25 Themes Examples (In Literature)

themes examples, explained below

In literature, a theme is a central topic, subject, or message that the author is presenting for us to ponder.

It represents the underlying meaning or main idea that the writer explores in the book.

In my last article, I explored the six types of conflict in literature, and these represent six key literary themes as well:

  • Man vs Man
  • Man vs Nature
  • Man vs Society
  • Man vs Technology
  • Man vs Self
  • Man vs Destiny

But, of course, we can tease out many more themes in literature.

Themes can be as simple as love, friendship, or survival, or they can be more complex, such as the critique of societal norms, exploration of human mortality, or the struggle between individual desires and societal expectations. They often provoke thought and offer insight into the human condition.

So, in this article, I want to present 25 of them to you (which include some of those listed above, of course). For each theme, I hope to present you with an example within literature that you’ll likely be familiar with.

Themes Examples

1. Love and Sacrifice

Love, as one of the most intense of human emotions, also features as a core theme in not only literature, but also music, film, and theater.

This theme can go in a variety of directions, but often examines the extent to which we will go in order to experience and maintain love (often at great personal cost), the way love makes us irrational or conduct extraordinary deeds of both good and evil, and of course, the experience of heartbreak.

Examples in Literature

Notable examples include “Romeo and Juliet” by William Shakespeare, where the two main characters sacrifice their lives for their love, and “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry, where a couple each sacrifice their most prized possessions to buy a gift for the other.

2. The Individual versus Society

The individual vs society theme – one of the six key types of conflict in literature – occurs when one person grapples with and stands up against established social norms, mores, and powers-that-be.

It may be just one person or a group who stands up against society. An example of the former is Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games who starts off as a solo fighter against a dystopian government, when no one else is willing. An example of the later is the group of children in Tomorrow When the War Began who form a band of friends standing up as a guerilla group against an occupying army.

Examples in Literature

“To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee is a strong example, with Atticus Finch standing up against societal racism. He is an outcast lawyer who is the only man willing to represent a Black man who is framed for a crime in a deeply racist town.

3. The Hero’s Journey

This theme, derived from Joseph Campbell’s monomyth theory, features characters undertaking great journeys or quests.

According to the monomyth theory, there is a common motif throughout stories – both historical and fabricated – that gain currency in the social imagination. In these theories, the journey sets out on an adventure, faces challenges that lead to a dramatic personal transformation for the better, and returns home anew.

Examples in Literature

A quintessential example of the hero’s journey can be seen in “The Lord of the Rings” by J.R.R. Tolkien, where Frodo sets out a shy hobbit having never left his shire. He goes on a journey where he develops self-belief and gains the respect of powerful people, before returning home.

4. Coming of Age

This theme, also known as the Bildungsroman, focuses on the growth and maturation of a young protagonist, usually a teenager.

Over the course of the story, they confront and overcome personal or societal hurdles, ultimately leading to self-discovery and self-acceptance.

Oftentimes, such storylines explore the unique experience of teenagers as they are developing cognitively and emotionally. Indeed, as my wife often tells me when we watch this storyline on television: “only a teenager would ever do that!”

These storylines do also have important place in society because they offer young people empathetic and supportive stories that can help young people through the important coming-of-age period of life.

Examples in Literature

“The Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger is a key example, where the main character, Holden Caulfield, goes on a journey on his own after being kicked out of school. The journey ends with him learning that he does truly value his education and family, leading him to professing he will attend school again in the Fall.

5. Power and Corruption

This theme explores how power can corrupt individuals and societies, and the destructive consequences that can result.

This theme generally tells an important story about how power operates in society, makes commentary about injustice, and the ways in which power can bring out the worst (and best) in people.

Examples in Literature

This theme is often seen in political or dystopian literature, such as “Animal Farm” and “1984” by George Orwell. Similarly, in Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”, the titular character’s quest for power leads to his tragic downfall.

