The 25 Most Common Themes in Literature and Why They Matter

by Sue Weems | 0 comments

If you've ever survived a high school English class, you've likely been asked to consider the most common themes in literature. What are they and why do they matter for readers and writers? Let's take a look.

Literature's first job is to entertain. But at the same time every novel has a kernel of truth in it, or perhaps several kernels, ideas about how life works or philosophies on the best way to live or some gesture to the broader meaning of life. 

Taken together, these ideas may combine into a “theme.” 

I say “may” because theme is more a tool of interpretation than creativity. The writer may come into the story with an idea of what their story is about. This understanding of what their story is “about ” may even help add focus and depth to their story.

Once a book is published, though, the audience owns theme, and they may depart with a totally different message than the author intended.

Which is all to say, as a writer, theme may or may not be helpful to you. 

As a reader, though, you can use theme to unlock the deeper truths both in the story and in life. Let's look at what theme is, why it matters for readers and writers, how to identify them, and some common examples of theme in literature. 

Why trust Sue on theme? I'm one of those annoying English teachers who helps students analyze literature. Students ask me why we do it, and I'll tell you the secrets I share with them: analyzing literature helps us understand our humanity and world– from the misuse of power to the meaning of life.

Secondly, learning to look at a part of something and understand how it functions in the whole (AKA analysis) is a skill that transcends literature. It's a low-stakes way to practice life skills. 

Want to skip ahead? Click on the topic that best answers your question. 

What is a literary theme?

A literary theme is a universal concept, idea or message explored in a story or poem. It's often a moral, lesson, or belief that the writer wants to convey to readers.

Think of theme as the underlying message that shapes the story. It’s not always obvious at first glance – sometimes it takes some close reading and analysis to identify what’s going on beneath the surface.

A universal theme is one that transcends time and place. For example, the popular theme “love conquers all” shows up in old romances such as The Epheseian Tale from 2-50 AD to Disney's Robin Hood from 1973 to Nicholas Sparks' novel The Notebook from 2004. 

Why does theme matter for a reader?

You can certainly enjoy a story without knowing the theme explicitly, but most stories are about something beyond the character's actions. And we want them to be about something more. 

Stories are the way we build meaning—the way we understand human life, the way we process and confront controversial ideas, the way we sometimes relate to each other on a universal level. 

When someone asks you what a book you're reading is about, you likely give a sentence or two about the character, their goal, and the conflict, but you're just as likely to identify an abstract idea that the book is about. That idea is a touchpoint for our humanness. 

I may not be into a book about a boy wizard who is swept into a world where he must overcome his fears and insignificance to defeat a formidable foe, but I can certainly understand what it means to belong, what it means to find your way through inadequacy, what it means to defeat your fears. 

That's the power of theme. It points to deeper meaning, connecting me to a story and to other readers like me.

How do you identify theme in a story?

If you are a student or a writer trying to identify theme, it sometimes feels like trying to crack a secret English major code. But here's a trick I teach my students. 

1. Find the big idea

First, ask yourself about the big ideas or concepts that seem important throughout the entire story. These may feel abstract, such as love, beauty, despair, justice, or art. Sometimes the main character has very defined beliefs (or misbeliefs!) about the idea. 

2. Ask what the story suggests about the idea

Once you have one or two overarching central ideas that seem important for the story, then ask yourself this question: What does the story seem to say about this idea?

For example, if I'm reading Shirley Jackson's chilling short story “The Lottery,” I might identify that the story is about community and tradition. If I wanted to be a little more specific I'd say tradition in the vein of conformity. 

Quick summary of the story (spoiler alert!): The story opens on a summer day when an entire community participates in their annual lottery. Each family in town draws a paper until a single community member has been selected. The end of the story shows the town stoning the “winner” in a barbarous act of solidarity to maintain community traditions.

Now, to identify the central theme, I'd ask myself, what does Jackson's story seem to say about community or tradition or conformity? 

Some communities are willing to maintain their traditions (or conformity) at any cost.

3. Support the theme or message with examples

If I wanted to support the central theme I identified, I would pull quotes or examples from the story that support it. In this case, I could look at the children who are willing to participate, the contrast of the summer day and the dark deed, the insistence that the stoning will keep them prosperous, even though there is no evidence of such. 

Are there other possible themes? Sure. There are no wrong answers, only themes that can be defended from the texts and those that don't have enough support. It takes a little practice, but try this technique and see if it doesn't help. 

Types of Story: a shortcut to finding theme in a story

As a part of his book The Write Structure, Joe has identified several types of story that help writers plan and execute their books. The detailed post is here. 

In short, Joe argues that all stories are built on six values frameworks, regardless of genre. The values are directly related to the human condition and identify base needs we have for moving through the world. 

