What is a Theme?


It is sometimes difficult to understand the difference between the terms ‘motif’, ‘topic’ and ‘theme’. These terms are closely linked to each other, which is partly what causes the confusion, and, to make matters worse, they are often used differently by different teachers. So these pages are intended to offer some simple definitions of the three terms to make sure that you use them correctly when writing your World Lit essays. You should start with the one on motifs, then move on to topics before finishing up with themes.


What is a theme?

It is the term THEME that we most often misuse. We have seen that when we usually talk about THEMES what we are actually talking about is TOPICS. So, what is a theme? If a TOPIC is a very general big idea of what a text is ‘about’ then a THEME is a much more detailed development of exactly what the text says about that big idea.


A theme often expresses the writer’s perspective on some aspect of human life. It is meant to be true of people outside the story in the real world. A theme is not quite the same as the moral of a story (if there is one) because the moral tells us what the world should be like whereas the theme tells us what the world is actually like.


Themes are important because they contain a message or set of assumptions about the way the world is. In this way they can help to establish a ‘Discourse’. Check out the Kiss of the Spider Woman page for an explanation of this idea.


What can be a theme?

Because themes are more developed and more complex they cannot be summarised in one or two words but you should be able to do it in one or two sentences. Generally a sentence about a theme will take a TOPIC idea and develop it further. Obviously a text can have more than one theme. It would be a mistake to assert that a text is ‘about’ just one thing.


Some examples?

Below are some examples of things which are both themes and not themes to help make it clear what exactly a theme is.


‘Female Clothing’: This doesn’t say anything about the world and is just an aspect of the text, something that we can find written down on the page. If this aspect is repeated enough then it might become a motif which could suggest a bigger idea. Molina continually dwells on the details of clothing of the women in the films that he talks about it but in no sense is Kiss of the Spider Woman about female clothing.


‘The Role of Women in Society’: This is a good example of a topic. It is a big idea that a text might be ‘about’ at a very vague and general level. We can see also how a motif could help suggest this topic. In Kiss of a Spider Woman, Molina’s fascination with female clothing may suggest that society has very definite ideas about how a woman should dress.


‘Society constructs different roles for its members, both male and female. These roles are arbitrary but people who do not conform to them are treated as ‘perverted’, immoral, wrong and to be excluded.’: Hopefully the difference between TOPIC and THEME is made fairly clear here. Obviously this is more detailed but, more importantly, it has gone beyond the simple idea that Kiss of the Spider Woman is just ‘about’ the role of women. It has developed this idea into something really interesting and something which applies to both sexes. Now we can interpret the text as being ‘about’ how society has excluded (by sending to prison) two characters who do not fit the normal rules of how people should behave. Molina because of his sexual behaviour and Valentin because of his political behaviour. Furthermore, the fact that the characters do not fixed remain within their roles as political revolutionary or helpless homosexual suggests the idea that the roles that society constructs for people and that some of those people have constructed for themselves are arbitrary, made up and shifting.