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(1) The main idea of a text, expressed directly or indirectly. Adjective: thematic. See also:

(2) A short composition assigned as a writing exercise. See also:


From the Greek, "placed" or "laid down"

Examples and Observations (definition #1):

  • "Anyway, the theme of Charlotte's Web is that a pig shall be saved, and I have an idea that somewhere deep inside me there was a wish to that effect."
    (E.B. White, quoted by Scott Elledge in E.B. White: A Biography. Norton, 1986)

  • "'A Hanging' is [George] Orwell's first distinctive work. It gives an apparently objective account of a ritualistic execution--from fixed bayonets to a bag over the head of the condemned--in which the narrator officially and actively participates. . . . At this halfway point Orwell states his theme: 'till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man. When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide.' Instead of invoking religion, he asserts a quasi-religious sense of life's sacredness--the first expression of the instinctive humanism that characterizes all his work."
    (Jeffrey Meyers, Orwell: Wintry Conscience of a Generation. Norton, 2000)

  • "Simply put, a story's theme is its idea or point (formulated as a generalization). The theme of a fable is its moral; the theme of a parable is its teaching; the theme of a short story is its implied view of life and conduct. Unlike the fable and parable, however, most fiction is not designed primarily to teach or preach. Its theme, thus, is more obliquely presented. In fact, theme in fiction is rarely presented at all; readers abstract it from the details of characters and action that compose the story."
    (Robert DiYanni, Literature. McGraw-Hill, 2002)

  • The Difference Between Plot and Theme
    "If you sometimes confuse plot with theme, keep the two elements separate by thinking of theme as what the story is about, and plot as the situation that brings it into focus. You might think of theme as the message of the story--the lesson to be learned, the question that is asked, or what it is the author is trying to tell us about life and the human condition. Plot is the action by which this truth will be demonstrated."
    (Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, quoted by Kenneth John Atchity and Chi-Li Wong in Writing Treatments That Sell, rev. ed. Henry Holt, 2003)

  • Thesis and Theme
    "The thesis is the main point you are trying to argue [in a composition]: for instance, that abortion is every woman's right or that housing discrimination is wrong. The theme, on the other hand, is a motif established by orchestrated connotative language that reinforces the thesis. Theme differs from thesis in that theme relies on inference and suggested meaning rather than on direct statement."
    (Kristin R. Woolever, About Writing: A Rhetoric for Advanced Writers. Wadsworth, 1991)
Pronunciation: THEEM
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