A central idea in literature, commonly referred to as the main idea or theme, is the dominant concept that the author wishes to communicate to readers through the written work (Bertens, 2017; Kusch, 2016).
This is not to be confused with a story’s plot, which includes the sequence of events within a narrative.
The central idea offers a deeper understanding beyond the explicit narrative. Essentially, it’s the source from which all events, characters, and elements of the story spring.
For example, in George Orwell’s 1984, the central idea explores the adverse effects of totalitarian regimes and the dangers of absolute power.
Airy conjectures aside, let’s simplify things: the central idea is the author’s ‘why’. It is the reason the author decided to write this particular story with these particular characters and events (Grodal, 2011; Hébert, 2022).
For instance, Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” addresses racial injustice and moral development, serving as the book’s central idea.
Central Ideas Examples
1. Love Conquers All
Love is depicted as a prevailing force, capable of overcoming dire circumstances and challenges.
In many narratives, it serves as a beacon of hope during tumultuous times. Characters involved in such narratives often face seemingly insurmountable odds, but love provides strength and resolution.
Thus, this theme emphasizes the transcendental and invincible power of love. The message is that love is ultimately victorious, even in the face of adversity.
“Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen (1813) is a prime literary example. All through the various obstacles the protagonist couple Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy face, their love for each other overcomes the societal pressures and personal misunderstandings.
2. The Power of Forgiveness
Forgiveness is depicted as a powerful tool that facilitates healing and peace in many narrative works.
It allows both the offender and the person wronged to reconcile and overcome past animosities or conflicts. In literature, characters who embrace forgiveness often report personal growth, understanding, and peace.
Consequently, the theme upholds the message that forgiveness can transform despair into hope, and hostility into understanding. It indicates that the act of forgiving elevates the forgiver from torment to tranquility.
A clear illustration of this principle is found in Khaled Hosseini’s “The Kite Runner” (2003). The protagonist, Amir seeks redemption for his past mistakes, and ultimately, his journey towards forgiveness provides him a route to make things right and gain inner peace.
3. The Search for Identity
The quest for identity is a common narrative in literary works. It captures the struggles and triumphs associated with characters’ journeys to recognize and embrace their unique identities.
In many stories, this process involves self-exploration, acceptance, and wrestling with personal demons.
The overall message often indicates that finding one’s identity takes courage and resilience, and brings about self-actualization.
It presents identity as a critical element in achieving personal fulfillment and clarity.
J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye” (1951) precisely highlights this theme. The narrative follows the protagonist, Holden Caulfield, as he embarks on a journey of self-discovery, attempting to find his place in a world laden with societal expectations.
4. The Destructive Nature of Greed
This central theme emphasizes the detrimental consequences of unrestrained greed.
It cautions about the lure of unrestricted power, wealth, or fame, suggesting that it can lead to personal downfall and chaos.
Often, characters in literature who let greed control their actions meet disastrous endings. The central idea is that excessive greed undermines moral principles and can sever important relationships.
By threading such narratives, literature warns readers of the destructive nature of unchecked desires.
This is elegantly explored in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” (1925). Jay Gatsby’s insatiable desire for wealth and status leads him down a destructive path, revealing the detrimental effects of greed.
5. The Importance of Individuality
This theme underscores the significance of expressing one’s unique qualities in all facets of life.
The narratives adhering to this theme often provoke characters to challenge societal norms or question conformity.
Stories highlight that being true to oneself may not always be easy, yet it remains integral to achieving true success and happiness. They argue that compromising individuality for acceptance often results in dissatisfaction.
Promoting authenticity, this central idea celebrates the value of being oneself and not a mere reflection of societal expectations.
This theme drives the plot of “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” by Stephen Chbosky (1999). The main character, Charlie, struggles with his identity but eventually realizes the importance of embracing his individuality, demonstrating the empowering nature of self-authentication.
6. The Consequences of Unchecked Ambition
Literature often explores the disastrous results of uncontrolled ambition, cautioning readers about its inherent dangers.
This theme reveals how blind ambition can lead to tragic consequences as characters compromise their ethics for selfish pursuits.