6. Redemption and Forgiveness

Another common theme is the exploration of the human capacity for making mistakes and the subsequent need for redemption or forgiveness.

Characters may be haunted by their past actions, seeking atonement, or striving to make amends.

We see this, for example, in the trope of the ghost who is stuck in this life until they achieve some degree of inner peace and redeption.

It is also seen in Christian literature, where forgiveness following repentance is an important moral underpinning of the faith.

Similarly, as with in the man vs self conflict trope, the character is seeking self-forgiveness and self-atonement.

Examples in Literature

Khaled Hosseini’s “The Kite Runner” is a powerful exploration of this theme, where the protagonist, Amir, spends a significant portion of his life seeking to redeem himself for his past betrayal of his friend Hassan.

7. War and Peace

Literature that explores war and peace might depict the physical and psychological impact of war on individuals and societies, the politics of war, or the tireless pursuit of peace.

They may also explore the aftermath of war on people’s lives. It can follow people’s struggles to achieve inner peace after a conflict and the trouble of returning to civilian life.

Or, they may explore the deep brotherhood forged in battle, such as in the epic Band of Brothers storyline.

Of course, there are many directions we can take with this theme, but at the center is the extraordinariness of wartime, which opens the door for exploration of intense aspects of humanity.

Examples in Literature

“All Quiet on the Western Front” by Erich Maria Remarque provides a harrowing look at the physical and emotional trauma endured by soldiers in World War I. On the other hand, Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” is an expansive work that explores war from various perspectives, including the experiences of soldiers, families, and politicians.

8. Death and Mortality

Literature is at its best when it grapples with the themes at the core of the human experience – and the inevitability of death is certainly one of these.

Some works might meditate on the grief and loss associated with death, while others might use the prospect of death as a device to reflect on the meaning of life, or to explore how people live knowing they will die.

Oftentimes, this theme overlaps with religiosity, or themes about seeking meaning in life.

Examples in Literature

“The Death of Ivan Ilyich” by Leo Tolstoy explores the protagonist’s confrontation with his own mortality, leading him to reflect on the life he has lived and the value of genuine human connection.

9. Nature and Environment

With the rising threat of climate change, this theme has seen renewed attention in recent decades.

Environmental themes often explore humanity’s relationship with the natural world (oftentimes, for example, showing how small and insignificant we are in comparison to nature).

At the same time, other themes examine the environmental consequences of human action during the age of the anthroposcene.

Themes that explore conflict between man and nature represent one of the key conflicts in literature, such as when a person is challenged by being stuck in the desert or isolated from civilization and nature becomes the main antagonist or challenge to overcome.

Examples in Literature

Some literature might emphasize the spiritual or therapeutic aspects of nature, as seen in “Walden” by Henry David Thoreau, where Thoreau embarks on a two-year retreat to a cabin in the woods to explore simple living and the natural world. Alternatively, environmental literature, like “The Lorax” by Dr. Seuss, uses storytelling to convey warnings about environmental destruction and the importance of conservation.

10. Identity and Belonging

This theme delves into the exploration of the protagonist’s place in society and their personal identity.

The earlier theme of coming of age overlaps significantly here, and so too does the hero’s journey, which commonly examines a hero’s developing sense of self.

Characters in this type of theme might struggle with societal expectations, personal self-discovery, or feelings of alienation, seeking a place or group where they feel they belong.

Examples in Literature

“Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison, for instance, explores the protagonist’s struggle to define his identity within a society that refuses to see him as an individual rather than a racial stereotype. Similarly, “The Joy Luck Club” by Amy Tan navigates the complexities of cultural identity and generational differences among a group of Chinese-American women and their immigrant mothers.

11. Good versus Evil

One of the most fundamental themes in literature, good vs evil features a clear conflict between forces of good and forces of evil.

This theme often pits heroes against villains in a struggle that often represents larger moral, philosophical, or societal issues.

