Theme: The statement(s), express or implied, that a text seems to be making about its subject. The theme of a work on suffering, for instance, might be that suffering is in God’s plan and should therefore be accepted — or that it is pointless and should therefore be resisted. The term theme is generally applied to the main idea or message in a text but is sometimes applied more broadly to include secondary ideas or messages, hence the characterization of themes as “major” or “minor.” A theme can be moral, or even a moral or lesson, as was common in older works, or it may emanate from an unmoralized, or less obviously moral, perspective, such as an archetypal or philosophical position.

Theme is related to but distinguished from motif, a recurrent, unifying element in a work such as an image, symbol, or character type that informs and casts a revealing light on the theme.

EXAMPLES: The theme in George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) is that power corrupts — and that absolute power corrupts absolutely. In an interview with Padma Viswanathan (“Travels with My Tiger,” Montreal Review of Books [Fall & Winter 2001—2002]), author Yann Martel asserted that the theme of his novel Life of Pi (2001) “can be summarized in three lines. Life is a story. You can choose your story. And a story with an imaginative overlay is the better story.”