Finding Themes – A Quick Method


To help you identify the themes in a work you can ask yourself three key questions:


The main character / hero is part of which group or groups?

·         Consider: gender, race, age, ethnicity, religion, social / economic position, time period, job

·         Once you have figured this out make a statement about that person as if it were true of all people in that position.


The opponent is part of which group or groups?

·         Do the same for the enemy. Bear in mind that, while heroes are almost always individuals enemies can be things as vague as governments, businesses, societies or philosophies.


The setting is part of what kind of area?

·         Consider: geographically, economically, historically, country or city

·         Bear in mind that certain areas of the world have stereotypes associated with them, which may vary from person to person or culture to culture. For example, according to Hollywood, America is the land of the free where anything is possible, whereas the Middle East is a terrifying place where anything can happen and women have no freedom.



An Example:

In Harry Potter the main character is a young, inexperienced, white boy of indeterminate wealth, religion or social position who continually manages to succeed against the vastly stronger, more experienced and powerful evil enemies he confronts. Importantly he has been abandoned by his parents and has suffered the cruelty of living with the Dursley’s for years until Hagrid turns up and takes him off to Hogwarts.


Just look at Harry! He could be any white English / Western child.  The vagueness of his wealth, religion and social position and the disrupted state of his family life mean that almost any child can aspire to be Harry. Although it is very interesting that he is both white and a boy. Indeed, apart from Hermione, girls play a fairly predictable role as objects of love (Cho Chang), mother figures (Professor McGonagall), whiny hopeless helpless things (Moaning Myrtle) or damsels in need of rescue (take your pick). Ethnic minorities are even more sidelined – the Patil twins  get a brief outing in the Goblet of Fire where they are Harry and Ron’s last choice of dance partners and, along with Cho Chang, that’s about it for non-white characters.


The enemy varies from book to book but they are all less powerful versions of Voldemort who represents selfishness, power, domination, control and ruthlessness.


The setting could clearly be anywhere in England / the West / the world. The fact that it is magical just takes it out of the real world and means that it is no longer tied to a particular location.


So what’s the theme?

That the pure of heart (exemplified by the young, inexperience but basically good Harry) can over come any amount of evil with courage, faith, bravery, hard work and friendship. Because Harry could be anyone and the wizarding world could be anywhere this applies to everyone.


This is a theme that occurs again and again in movies and novels: in The Lord of the Rings the young and inexperienced Bilbo (& friends) defeat Sauron and in Spiderman the equally young and selfless Peter Parker uses super powers to overcome various fantastic villains. However, it doesn’t only happen in fantasy: in Maid in Manhattan Jennifer Lopez’s lowly, hard working, honest, single mother character eventually overcomes various obstacles (albeit not quite evil) to get the man in the end.


The idea that ‘the pure and the good eventually come good’ is a massive theme in Western culture and is found almost everywhere. So much so that we often assume it to be true in real life. In one sense this theme is clearly rooted in the bible where eventually, even if life is bitterly cruel and unbearably harsh, the good and pure eventually gain the ultimate reward of heaven.