How to Write an Analysis of Theme

by Dr Davis on August 10, 2007

What is it?

Analysis of theme involves working the concept, thought, opinion or belief that the author expresses. It is very common (and helpful) to consider theme when analyzing another aspect of literature rather than on its own. The theme of a work is the main message, insight, or observation the writer offers.
The importance of theme in literature can be overestimated; the work of fiction is more than just the theme. However, the theme allows the author to control or give order to his perceptions about life.

How do you find the theme?

Sometimes the theme can be discovered by reading through the work and looking for topics that show up again and again. When you were reading the work, did you think, “Ah, didn’t he already talk about that?” If you did, then you have probably noted a theme.

If you are having trouble picking out a theme, examine the relations among the parts of a story and the relations of the parts to the whole:
Characters: What kind of people does the story deal with?
Plot: What do the characters do? Are they in control of their lives, or are they controlled by fate?
Motivation: Why do the characters behave as they do, and what motives dominate them?
Style: How does the author present reality? Does he habitually use long or short sentences? What kind of paragraphs are there? Are they short and conversational or are they long and involved? Is the work divided up? If so, how and where?
Tone: What is the author’s attitude towards his subject?
Values: Does it seem like the author is making a value judgment? What are the values of the characters in the story? What values does the author seem to promote?

Think about how the author conveys his ideas.
Consider:
o Direct statements.
o Imagery and symbolism.
o A character’s thoughts or statements.
o A character who stands for something (e.g. an archetype*)
o Overall impression/tone/moral of the work

Can you identify major and minor themes?
A short story probably only has one theme.
A novel often has several.

Discovering minor themes
Are there recurring images, concepts, structures OR two contrasting ones?
Motifs often support minor themes.

How can allusions make a difference?
An allusion is a figure of speech wherein a phrase which is culturally recognizable is used as a type of shorthand for something else.

Often allusions are used to make a large point quickly. “He was a Houdini” means he can get out of tight situations. He might even be an actual escape artist.

Are there any allusions? Are these historical, biblical, modern?

You will not be able to recognize allusions if you do not know the cultural reference, so many readers looking at a work will miss the allusions. If you happen to be knowledgeable about the allusions in the work, this might be a good point for you to begin with.

If there are multiple allusions about a particular topic, that is a good indication that the topic is a theme in the work.

*Is there a conspicuous recurring element which appears frequently in works of literature?
This is called an archetype: a character, an action, or situation that seems to represent common patterns of human life. For example, in fairy tales the abused person is always good. This lets you know who is good in the story immediately (a character identification) and it helps you to believe that good will triumph over evil (a theme).

An example of the beginning of a theme analysis

A major theme in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is growing up. Throughout the work Alice changes size twelve times. People change size when they grow up. The size change equating to growing up is also a metaphor; in English the description “being bigger” often means “being older.” For the purposes of the story, Alice grows both larger and smaller, but with each change, Carroll is symbolizing Alice’s maturation process. Each time she grows larger or smaller, she has to deal with a problem related to the change in her size.

The very first size change comes when she has recklessly followed the White Rabbit down the hole and into Wonderland. She found a key which unlocked a door, but she could not go through it because she was the wrong size. This fantastical situation happens often in real life. As children are growing up, they often feel that they are not the right size to do whatever they want to do. One day they might feel that they should be bigger so that they might go wherever they wished and the next day they might feel that they should be smaller so they do not have to do chores. Thus Alice’s desire to be a different size in the very first chapter of the book indicates that growing up is a major theme in the work.

Of course, the analysis is incomplete, but it shows how a theme analysis might start.

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Analyzing Theme | Enlightened Englishaticians
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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Erika 12.05.08 at 10:58 am

This is the theme for “Hope for the Flowers” by Trina Paulus, which includes both the major and minor themes.

The main theme, or point, in this story is that following your heart is the most important thing: it is about the process more than the journey. Although Stripe’s goal is to find his purpose, his heart leads him through things such as climbing the pile because that is what he specifically had to go through. Yellow, on the other hand, was able to bypass the caterpillar pillar after the first run-through, and endure Stripe leaving her behind, to arrive at her goal. Both characters became butterflies in the end, but it was necessary that the way in which they accomplished the goal was specific to each caterpillar’s distinct personality. A minor theme is that things are not always what they seem. Stripe was so convinced for so long that the pillar was the only way “up.” In reality, the pillar was a sort of scam; there really was not anything of worth at the top, much less Stripe’s answer to life. When Stripe figured out that the absurdity was in fact more real than the consensus of the population, he learned to abandon dignity and proclaim his revelation without shame. All loads lead to Rome, though, and instead of merely becoming a butterfly himself, Stripe led a revolution and motivated many caterpillars to abandon their preconceived notions of what life should be.

