will vs. Fate · 7. Hope · 8. Love

  14. Examples of Themes in Books and Literature: Definition & Types

    A literary theme is like the heart of a story. It's what the tale is really about underneath its plot. Love, betrayal, courage, redemption