One of my complaints about many contemporary ‘pop lit’ and blockbuster films is that they fail to adequately examine the subjectivity of this false dichotomy – good vs evil themes are at their best when ‘evil’ is an elusive concept, and where we even are able to empathize with the evil character while still seeing the wrongs in their views.

Examples in Literature

J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series is a prime example, with Harry Potter and his friends constantly fighting against the dark wizard Lord Voldemort and his followers. The struggle between good and evil also underlies C.S. Lewis’s “The Chronicles of Narnia.”

12. Freedom and Confinement

This theme highlights the dichotomy between the desire for freedom and the reality of confinement.

Confinement might be physical, such as imprisonment or slavery, or it could be psychological, stemming from societal expectations or personal fears.

The ‘freedom’ element might emerge as a wistful theme, as in many coming-of-age narratives about the young character wanting to escape their hometown confines and beat culture narratives of the 1950s; or it might emerge as a struggle with physical constraint, such as themes surrounding imprisoned POWs.

Examples in Literature

“The Shawshank Redemption” by Stephen King, for example, explores both the physical confinement of prison and the ways in which characters can find freedom despite their circumstances. Similarly, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” by Ken Kesey features characters confined in a mental institution, highlighting their struggle for autonomy against oppressive authority.

13. Rebellion and Conformity

This theme centers on the tension between individual freedom and societal norms.

Characters might challenge authority, resist societal expectations, or fight against oppressive systems. (Here, we’re looking at strong overlap with the man vs society conflict narrative).

The theme may also explore an individual’s rebellion against a cult or religious group which they wish to escape, rebellion against parents, or search for an extraordinary life in an ordinary world. Sometimes, characters return to their roots, embracing conformity, while others escape the orbit or their cultural norms, achieving freedom through rebellion.

Examples in Literature

In Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451,” the protagonist, Guy Montag, rebels against a dystopian society that has outlawed books and free thought. Montag’s transformation from a conformist fireman who burns books to a rebel who seeks knowledge demonstrates the struggle between conformity and rebellion.

14. Innocence and Experience

The theme of innocence vs experience often demonstrates a transition from a naive idealism to wisdom earned through experience.

For example, this theme may also explore the transition from the naivety of childhood to the disillusionment of adulthood.

Characters often face harsh realities or undergo experiences that shatter their innocence and lead them towards a more complex understanding of the world.

Examples in Literature

In “Lord of the Flies” by William Golding, a group of boys stranded on an uninhabited island gradually lose their innocence as their attempts at creating a society descend into savagery.

15. Reality versus Illusion

This theme investigates the nature of reality and the power of illusion.

Characters might grapple with distinguishing between what is real and what is not. In these situations, the story may play with the reader, not even allowing the reader an objective vision of what’s true and what not (such as in the unreliable narrator trope).

Similarly, the theme might explore how characters intentionally choose illusion over reality to escape unpleasant circumstances.

Examples in Literature

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” explores this theme through the character of Jay Gatsby, who constructs a grand illusion of wealth and social status to win the love of Daisy Buchanan. Similarly, in “A Streetcar Named Desire” by Tennessee Williams, Blanche DuBois often retreats into her fantasies, unable to cope with her harsh reality.

16. The Search for Self-Identity

The theme of self-identity revolves around the process of understanding oneself, and it often involves characters undergoing significant personal growth or change.

This theme often begins with characters experiencing a sense of unease or dissatisfaction with their present circumstances or sense of self.

This feeling of discomfort acts as a catalyst for the characters to embark on a quest for self-identity, an inner journey often mirrored by an outward physical journey or experience.

Example in Literature

In Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis”, Gregor Samsa wakes up one day to find himself transformed into a monstrous insect. This shocking transformation forces him to reassess his identity, no longer defined by his role as a family provider, and navigate the alienation from his family and society.

17. The Injustice of Social Class

This theme explores the division of society into different social classes and the resulting inequity and conflict.

