A big idea that pops up over the course of a literary work (story, play, poem, etc.)—and about which the work may offer a certain message.


  • The illustrated story The Lion and the Mouse by Jerry Pinkney explores a number of themes, including mercy, empathy, and interdependence.
  • The tragedy Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare considers themes like the power of love and the inescapability of fate.

Additional Discussion:

Because it is located in the realm of ideas beneath the surface of a text, theme is sometimes difficult to identify.  A reader must closely examine the surface—a story’s characters, plot, and literary devices—to find the theme(s) hidden below .  

The above examples demonstrate that a theme is best articulated as a single word (often an abstract noun) or a short phrase.  However, one can go on to ask what the literary work is saying, specifically, about a particular theme.  That is, one can distill a certain thematic message, which may be evident in both the literary work and the reader’s experience.

  • The Lion and the Mouse reveals that one should practice mercy, because it is often returned.
  • Romeo and Juliet suggests that few can resist the pull of love, despite its violent consequences.

Related definitions:

Moral:  A simple, instructive thematic message whose delivery is the primary purpose of a literary work.   (See The Lion and the Mouse)

Thematic truth:  A more complex, descriptive message whose validity can be debated and whose presence does not dominate the literary work.  (See Romeo and Juliet)

Motif:  A repeated narrative element (an image, a phrase, a stylistic or structural device, etc.) that may have symbolic significance.  In general, a motif is more concrete than a theme.   In Romeo and Juliet, night and day imagery is a motif.   

  Source: Canada, Mark. “Glossary of Literary Terms.” University of North Carolina Pembroke, n.d. Web. 9 Oct. 2012.