It signifies that unchecked ambition can obliterate personal relationships, corrupt moral integrity, and eventually lead to downfall. It suggests a need for a balanced approach, where ambition doesn’t supersede ethics and relationships.
William Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” (1606) is an iconic text that portrays this theme. Macbeth’s insatiable ambition for power fuels a chain of violence and tragedy, illustrating the destructive potential of unchecked ambition.
7. The Struggle Between Good and Evil
This timeless theme represents the moral conflict that resides in us all. Characters are often torn between their noble intentions and their baser instincts.
The struggle represents the perpetual fight between virtues (like honesty, kindness) and vices (like deceit, cruelty).
The battle illuminates the inherently dualistic nature of humankind. This theme encourages readers to skew their choices towards goodness, stating that the triumph of good over evil may demand patience and perseverance.
The “Harry Potter” series by J.K. Rowling (1997-2007) outlines this theme in its entirety. Harry’s constant conflict against Voldemort’s evil encapsulates the quintessential battle between good and evil.
8. The Impact of War on Humanity
The harsh realities and grotesque implications of war often form the backbone of this central theme.
Characters in war-centric narratives confront death, distress, and destruction, which in turn shape their personalities and life choices. The exposed cruelties compel us to empathize with the victims and question the necessity of violence.
The theme aims to display the brutal, dehumanizing, and destructive effects of war on individuals and societies. It reiterates that peace and understanding should be the preferable path, demonstrating the profound impact war inflicts on the human spirit.
Real Life Example
“A Farewell to Arms” (1929) by Ernest Hemingway profoundly captures this theme. Hemingway starkly portrays the grim realities of World War I, underscoring the devastating effects of war on individuals and society.
9. The Resilience of the Human Spirit
Such narratives often thrust characters into adverse situations, pushing them to exemplify remarkable endurance and determination.
It emphasizes the human capacity to survive and thrive in unfavorable circumstances, demonstrating immense inner strength. Characters evolve with their circumstances, embodying the will to persevere despite harsh conditions.
The key message is that the human spirit is essentially invincible and can triumph over adversities. It celebrates the indomitable, resilient nature of humans, which enables them to overcome hardships.
Real Life Example
This element is powerfully embedded within “Life of Pi” by Yann Martel (2001). Pi Patel’s, the protagonist’s, survival journey amidst the vast, treacherous Pacific Ocean manifests the resilience of the human spirit.
10. The Danger of Ignorance and Blind Faith
This theme seeks to highlight the detrimental impact of ignorance and mindless adherence to faith or beliefs.
Characters who exhibit such traits often find themselves in precarious situations or make uninformed decisions, leading to disastrous consequences. It informs us that blind faith without critical reasoning can impede personal growth and societal progress.
The theme promotes the significance of awareness, understanding, and informed decision-making in life. It encourages skepticism and critical thinking over naive acceptance.
“The Crucible” (1953) by Arthur Miller epitomizes this theme. By presenting the horrors of the Salem Witch Trials, Miller critiques the dangers of hysteria, ignorance, and blind faith.
11. The Quest for Justice and Equality
This central idea spotlights the enduring struggle for justice and equality in society.
Replete with characters who fight against inequality and oppression, such narratives often depict the journey towards social justice amidst systemic hurdles. The quest indicates a fight against disparities, encouraging transformation and growth.
The central message often upholds justice and equality as fundamental human rights, worth any sacrifice. It urges readers to question, challenge and change unjust systems.
Real Life Example
A classic representation is “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee (1960). The protagonist, Atticus Finch, takes a stand against racial discrimination, exhibiting a relentless pursuit of justice and equality.
12. The Fleeting Nature of Happiness
Literature often explores the impermanent nature of happiness, illustrating its fleeting and subjective aspects.
This theme indicates that joy is transient, potentially affected by varying inner and outer circumstances. It emphasizes the need for appreciation of momentary contentment, easing us into acceptance of life’s inevitable ups and downs.
Characters’ experiences communicate that genuine contentment often stems from personal fulfillment, peace, and love, rather than exterior achievements.