2 TerryT 12.06.08 at 1:10 pm

An Example of an analysis of theme:

“The Ugly Duckling”: an Aesop Fable

Perception is reality is a major theme of this story. All of the other animals at the farm perceive the ‘ugly duckling’ as ugly because he is in reality a swan hatched with a brood of ducks. The mother duck wants to accept him and love him, but because everyone else sees him as being ugly, she does too. The ugly duckling himself accepts the fact that he is ugly even though he has never actually seen his reflection. It is not until the end of the story that he sees his reflection in the water and realizes he is a beautiful swan.

3 Patty D 12.08.08 at 6:55 am

A one paragraph analysis of theme.
The theme of the fairytale “Cap o’ Rushes” is forgiveness. The father puts his daughter out of his home because he does not like the answer she gives him when he asks how much she loves him. She responds that she loves him “as much as food loves salt.” She never speaks ill of him even though he has put her out of his home. She is already forgiving him, even though he has not asked for forgiveness. When she marries the master’s son, her father is invited to the wedding. Cap o’ Rushes instructs the cook not to put salt in the food. When her father eats the food, he begins to cry. He realizes that his daughter loved him very much. The daughter, Cap o’ Rushes, walks to him and puts her arms around him. She forgives him and they all live happily ever after.

4 Dorothy Young 07.29.10 at 10:32 am

I am writing to thank-you for helping me to pause, then reflect, then comprehend my task. I am a doctoral student in the midst of completing my dissertation on homeless children and the services in place to address their special needs. I was having a problem pulling my thematic analysis together as it pertained to the entitities involved as providers for homeless children and what they represent. I am now beginning to recognize the major and minor themes involved in this phenomenon called homelessness.

5 Laurie Harmon 09.08.11 at 2:07 pm

Remember, though, that a clear ariculation of theme is a complete sentence. Your example simply states “A major theme in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is growing up. ” I would ask: “What about growing up?”

6 Dr Davis 09.08.11 at 8:07 pm

The theme is growing up. My thesis for the theme would need to be a complete sentence. This is the thesis:

Within the story, Alice grows both larger and smaller, but with each change, Carroll is symbolizing Alice’s maturation process.

To clearly identify the thesis sentence, this statement could be revised to read:

Within the story, the theme of growing up is invoked as Alice grows both larger and smaller; with each change, Carroll is symbolizing Alice’s maturation process.

7 Kelly 02.06.12 at 9:00 am

I am having a hard time trying to find a theme for MLK’s “Letter from a Birmingham jail” I wrote a paper on what i thought the themes were (as the teacher said there can not be just one theme – which is bull – and i bombed the paper) My assumption on the themes were: Desegregation, justice, equal rights & unanimous agreements. I have no idea where or how i went wrong but i have no concept of how to grasp this the right way. Can anyone offer some advice? I am totally stuck.

8 http://www.writerscafe.org/ 02.12.13 at 1:41 am

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9 PAULA 11.27.14 at 9:30 pm

thanks

10 Geneva Chapman 08.22.15 at 3:24 pm

Kelly, think the theme of MLK’s letter is that freedom, liberty, justice, and equality cannot be imprisoned or held hostage any more than love, hope, and faith. He wrote the letter to give hope like he did with his speeches.

Dr. Davis, I’m referencing and using parts of this article in an eighth grade literature lesson and project involving student book reviews and creating “book spine” locker doors showing which classic literary work each student reads.

Thank you for your concise description of theme analysis and demonstration using “Alice in Wonderland.”

TerryT, I’m introducing the above lesson/project with three Aesop fables on video. I’m adding your “Ugly Duckling” story and my favorite, “The Tortoise and the Hare,” for students to act out to listen to on Podcasts, create storybooks and/or videos dramatizing with puppets and mime/drama to provide visual, auditory and kinesthetic learners with appropriate learning.

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