One of my favorite American authors, John Steinbeck, explores this theme in much of his literature. He takes the perspective of working-class Americans, examining how corporate interests make their life hard, how fellow Americans discriminate against them, and how they persevere through the relationships they build with other people in their social class.

Examples in Literature

In “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen, the theme of social class is prevalent, influencing characters’ attitudes, behavior, and prospects for marriage. The story continually highlights the injustices of a rigid class system, such as the Bennet sisters’ limited prospects due to their lower social status and lack of dowries.

18. Isolation and Loneliness

The theme of isolation involves characters experiencing physical or emotional separation from others.

This isolation can be self-wrought, caused by an individual’s actions or decisions, or externally imposed, such as societal exclusion, geographical displacement, or unforeseen circumstances.

This theme explores the various forms and impacts of isolation, offering a deep dive into the psychological and emotional ramifications it has on individuals.

I am often compelled by storylines that use physical isolation as a metaphor for the sense of loneliness and isolatedness within the hearts and minds of the protagonists.

Examples in Literature

In Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” the creature, despite his desire for companionship, is shunned and rejected by society because of his monstrous appearance. This isolation leads to profound loneliness and ultimately, a desire for revenge against his creator, Victor Frankenstein.

19. Survival

This theme is often explored in literature through characters facing extreme conditions or challenges that test their will to survive.

There is generally a conflict here, which could be man vs nature (surviving the elements), man vs man (surviving against a foe), or even man vs technology (fighting against rogue technology, such as in Terminator).

Survival themes can be a window into exploration of the tenacity and resilience of the human spirit against the odds.

Examples in Literature

In “Life of Pi” by Yann Martel, the protagonist Pi Patel finds himself stranded in the Pacific Ocean on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. Pi must use his intelligence and faith to survive in this hostile environment, with the story exploring themes of resilience, faith, and the human will to live.

20. The Human Condition

This theme delves into the shared experiences of being human, exploring a wide range of emotions, relationships, and moral dilemmas.

This theme is an examination of the joys, sorrows, conflicts, and complexities that define the human experience.

This theme has been prevalent in literature across all ages and cultures, as it captures the universality of human experiences, making it timeless and deeply relatable.

The human condition looks at the constants in human life, such as birth, growth, emotionality, aspiration, conflict, mortality, and how these shape our individual and collective experiences.

Examples in Literature

Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” provides a complex and insightful exploration of the human condition. Through its diverse cast of characters, the novel delves into various facets of humanity, such as love, infidelity, societal pressure, and the search for meaning in life.

21. The American Dream (Illusory or Real?)

This theme critiques the idealized vision of the American Dream — the belief that anyone can achieve success and prosperity through hard work.

Some all-American storylines (Like the film Pursuit of Happyness featuring Will Smith) show how the American dream is a worthy ideal.

Similarly, in politics (and even real life, for American nationalists), the American dream is something people hold onto as an ever-present fundamental truth: if you work hard and dream big, you’ll make it in the end. It just takes hard work.

But there are many texts that challenge this idea, demonstrating how the pursuit of the American dream can sometimes be a fickle and pointless task. Below are just two examples.

Examples in Literature

In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” the protagonist Jay Gatsby’s pursuit of wealth and social status, driven by his love for Daisy, ultimately leads to his downfall. Similarly, in “Death of a Salesman” by Arthur Miller, Willy Loman’s obsession with success and social acceptance blinds him to his family’s love, leading to tragedy.

22. The Absurdity of Existence

This theme underpins most texts that emerge out of existentialism and absurdism.

At the core of this theme is the exploration of the idea that life really has no meaning behind it. This can create some engaging and post-modernist texts whose storylines tend to meander, cut back in on themselves, and leave us at the end thinking “what a wild ride!”

This theme will tend to bring to the fore the chaotic, irrational, and meaningless features of a storyline.

