What is a Theme?

 What is a Theme?

The author’s point
The author’s meaning
The author’s agenda

It’s All About One of These!







What follows is a list of questions pertaining to each of the Big Huge Subjects I just named above. A theme is the author’s opinion ABOUT gender, power, class, money, identity, religion, et cetera, and these questions are designed to help you find the theme of your work.


According to the text you just read…

  • What does it mean to be a man?
  • What does it mean to be a woman?
  • What happens if a character fails to live up to society’s expectations for how they are supposed to behave as a woman or a man?
  • Do characters in the text violate the “rules” for his or her gender?
  • How does the society in the text enforce “correct” gender roles?
  • How do characters who don’t “fit” into society’s notion of appropriate male or female behavior call society’s rules into question?
  • How does society’s ideas about gender reinforce the power that some people have over others?
PowerAccording to the text you just read…

  • Who has the power in society?
  • What are the effects of power on individuals? On families? On societies?
  • In what way is power expressed?
  • What does the loss of power do to the characters in the text?
Class According to the text you just read…

  • What is class?
  • Is America truly a classless society?
  • What is the basis of class? Money? Power? Land?
  • In what way does society enforce boundaries between classes?
  • What consequence does society impose for a person who disregards class or breaks class “rules” of behavior?

According to the text you just read…

  • Why is money so important?
  • What happens when money or material possessions become more important than human relations or society’s bonds?
  • Do characters refuse money or power? Does the conscious refusal of possessions, spending, money, et cetera endanger the bonds of society?
  • Is it important in this text to appear wealthy?
  • By the end of the work, has the author rewarded the main character for being wealthy, or has the author punished the main character for not distributing his or her wealth?

According to the text you just read…

  • Why is identity important?
  • Is the main character’s identity different in a substantial way from those around him or her? Why?
  • By the end of the novel, has the author rewarded the character for being different, or has the author punished the character for not conforming?
  • Do characters determine their identity mostly by their class, gender, wealth, power, or some other means?
  • Do any of the characters question who they are or who others are? Why? What answers do they get?

According to the text you just read…

  • What is the relationship between human beings and God?
  • Is there/Are there God(s)?
  • Do all events that occur occur for a reason?
  • Do we have control over our own fate?
  • What is the purpose of human existence?
  • Is there an afterlife?

A Quick Fix: Avoid These Weak Verbs!

  • Shows
  • Depicts
  • Points out
  • Expresses
  • Shares
Almost all of these weak verbs have the author being this passive pointer who “shows” or a passive curtain-puller who “displays.”NOPE. The author is making an argument. She is taking a STAND. She has an opinion and makes a judgment ABOUT her topic; she isn’t a tour guide.
  • Argues
  • Excoriates
  • Praises
  • Lauds
  • Reviles
  • Contends
  • Blames
  • Condemns
  • Contests the view that…
  • Opposes
  • Supports
  • Indicts


 Real Live Examples!!!

What Students Think a Theme Is Examples Why It’s Not a Theme
Some students think “theme” and “topic” are the same. Elie Wiesel’s diction toward the Nazis and the concentration camps of WWII are expressed in his book Night.Why did the author, Elie Wiesel, choose certain words such as bodies and dead?  Notice how the student doesn’t tell what judgment Wiesel is making or what opinion Wiesel has about the Nazis?Notice how the student doesn’t answer the question s/he poses? Posing a question does not tell what the author’s argument is.
Some students don’t understand that an author’s point is her or his OPINION or JUDGMENT about a person, event, or phenomenon. Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor and author of the epic tale Night, wrote about the true horrors that occurred during a Nazi transport of the Jews, and through specific diction he conveys his personal tone. Notice how the author doesn’t actually tell you what Wiesel’s “personal tone” — his attitude, which is to say his OPINION or JUDGMENT of these events — happens to be?
Some students tend to overgeneralize. The whole point in the novel Night was to tell us how the Jews felt when they suffered and were brutally murdered. Besides mistaking the genre (Night is autobiography, not fiction), the clause beginning “how the Jews felt” doesn’t actually tell us how the Jews DID feel or what their (and Wiesel’s) opinion or judgment was ABOUT their treatment.

Good Examples — and Why They’re Good

Examples Why It’s Good
Wiesel shows that the Nazis think of the Jews no longer as men; his diction embodies the Nazis’ lack of feeling or sympathy toward their victims. This author tells me what Wiesel is saying ABOUT the Holocaust and HOW he gets his point across: his diction communicates that the “Nazis utterly lacked sympathy toward their victims.” It’s also specific; this author could not be talking about any other work.
Elie Wiesel…wished to convey how terrifying it would actually be to witness the ones you loved suddenly transformed into their former selves’ inanimate, hollow shells. Although this sentence was not the student’s topic sentence, it DOES express Wiesel’s opinion and judgment: that this event was “terrifying,” and that the “ones [he] loved” had been “transformed into their former selves’ inanimate, hollow shells.” The vivid use of “inanimate, hollow shells” here also helps give this person’s identification of Wiesel’s theme extra punch.


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