In contemporary literary studies, a theme is the central topic a text treats. Themes can be divided into two categories: a work's thematic concept is what readers "think the work is about" and its thematic statement being "what the work says about the subject".
The most common contemporary understanding of theme is an idea or point that is central to a story, which can often be summed in a single word (e.g. love, death, betrayal). Typical examples of themes of this type are conflict between the individual and society; coming of age; humans in conflict with technology; nostalgia; and the dangers of unchecked ambition.[examples needed] A theme may be exemplified by the actions, utterances, or thoughts of a character in a novel. An example of this would be the theme loneliness in John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, wherein many of the characters seem to be lonely. It may differ from the thesis—the text's or author's implied worldview.[example needed]
A story may have several themes. Themes often explore historically common or cross-culturally recognizable ideas, such as ethical questions, and are usually implied rather than stated explicitly. An example of this would be whether one should live a seemingly better life, at the price of giving up parts of one's humanity, which is a theme in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Along with plot, character, setting, and style, theme is considered one of the components of fiction.
Various techniques may be used to express many more themes.
Leitwortstil is the repetition of a wording, often with a theme, in a narrative to make sure it catches the reader's attention. An example of a leitwortstil is the recurring phrase, "So it goes", in Kurt Vonnegut's novel Slaughterhouse-Five. Its seeming message is that the world is deterministic: that things only could have happened in one way, and that the future already is predetermined. But given the anti-war tone of the story, the message perhaps is on the contrary, that things could have been different. A non-fictional example of leitwortstil is in the book Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart: Thirty True Things You Need to Know Now written by Gordon Livingston, which is an anthology of personal anecdotes multiple times interjected by the phrases "Don't do the same thing and expect different results", "It is a bad idea to lie to yourself", and "No one likes to be told what to do".
Thematic patterning means the insertion of a recurring motif in a narrative. For example, various scenes in John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men are about loneliness. Thematic patterning is evident in One Thousand and One Nights, an example being the story of "The City of Brass". According to David Pinault, the overarching theme of that tale, in which a group of travelers roam the desert in search of ancient brass artifacts, is that "riches and pomp tempt one away from God". The narrative is interrupted several times by stories within the story. These include a tale recorded in an inscription found in the palace of Kush ibh Shaddad; a story told by a prisoner about Solomon; and an episode involving Queen Tadmur's corpse. According to Pinault, "each of these minor narratives introduces a character who confesses that he once proudly enjoyed worldly prosperity: subsequently, we learn, the given character has been brought low by God ... These minor tales ultimately reinforce the theme of the major narrative".
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Some common thematic ideas in literature are good versus evil, freedom, love, friendship, war, fear, perseverance, revenge, death, sacrifice, and divinity.
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- Pinault, David. 1992. Story-telling techniques in the Arabian nights. Leiden: Brill. p. 23. ISBN 9004095306
- Obstfeld, Raymond (2002), Fiction First Aid: Instant Remedies for Novels, Stories and Scripts, Cincinnati, OH: Writer's Digest Books, ISBN 1-58297-117-X
- The dictionary definition of theme at Wiktionary