Examples in Literature

In “The Stranger” by Albert Camus, the protagonist Meursault’s indifferent reaction to his mother’s death, his senseless murder of an Arab, and his subsequent philosophical musings in prison all point to the absurdity and meaninglessness of life.

I explore 5 more examples of existential literature here.

23. The Power of Faith

This theme looks at the role of faith or belief systems in shaping our lives and experiences.

While generally based on religion, it could also more generally represent faith in oneself, the journey of life, or family and friends.

Commonly, the theme will explore how having faith – and releasing stress, anxiety, and discontent when faith underpins our worldview – can provide strength, and hope.

For example, we’ll commonly see this theme when exploring an unbelievably tough journey – either physically (e.g. crossing a desert) or psychologically (e.g. coming to terms with death).

A darker turn, however, may demonstrate how faiths can clash and cause conflict.

Examples in Literature

In “Life of Pi” by Yann Martel, the protagonist Pi maintains his religious belief despite his extraordinary circumstances. His faith provides him comfort, hope, and strength to survive his ordeal at sea.

24. The Struggle for Women’s Rights

This theme involves the fight for gender equality, focusing on the experiences, struggles, and triumphs of women in a patriarchal society.

This theme could fit into the category of “protagonist vs society”, or rather “woman vs society!” It generally attempts to reflect real social, cultural, and political circumstances to make a social commentary about current social inequalities and the underlying patriarchy.

It may explore a woman’s attempts to assert her place in society, her struggles with discrimination, or women’s solidarity in the face of an oppressive outside world.

There has been a resurgence of so-called “bonnet dramas” in recent years that explore this theme, harking back to times when the patriarchy was far more overt.

Nevertheless, it can still be used in contemporary literature because, of course, the patriarchy does still exist in many areas of society and women often feel this intensely.

Examples in Literature

In Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a dystopian future is depicted where women are reduced to their reproductive functions, stripped of their rights, and segregated according to their societal roles. The protagonist Offred’s experiences and memories underscore the theme of women’s subjugation and their struggle for autonomy. In contrast, “Little Women” by Louisa May Alcott explores this theme through the everyday experiences of the March sisters as they navigate societal expectations and strive for their dreams in 19th century America.

25. Fear of the Unknown

This theme plays on the inherent human fear of the unfamiliar or unknowable and is most commonly employed in horror, drama, and murder mysteries.

The fear of unknown motif is very effective for authors who want to create suspense, dread, or anticipation. By prolonging the mystery of an unknown threat, the author can compel the reader to keep on reading until the suspense is overcome.

This fear could stem from various sources: the future, death, the supernatural, or anything beyond human comprehension. A good example in film is the ongoing narrative of the ‘monster’ in the woods in the hit television series, Lost.

Examples in Literature

H.P. Lovecraft’s body of work, often grouped as Lovecraftian horror, prominently features this theme. His stories frequently involve characters who encounter cosmic horrors or ancient, malevolent beings that defy human understanding, highlighting the insignificance and vulnerability of humankind in the face of the unknown.

Some Closing Thoughts

There are a few notes worthy of providing as we wrap up this exploration of examples of themes in literature.

First, a theme isn’t usually stated explicitly. Instead, it is revealed gradually through elements such as the actions of characters, their thoughts and dialogue, the setting, and the plot. These elements come together to express the theme or themes of the work. So, as consumers of texts, themes might be bubbling under the surface, ready to surprise us toward the end of our experience, making us finally realize the message our author is presenting us about society or humanity.

Secondly, one literary work can, and often does, contain multiple themes. For example, George Orwell’s “1984” explores themes of totalitarianism, censorship, the manipulation of information, and the loss of individuality and privacy.

So, enjoy playing with themes – whether as a consumer or producer of literary content – and always remember to reflect on how those themes can help us dig ever deeper into an empathetic understanding of the complexity of the human condition.

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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]

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