Knowing your story types and the value scale can be a short cut to identifying themes in books and stories, because those universal ideas are tucked inside the values. 

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs for Writers

Here are the values in each type of story:

  1. Survival from Nature > Life vs. Death
  2. Survival from Others > Life vs. Fate Worse than Death
  3. Love/Community > Love vs. Hate
  4. Esteem > Accomplishment vs. Failure
  5. Personal Growth > Maturity vs. Immaturity
  6. Transcendence > Right vs. Wrong

The types can help you identify the central ideas that the story speaks into because you know that the values will be key. Your question then is what does the story seem to say about this value? Or more specifically, what does the story seem to say about the way this particular character pursues this value? 

For example: If you are reading a Jack London short story or novel, you know that the protagonist is going to be facing survival from nature. The value is life versus death. So to determine the theme we ask what does the story say about life vs death or survival?

In Jack London's short story “To Build a Fire,” an arrogant man trying to survive the Yukon wilderness makes a series of novice mistakes from traveling alone to getting wet with no way to get warm and dry. Spoiler alert, he dies. 

What is the theme of this story? My students usually shout out something like, “Don't be a dummy and travel alone with no way to make a fire!” And they're not wrong. The ideas here are life, death, nature, and humanity. Here are a number of ways you could frame the theme with specific support from the story:

  • Nature is indifferent to human suffering. 
  • Human arrogance leads to death.
  • There are limits to self-reliance. 

As you can see, the theme is what the story suggests about the story value. 

Common themes in literature with examples

James Clear collected a list of the best-selling books of all time on his website. Let's start with some of those fiction titles.

Disclaimer: I know many of these summaries and themes are vastly oversimplified and most could be fleshed out in long, complicated papers and books. But for the sake of time, let's imagine my list as limited examples of theme among many that could be argued. 

Disclaimer 2: I tried to get ChatGPT to help me write the one sentence summaries for these titles even though I've read all but two of the listed books. The summaries ChatGPT wrote were weak or too general for our purposes. So if there are errors below, they are all mine—I can't blame the bots today. Let's look at the list: 

1. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes (1605)
summary: Aging nobleman Don Quixote deludes himself into thinking he's a knight and takes on a satirical quest to prove his honor by defending the helpless and defeating the wicked. 

theme: Being born a nobleman (or any class) does not automatically determine your worth. 

2. Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens (1859)
summary: In this sprawling novel of swapped (or reconstructed) identities and class warfare during the French Revolution, characters navigate the nature of love, betrayal, justice, and the possibility of transformation. 

theme: Transformation is possible for enlightened individuals and societies.

3. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien (1954)
summary: An unlikely hobbit and his diverse team set out to find and destroy a powerful ring to save Middle-earth and defeat the dark lord Sauron. 

theme: Good can defeat evil when people (or creatures) are willing to sacrifice for the common good. 

4. The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery (1943)
summary: A prince visits various planets and discovers the importance of curiosity and openness to emotion.

theme: The most important things in life can't be seen with the eyes but with the heart. 

5. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling (1997)
summary: An unsuspecting orphan attends a wizard school where he discovers his true identity, a dark foe, and the belonging he craves. 

theme: Love and friendship transcend time and space. 

6. And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie (1939)
summary: Seven guests gather at a house on an island where they are killed off one-by-one as they try to discover the murderer. 

theme: Death is inevitable, justice is not.  

7. The Dream of the Red Chamber by Cat Xueqin (1791)
summary: In this complex family drama, a nobleman's son is born with a magic jade in his mouth, and he rebels against social norms and his father resulting in an attempted arranged wedding and illness rather than reinforce oppression.

theme: Social hierarchies maintained by oppression will eventually fall. 

8. The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien (1937)
summary: Timid hobbit Bilbo Baggins is called by a wizard to help a band of dwarves reclaim their land from a terrible dragon, Smaug.

theme: Bravery can be found in the most unlikely places.

9. She: A History of Adventure by H. Rider Haggard (1886)
summary: An professor and his ward seek out a lost kingdom in Africa to find a supernatural queen.

theme: Considering the imperialism of the time as well as worry about female empowerment, the themes here are varied and problematic, but perhaps one theme might resonate: Be careful what you seek, for you may find it. 

10. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis (1950)
summary: Four children venture through a wardrobe into a magical kingdom where they must work together to save Narnia, meet Aslan, and defeat the White Witch. 

theme: Evil is overwhelmingly tempting and can only be defeated through sacrifice. 

11. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (1951)
summary: An expelled prep school student, Holden Caulfield, has a number of coming-of-age misadventures on his way home for the holiday break.

theme: Innocence can only be protected from the risks of growing up for so long. 

