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What is a theme?

THE first problem every student of literature faces is a feeling of blankness. I have read the text, now I am supposed to study it: how do I start? Teachers and critics sometimes make this stage more difficult by pretending that literature is a special subject which only experts can understand. Nothing could be more misleading. Great writers and poets write because they want to communicate with ordinary readers like you and me: they do not write for experts. They are not writing on a specialised subject, either. Literature is about the same things you and I are concerned with: life and living. Be confident, therefore. Every student finds the first step in studying literature difficult, but there is nothing mysterious or specialised about it. The difficulty you face at the beginning is simply one of choosing what to focus on out of the rich mass of details, characters, events and so on, which you have met in reading the text. You are faced with the intricate complexity of a literary work: as soon as you can decide what to study first, and where to start, you can make a start.

What will obviously help you is if you have a method which tells you how and where to start. The method I will be explaining in this book can be applied to any of the texts you have to study, whether they are novels, plays or poems. I shall be showing how you can think about the text, and go on to study important passages, so your understanding develops fruitfully and is supported by the detailed analysis you need when you come to write essays or examinations. The way to overcome the first difficulty is really quite straightforward: you can make a start by finding a theme.

A theme is simply this: a subject which interests the writer, and which is discussed in the text or portrayed in it in some way. Finding a ‘subject’ in a book may sound difficult, but when you know the kind of subject you are looking for you will see that it is quite easy. A theme is not a summary of the story: that is not what the text is ‘about’; nor is it a special subject you have to search for. Literature is about ordinary life, so the big themes in literature are the important subjects and experiences of our public and private lives: they are the ordinary and common words in our everyday thoughts and conversations, like love, death, marriage, freedom, hope, despair, power, war, revenge, evil, and so on. This list of the big common experiences of life could go on and on, because anything which is a subject in life can become a theme in literature. The first thing you can say about a text is that it is about one of these common subjects, so the first thing you say is startlingly simple. You might think it even too obvious, but it is a very important step forward because you have left the feeling of blankness behind: you simply say ‘There is a lot in it about love’, or ‘It is about hope and despair’. Then you have made a start.

There is one more point to make about themes. They are big ordinary subjects, but they are complex. The texts you study focus on the problems people face, their contradictory feelings, and the complex moral and social entanglements which confront people and make our experience of living so complex. So the big ideas in a text are not simple opinions: they are full of complexity like our experience of life itself.

Source: Nicholas Marsh. How to Begin Studying English Literature
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