Theme: Literary Essays in Brief

Theme: What is it? How do I use it? Why should I care?

WARNING: These are quick tips written by a high-schooler. Every class has different expectations, so if in doubt, ASK YOUR TEACHER. That’s kind of why they’re here.

Theme is not the same as a topic. Your website, party, or meeting themes don’t correspond to literary themes. Nor is theme a lesson learned. All those cliche phrases you hear in fairy tales – treat others how you want to be treated, be careful what you wish for – will get you kicked out of the book club.

So, was my seventh grade English teacher wrong in saying, “the theme of To Kill a Mockingbird is prejudice”? And was my fourth grade teacher wrong in saying, “the theme of To Kill a Mockingbird is ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’”?

Well, not quite.

When we talk about “theme,” we’re really talking about two different terms with the same word.

Seventh grade English and the dictionary referred to theme CONCEPTS. This can be a one-word subject up for discussion. The Hunger Games talks about the thematic CONCEPTS of manipulation, identity, trust, and public image. Concepts of To Kill a Mockingbird can include prejudice, courage, institutional flaws, and innocence versus hypocrisy. Notice that none of these take a side on the issue – they’re just topics of debate, not an argument for or against an outlook.

A thesis (dun dun DUH) requires the other definition of theme: a thematic statement. Pull the cliche and the imperative out of the fourth grade definition and you’re left with a theme statement.

“Don’t judge a book by it’s cover,” in academic terms becomes, “Don’t judge based on superficial impressions.” Superficial prejudice is the theme concept; “don’t do it” is what the book or poem or essay wants to say about it.

For literary essays, you’ll want to ditch or reword the imperative so that you’re not commanding the reader (“Judging based on superficial impressions is misleading”) and instead say why or how something happens according to the text:

“Superficial impressions of race and class prevent the privileged of Maycomb from confronting the true character of their friends and foes.”

You have the topic – race and class prejudice – and what this specific novel says about it: prejudice prevents people from confronting the truth. Thematic statements say something about the thematic concept.

So, let’s write a thesis! Let’s look back at the Hunger Games.

Thematic concepts: Trust, public image

What happens in the book that relates to these?

Evidence: Katniss tries not to cry at the station. She gets angry at Peeta for making her “look weak,” when he’s trying to help.

What does this say about the concepts?

Analysis: Katniss believes TRUST is dangerous, and the only way to keep her crucial PUBLIC IMAGE is to stay composed and independent.

Summarize it.

Thematic statement: Hyper-awareness of public image breeds distrust under the guise of composure and independence.

Woo! You’re halfway to writing a thesis. Add in the author, title, genre, and symbols if relevant, and you have this:

In The Hunger Games, by Susan Collins (specific source), popular opinion (concept) represents both savior and nemesis as (relevance to the specific source) self-consciousness (concept) breeds distrust under the guise of composure and independence (statement).

In sum:

Theme means two different components of literature. A thematic concept is a topic or idea discussed in the piece such as love, courage, or death. Thematic statements are what the piece says about the concept, as in, “Love is a stronger motivator than hate.” Combine the two with specifics from the work, and you’re well on your way to a thematic essay thesis.

Good luck.

Wishing the odds most sincerely in your favor,

Writers of the 21st century


Also published on Neon Blue Ink.


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