12. The Alchemist by Paolo Coelho (1988)
summary: A Spanish shepherd named Santiago travels to Egypt searching for treasure he saw in a dream. 

theme: Anyone can make the world better if we are willing and courageous.

13. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1967)
summary: This circle of life novel covers seven generations of the Buendia family as they build a small dysfunctional utopia in a swamp amidst a changing political and social Latin American landscape.

theme: Solitude is an inevitability for humankind. 

14. Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery (1908)
summary: An orphan finds her place with the Cuthbert siblings, and she brings her peculiar and delightful blend of imagination and optimism to their lives and community.

theme: Every human desires and deserves belonging. 

15. Charlotte's Web by E.B. White (1952)
summary: Wilbur the pig and his unconventional spider friend Charlotte join forces to save Wilbur's life from the slaughterhouse. 

theme: Friendship can be found in the most unlikely places.

And let's throw in a few additional well-known stories and notable examples to see how their themes stack up:

16. Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare (1597)
summary: Two teens from warring families fall in love and die rather than be kept apart from their families feud. 

theme: Passion is costly.

17. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818)
summary: An ambitious scientist creates a monster without considering the larger implications. Chaos ensues.

theme: Knowledge can be dangerous when coupled with unbridled ambition.

18. Beloved by Toni Morrison (1987)
summary: Formerly enslaved mother Sethe and her daugher Denver are haunted by the ghost of Sethe's oldest daughter who died when she was two-years-old. 

theme: The physical and psychological effects of slavery are damaging and long-lasting. 

19. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (2005)
summary: In this dystopian novel, people are cloned and held in preparation to be life-long organ donors for others. 

theme: Freedom is a basic human desire. 

20. Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry (1959)
summary: The Younger family grapples with identity and dreams in the wake of the death of their patriarch. 

theme: Dignity and family are worth more than money. 

The 5 most common themes in literature

You may have been asked to define universal themes as a part of a school assignment. Universal themes are those that transcend time and cultures, meaning they are often found to be true in real life no matter who you are or where you live. 

Granted, I haven't read all the books across time and space (yet), but there's a pretty good bet that one of these major themes might apply to what you're reading regardless of time period, genre, or culture: 

  • Love conquers all.
  • Things are not always what they seem.
  • Good triumphs over evil.
  • Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. 
  • Blood (family) is thicker than water. 

Which other larger themes would you list here as some of the most common in literature? Share your theme examples in the comments

Why theme matters for writers

Why do themes matter for writers though? After all, isn't it enough to write an entertaining story? It can be, but exploring universal themes can help take your work to the next level. You don't have to identify a theme for your story and write everything to that end—in fact that might work against you. But when done well, it can enhance your story.

Here are a few reasons you may want to think about theme in your writing:

1. Coherence

Theme can bring together the various parts of a story, including plot and subplot, characters, symbols, and motifs. Readers can feel the variations on a theme laced throughout your story and done well, it's engaging and satisfying.

If your theme is love conquers all, then you likely have two people who over come incredible odds to be together. What are the other elements that subtly underscore it? Maybe there's a house that was built with love in the setting or maybe a secondary character is failing at love because they keep putting their work first. If it's subtle, those small details reinforce the main storyline.  

2. Significance

As we discussed, universal themes will resonate with readers, even when they haven't experienced the same events. Many of the works we've listed above are remembered and revered due in part to their lasting themes about human experience.

3. Expression

Theme is an opportunity to weave together your world view, experiences, perspective, and beliefs with artistic and creative possibilities. Theme serves as a unifying element as you express your vision. Try playing with theme in a story or other creative work to see how it pushes boundaries or got beyond the expected. 

In summary, theme can serve as the backbone of a story, giving it structure, depth, and resonance. It can help convey the writer's intended message and engage readers on multiple levels, making it a crucial element of literary and creative expression. 

Which other larger themes would you list as the most common in literature? Share your theme examples in the comments.

PRACTICE

Set your timer for 15 minutes. Choose one of the common themes above and create a character who has strong beliefs about that theme. Now, write a scene where an event or person challenges that belief. How will the character react? Will they double-down and insist on their worldview? Or will they soften and consider alternatives? Will shock at the challenge plunge them into despair? Play with their reaction. 

Once you've written for 15 minutes, post your practice in the Pro Practice Workshop and leave feedback for a few other writers. 

 

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Sue Weems is a writer, teacher, and traveler with an advanced degree in (mostly fictional) revenge. When she’s not rationalizing her love for parentheses (and dramatic asides), she follows a sailor around the globe with their four children, two dogs, and an impossibly tall stack of books to read. You can read more of her writing tips on her website.

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