|Students Teaching English Paper Strategies||
According to Holmon and Hunt's A Handbook to Literature, a theme of a work of literature is "a central idea . . . . the abstract concept that is made concrete through representation in person, action, and image. No proper theme is simply a subject or activity [(i.e., love, war, race)]. . . . Theme . . . impl[ies] a subject and a predicate of some kind--not just vice in general, say, but some such proposition as "Vice seems more interesting than virtue but turns out to be destructive."
Holmon and Hunt's definition may seem a little too fancy, but essentially they are saying that a theme is a central idea in a work. You should state a theme as a generalization (a broad statement or principle), and it should have a subject and a predicate. For example, one issue that is addressed in Susan Glaspell’s play “Trifles” is sexism, and how men underestimate and belittle women; however, you wouldn't state the theme as how men’s underestimation of women is a sign of ignorance. That hits the topic of the work, but it doesn't express it as a complete thought, with a subject and predicate. In addition, you wouldn't say the theme is Mr. Peters and the sheriff’s sexist attitude causes their downfalls. That statement does have a subject and predicate, but it is too specific to the work--it is not a generalization. You probably could say that a theme of the work is this: sexism causes a lack of empathy and obscures men’s understanding of women’s motivations, ultimately causing men’s failures. This statement works because it has a subject and a predicate AND it is a generalization that could be supported from evidence in the work. There are certainly other possibilities, but this one could probably be supported from textual evidence.
But how do you determine a work's theme? Can you figure it out right off the bat? NO!
First off, not every piece of literature has what we might call a theme. Some poems in particular just describe an experience; the writer does not necessarily develop a central idea. If the work is very literal and just seems to describe an event, then it probably doesn't have a theme (so you probably don't want to write about it for this kind of assignment).
Determining a theme takes a lot of time and effort. You probably won't be able to read a work once and then state a theme for it. In order to determine a theme, you basically need to analyze the work (break it down)--you go through the work, break it into its parts, and try to understand the relationships among the different elements like you do in a class. Go through steps like these:
* read the work for the pleasure and for the sound of it
* explicate the work (whether it's a poem or story)
* look for any uses of symbols or irony and determine their significance
* think about the importance of the title
* separate out all the images that you think are striking and see if there is a pattern among them
* determine what you think is the work’s purpose
* try to explain the relationships among all of these parts of the work
Remember a theme is essentially a general idea that is expressed through these elements, so by understanding the elements and their relationships, you should be able to formulate a theme.
Tips for stating a theme:
* make sure your statement has a subject and a predicate;
* make sure your statement is a generalization;
* avoid using clichés like "war is hell" or "love conquers all;"
* try to state the theme simply and clearly, but don't oversimplify the idea; capture the complexity of the theme as much as you can.
* attempt to develop theme as you read the story or poem;
* create multiple working themes and supply quote/passage examples for each one;
* think deeply about what a story is saying about a specific topic (i.e. love, war, death, race, etc.)
Don't get discouraged!
"Developing a theme that is supported by an author's use of literary devices is a form of literary analysis that I have little experience with. For previous papers I would support a theme with only evidence from the text. Although I was slightly discouraged after realizing that I needed to do some major revising for my second working thesis, I didn't lose motivation because I knew that I just needed to get the hang of it! After many peer/teacher reviews, I formed a concise thesis with a solid theme that I easily supported thoughout my paper." - Carli