What is Theme? Definition, Examples of Theme in Literature

Definition of theme: The theme of a literary work is a salient abstract idea that emerges from the treatment of its subject matter. Common themes are love, war, deceit, revenge, fate, destiny, etc.

What Does Theme Mean in Literature?

What is a theme in literature? A theme is a message or abstract idea that emerges from a literary work’s treatment of its subject matter.

The theme differs from the subject itself. The subject of a work can be described in concrete terms, usually through actions.

For example,

  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

The subject matter is Huckleberry Finn’s adventures. The theme, however, is more of an abstract idea. The primary theme of Huck Finn, for example, is the conflict between civilization and natural life.

Theme vs. Subject

themes in literatureThe theme of literary work deals with an abstract idea or concept, while the subject deals with the concrete actions that bring us that idea.

Example of Theme:

  • Theme = Coming of Age.
  • Subject Matter = A newcomers difficulties in moving from a small town to the big city.
  • Explanation: The theme coming of age will explore the growing pains adolescents are likely to experience in the world. The subject matter for our hypothetical literary work is someone who recently moved from a small town to “the big city.”

Example of Theme:

  • Theme = Pride.
  • Subject Matter = The struggles of varsity football players to work together.
  • Thematic Statement = It is important to maintain a balance between pride and humbleness because too much self-confidence can be destructive.
  • Explanation = In this example, we see the author’s opinion regarding the theme of pride and how it relates to the work’s subject matter.

The thematic statement of a work is rarely said explicitly. Instead, people interpret it through characters, actions, and events within a book.

Thematic Concept vs. Thematic Statement

theme literary termThe thematic concept of a work is basically the definition of theme that we have outlined above. It is the abstract idea or concept with which a work of literature interacts.

A thematic statement, however, can be read to be more of an argument about that concept. In an essay, a thematic statement would be called your thesis statement.

For example,

  • Theme / Thematic Concept = Freedom.
  • Thematic Statement = Freedom should be extended to all citizens of the world.

As you can see, the theme of freedom is abstract and broad, and it doesn’t have a thesis statement. The thematic statement of a work, however, will make a claim about this concept. Think of the thematic statement as being an opinion held by the author about the theme itself.

In our example above, the theme is freedom, and the thematic statement is freedom should be extended to all citizens of the world.

There are also central themes and minor themes in literary works, which are just as they sound.

  • Central theme = the central or main message of a literary work.
  • Minor themes = other, less important messages of a literary work.

Examples of Theme in Literature

list of themes Here are some examples of themes found in literature:

  • In Paulo Choelo’s novel, The Alchemist, the author explores the subject of fate through a person’s dreams. His thematic statement regarding dreams is that one should always follow his heart and pursue his dreams at any cost.
  • In William Blake’s poem, The Poison Tree, the author explores the theme of anger. The thematic statement of the poem is if anger is not dealt with, the feeling will intensify and eventually leads to destruction.


Define theme in literature: In summation, the theme is an idea or concept that a literary work explores: love, despair, honor, etc.

The author explores the theme through the subject matter of his or her work, and when telling the story, arrives at some kind of thematic statement.

Here is a final example of theme found in the short story “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry.

In “The Gift of the Magi,” Henry conveys the message that love is more important than material possessions.

  • Theme: Love, charity, sacrifice.
  • Subject matter: Young couple struggling financially during Christmas.
  • Thematic Statement: Love is more important than material possessions.