Theme in Literary Fiction
Commentary by Karen Bernardo
All works of literature have a theme, even if (in the case of many modernist and postmodern works) it is only that life is ultimately meaningless. The theme of Shakespeare’s Othello, for instance, is jealousy; the theme of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House is liberation. In most cases it is not possible to reduce a theme down to one word, but a theme should be some abstract principle rather than simply a synopsis of the plot. For example, describing Mark Twain’s novel Huckleberry Finn as “the story of a boy who travels down the Mississippi River on a raft with an escaped slave” is a synopsis; but the theme of the story is the inhumanity of racism.
Instinctively, even before readers demanded that fiction show structure and depth of characterization, they looked for theme. The Old Testament has a theme, that theme being God’s love for His chosen people; the ancient epic Gilgamesh has a theme, namely, the impermanence of life. Theme gives the story meaning; it teaches us something about life, most effectively in a non-didactic way. It gives a reason for telling this story aside from sheer entertainment value, and a reason for remembering it; optimally, it validates our experience.
In his attempt to define a standard of good literature, the Greek philosopher Aristotle required a hero of epic proportions—a king, for example, “famous, or prosperous, like Oedipus, Thyestes, and the noted men of such families” —for the grandeur of the story could accept nothing less. In addition, this hero should be “a man who is neither outstanding in virtue and righteousness” (which is to say, not a saint) “nor [should it be] through wickedness and vice that he falls into misfortune.” Aristotle also felt that the theme of a tragedy should be of similarly epic proportions, for without a theme important enough to sustain the intense emotion it would engender, the story would seem silly. Fortunately, we no longer ascribe to the belief that only kings and princes make suitable subjects for tragedy, but we still recognize the importance of theme.
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