October 21, 2020

How to Identify the Theme in a Novel

Reading Time: 3 minutes


I’m about to show you how to identify the theme or themes in a literary work. Do you find it a major challenge finding the theme in a novel and/or discussing it in the desired detail in a literature essay?

You need not to worry anymore. In a straightforward manner, I will now show you what you need to look out for in an attempt to discover and write about the theme in that literature text.

What is theme?

The aim of the writer is not merely to tell us a story to entertain us but to compel us to think and understand the deep, hidden significance of events and people in the story.

The writer employs a technique which consists of skillfully massing up little, consistent details which serve to bring out the essential meaning of the work.

The next thing after reading the novel is for the reader to try to find out the ideas or message of the writer embedded in the work.

Such details relate to characterization, plot, setting and situational events (incidents or episodes).

The meaning of “theme” in Literature

The theme, therefore, develops from the attitudes and attributes of characters, ideas, incidents, imagery etc. which consistently recur in various forms throughout the work.

It is the convergence of these recurring attitudes and phenomena (motifs) that gives the literary work its theme or themes.

A theme is a central idea or message the writer is at pains to communicate to the reader.

The Difference Between Theme and Subject Matter.

A theme is normally expressed in abstract terms while the subject matter is often described concretely and in action terms.

Common themes found in most literary works include the theme of love, of corruption, of envy, of jealousy, of tradition, of racism, of superstition, of the dangers of war or conflict, of motherhood, of betrayal, of poverty and so on.

The subject matter, on the other hand, is expressed in ways such as:

i. The novel is about how a man strives to win a woman’s love

ii. The play is about how a woman killed her rival out of jealousy.

iii. The novel tells the story of a young girl who has to fend for herself in the streets due to parental neglect.

In a novel, it is possible to have more than one theme. However, in most cases, one of the themes is more dominant than the others.

A theme emerges from motifs.

What is a motif?

A motif is a recurrent situation, incident, character, idea or image that occurs in the novel and can be developed into one general theme. Motifs amplify the theme and give existence to the theme.

How To Discover the Theme or Themes in a Novel

The following points are by no means an exhaustive list of ways to identify a theme in a literary work. However, they are enough to guide you to discover as many themes as possible in a literary work.

1. Note the traits which the characters possess – both virtues and vices

2. Note and analyze the phases through which the main character in particular passes. Try to deduce what traits might have led to the problems or experiences he or she encounters. Identify what lessons, ideas or message can be deduced from these experiences or problems

3. It is useful to examine the beginning of the work in detail. The issues raised at the beginning greatly condition our reaction to everything that is to come.

These hints at the beginning of the work could give you an idea of what the work is about

4. Identify the conflict or conflicts in the plot. Note any opposing ideas or objectives personified in opposing characters.

5. Note what the main character and other minor ones hold dear and what they detest. Also, closely watch how they react to the various situations that they have to deal with.

6. Look out for the views and opinions of both the author and characters on major issues raised in the novel.

7. See how a significant number (or all) of these point to some interesting idea or ideas the writer may be putting across to the reader.

Photo by Link Hoang on Unsplash


Ralph Nyadzi

Ralph has a passion for the teaching and learning of Language and Literature mainly because these two help him to understand and appreciate why people act the way they do. Over the past two decades, he has coached over 5000 students and adult learners to achieve their educational goals. Ralph is the founder and CEO of Cegast Academy.

View all posts by Ralph Nyadzi →

One thought on “How to Identify the Theme in a Novel

  1. Pingback: Summary and analysis of Piano and Drums by Gabriel Okara: A complete study guide – myschoollibrary

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