Real Life Example
The novel, “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925) illustrates this theme. Despite his wealth and apparent success, Gatsby’s happiness remains elusive and short-lived, signifying the fleeting nature of joy.
13. The Significance of Self-Discovery
Self-discovery forms a recurrent motif in literature, echoing the significance of understanding oneself.
Characters in such narratives embark on journeys towards self-recognition, overcoming personal barriers. Their voyage paves the way for growth, acceptance, and realization of potential.
The theme applauds the pursuit of self-knowledge and promotes personal introspection. It asserts that self-discovery is the key to leading an authentic, fulfilling life.
Real Life Example
The theme of self-discovery is vivid in “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho (1988). The protagonist, Santiago’s journey towards self-discovery is symbolic of the universal human quest for understanding oneself and realizing dreams.
14. The Corruption of Power
This theme unfolds the destructive consequences when power is misused or unchecked.
It features characters who become morally debased or dictatorial due to their possession of power.
This central idea often cautions that power without ethical control or responsibility can give rise to cruelty, corruption, and social harm. It emphasizes that power should be balanced with morality and conscience to prevent its potential misuse.
A salient example is George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” (1945), where the pigs’ rise to power transforms them into oppressive rulers, mirroring the corruption of power.
15. The Transformative Power of Art and Literature
This central theme accentuates art and literature’s capacity to stir emotions, alter perspectives, and influence society.
Characters in such tales often find solace, inspiration, or catharsis through artistic expression or literary engagement.
Through this thematic exploration, readers are invited to recognize the power of art and literature in triggering personal and social changes. This theme reaffirms art and literature’s crucial role in cultural enrichment and human development.
“The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak (2005) beautifully exhibits this theme. The protagonist, Liesel’s fascination with books not only provides her solace but fosters her understanding of her war-torn world.
16. The Conflict Between Tradition and Progress
This theme involves characters grappling with the tension between upholding traditional values and embracing progressive changes.
It underscores societal conflicts arising due to transformative shifts and the need for adaptation.
It suggests that blind adherence to traditions may resist progress while dismissing tradition entirely might lead to loss of cultural identity. Hence, the need for a balanced approach to progress and tradition is critical.
The struggle between tradition and progress is profound in “Fiddler on the Roof” by Joseph Stein (1964). The story revolves around Tevye’s attempt to maintain his Jewish traditions amid influxes of societal and familial changes.
17. The Strength of Familial Bonds
Family relationships are recurrently depicted as a source of strength and comfort.
Characters derive support, love, and encouragement from their family ties during their life journey.
This theme underscores the resilience and unparalleled strength of familial bonds in the face of adversity. It stresses that family solidarity can serve as a steadfast source of solace, endurance, and love.
Real Life Example
“Little Women” by Louisa May Alcott (1868) emphasizes this theme, showcasing the invincible bond among the March sisters despite their varying personalities and challenging circumstances.
Additional Central Themes
- The exploration of morality and ethics.
- The pursuit of knowledge and truth.
- The consequences of societal pressure and expectations.
- The consequences of colonialism and imperialism.
- The power and struggle for the American dream.
- The fragility of human existence.
- The importance of empathy and compassion.
- The struggle against oppression.
- The nature of sacrifice and selflessness.
Read Also: What are the 8 Elements of Story?
The identification of a text’s central idea is crucial in literature studies as it allows an understanding of the text beyond surface-level reading. Identifying the central idea requires you to draw inferences based on information that the author has implicitly provided. For example, one might derive the central idea of “The Hunger Games” (Collins, 2008) as a critique of reality television’s voyeuristic and exploitative nature.
Every good piece of literature has a central idea that is masterfully woven into its fabric. Through careful examination of the text and understanding of literary devices, you too can extract these central ideas and deepen your appreciation for the written word (Smith, 2015).
Bertens, H. (2017). Literary theory: The basics. London: Routledge.
Grodal, T. (2011). Evolution, Literature and Film: A Reader. Projections, 5(2), 122.
Hébert, L. (2022). Introduction to Literary Analysis: A Complete Methodology. New York: Taylor & Francis.
Kusch, C. (2016). Literary analysis: The basics. London: Routledge.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]