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Notes on Theme

Because art is an interpretation of life, the artist must have some vision of the human experience which guides the shaping of that art. Even if you don’t agree with the artist’s insights or enjoy his/her particular method of artistic expression, you can still examine the work critically and gain an “understanding” of the artistic endeavor (even if it leaves you cold emotionally.) This understanding of the art is usually stated as an analysis of theme. While theme is only one element of the work, it is crucial as a unifying force to tie all the other elements together. Thus, being able to state a work’s theme is a valuable discipline; it forces you to see how the various parts of the work fit together to form a unified, though often complex, vision of another human being. Theme is rarely a moral lesson to live by, but often simply a well thought-out observation or theory about the nature of life or human existence.

Tips on Writing about Theme:

  • State the work’s dominant theme or meaning as a universal idea, not as a plot summary or paraphrase restricted to that one work.
  • A work’s theme must emerge from the details without ignoring or distorting any of the specifics. Your interpretation must be based on evidence from the work rather than personal speculation or philosophy. You don’t want to distort the specifics of a work to arrive at a theme that merely reinforces your values.
  • Avoid stating a work’s theme using a cliché. Clichés are tired, general, and vague statements which allow you to avoid thinking for yourself. When you can use your own unique wording to express your theory of the theme, you will know that you have done your job of critical analysis and gained insight into the work.
  • A complex story may have several themes, which you want to include in your discussion; however, your writing should focus on the dominant (major) theme.

Sample Theme Statements:

Harsh social expectations and dwindling opportunities can force a woman to make desperate choices or take seemingly insane action. –“A Rose for Miss Emily”

Personal despair and turmoil result from a longing for personal freedom in the face of social oppression. –“Flower Garden”

When love is selfless it provides the determination to endure hardships and self-sacrifice. –“A Worn Path”

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