Identify Literary Themes: Find the Theme of the Story

Use These Reading Tips to Analyze Literature

While reading a story, the theme might not be that obvious at first. Many people confuse the theme with the subject of the story, but a theme is more abstract than the subject. The theme of a story is the idea that holds the story together. In essence, it's the main idea or some type of lesson or message that the author wants to convey to the reader.  

For example, the great novel, Little Women, is about four sisters, but that is the subject of the book. One of the themes is the struggles of young girls maturing into women. A story can have more than one theme. Though literary themes might be difficult to find, there are some ways to identify them. These tips will help you find the theme of the story you're reading. 

  1. Identify the central topics or "big ideas."  Before you read a work, look at the title. Does it give any clues as to what the book will be about? And Then There Were None is a great mystery book by Agatha Christie. The title alone hints that there are going to be many disappearances or murders. In the aforementioned Little Women, the reader knows that she is going to be reading a book about young girls and that the theme might possibly have something to do with them. As you read the book, look for the central topic. Is it mostly about secrets, as in And Then There Were None? Is it about family? Is it about growing up, as in Little Women?  When you identify the central topics, write them down. Getting a feel for the central topics will help you begin to identify possible themes.
  2. Identify how the characters relate to the central topic. As you read the story, try to see how the characters relate to the central topic. Pay attention to key events, dialogue, ideas, metaphors,  and changes in a character's actions or beliefs. In Little Women, Meg is faced with her poverty when she attends a party. The other girls dress her up like a doll and she begins to act like someone that she is not. When she is confronted about this by another character, she becomes ashamed and alarmed at her behavior. Seeing how Meg deals with this event and knowing that one of the central topics of the book is growing up, one can conclude that a possible theme might be the struggles with growing up.
  3. Organize your thoughts. If you are still struggling with finding the theme of a story, try to organize your thoughts by writing them down. List the central topic and then include examples from the story that support that topic. What did the characters do? What did they say? How did they react? Sit back and look at what you wrote and try to see the "big picture" of the story. What was that story all about? What was the author trying to tell me? With a little bit of time and thought, the theme will come to you.

These reading tips should help you do literary analysis. Remember, a story can have more than one theme. In Little Women, there are many themes, such as the struggles of growing up, the struggles of poverty, and death. Identifying themes does not come easily to everyone. The key is to be patient and not be too hard on yourself if you cannot identify them right away.


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