Theme is one of those elements of literature that everyone pretends to understand, but that can be a little difficult to wrap your head around.
Theme is present in all mediums of artistic expression—short stories, poems, novels, plays, even visual art. If you ask a group of people what the theme of a particular work is, they might all give you different answers. Theme is personal, open to interpretation, and is what, in many ways, makes art meaningful.
Here’s everything you need to know about common themes in literature, including theme examples.
What is theme in literature?
In creative writing, theme is the core underlying idea or message that the writer wants to communicate to the reader. For example, “the power of social status,” “the destructive nature of love,” or “the fallibility of the human condition” are all common themes. Theme can be expressed through every element of a literary work, including plot, characters, and setting.
Your story’s central idea is what makes your work matter to your readers, and why storytelling has the power to affect real change.
Because most themes are fairly straightforward, they’re often considered universal. “Universal themes” refer to common themes in literature that most people can relate to, regardless of age, gender, or cultural background. For example, most people can understand the hope that comes with new love, or the importance of a strong family.
Beyond overarching major themes, a work may additionally contain smaller, different themes that apply only to certain relationships, specific characters, or particular scenes. You can use literary devices like symbolism and metaphor to help the reader understand these themes on a deeper level.
For example, a story’s theme might be the importance of family, but one character’s arc might also explore the theme of tradition vs. independence.
Remember that literary theme can also be very personal. Even when an author approaches a story with a specific theme in mind, readers may interpret it differently depending on what they need or what they’re experiencing in that moment. Because themes are universal, they allow us to interpret them in ways that are most relevant to our own lived experience.
Common themes in literature
Let’s explore themes found in some of the most recognizable works of literature. In these well known examples, you’ll see how each writer explores popular themes that resonate with the human spirit.
1. Good versus evil
One of the most pervasive themes in literature, the good versus evil theme pits a good character against an evil character in a classic battle of moral dilemmas.
It’s not always a living character, though, that’s the evil or good one. This theme can use any clearly good or bad force, but the message is always the same—good and evil cannot coexist and there will always be a war between the two.
The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
In each book of this bestselling series, the work’s theme is consistent—Harry and his friends are up against the evil forces actively launching attacks against the good and innocent. This theme is unquestionable due to the way Rowling uses the story’s key conflicts to juxtapose the “good” characters in her story against the “bad” characters in her story.
In this world, the good is very, very good and the bad is very, very bad.
2. Forbidden love
Forbidden love happens when two people are in love, but shouldn’t be.
It might be someone like a parent that verbally forbids the two individuals from being together, but it can also be society, class structure, or other forces that “forbid” the relationship.
Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
The pervasive theme of forbidden love is most notably found in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. In the play, every single decision that our titular characters make is connected to their forbidden love. Without the forbidden love, there would be no story.
In Romeo and Juliet, love is both destructive and healing. The love ultimately leads to the tragic undoing of the protagonists, but it also heals the rift between their families.
3. Fated love
Fated love is very similar and this theme can be applied to Romeo and Juliet as well, as one might argue that the two were fated to be with one another regardless of the circumstances. Within works that display this theme, the couple is always drawn back together, even though the odds are seemingly impossible.
Outlander by Diana Gabaldon
Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander displays a theme of fated love, with the two main characters of the series, Jamie and Claire, always making their way back to one another and getting their happily ever after, regardless of the circumstances.
This couple is up against some serious odds. In some instances, they’re literally separated by hundreds of years of time, and only one of them can time travel (and the time travel isn’t exactly reliable). In other instances, they’re separated by oceans, and the threats against their happily ever after range from nefarious villains to illness to politics.
4. Sacrificial love
The sacrificial love theme makes the argument that true love always requires a sacrifice. In order to be happy and in order to give your true love happiness, you must make some sort of sacrificial offering, whether large or small.
“The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry
This classic short story published in the early 1900s is a Christmas-set story that follows a young married couple. The two are relatively poor, but still want to give one another a nice Christmas, and so they each, in secret, sell the two things dearest to them in order to buy something for the other person.
However (spoiler!), they eventually discover that, in doing so, they’ve ruined the other’s present. Despite this ironic ending, there’s a happily ever after and the general idea that this is a couple that will do whatever it takes to guarantee each other’s happiness in life.
5. Unrequited love
In this theme, it’s a tragic one-sided love that drives the plot. One person loves another, but those feelings are not returned—which often leads to a series of decisions that set the broader story in motion.
A great example of the unrequited love theme can be found in Great Expectationsby Charles Dickens.
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
Great Expectations contains multiple themes, and one of those is unrequited love. There are several characters that experience this within the book, and while the protagonist Pip, does fall in love, the majority of the book’s plot hinges on the broken heart of the secondary character Miss Havisham.
6. Coming of age
As one of the most universal human experiences, the coming-of-age literary theme centers around a character who is growing up in some manner. Sometimes, they’re literally growing from a child into an adult.
Other times they may already be an adult, and are just growing into the next stage of their life and maturing in some way. This common theme explores self discovery, change, and growth, ultimately leading to a character’s inner metamorphosis.
A coming-of-age story always shows how the protagonist overcomes internal conflict, so careful attention to characters’ personal development is critical when writing about this literary theme.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
Jane Eyre is one of those classic coming-of-age stories, following Jane’s life from childhood to her eventual marriage. However, Jane doesn’t just grow physically over the course of the story. She also grows emotionally and internally as she discovers her own self-worth, confidence, and independence.
7. Righteous justice
In stories about justice, you have a character who’s entirely driven by getting the justice they think they deserve. In the righteous justice theme, most readers can agree that the character in question is in the right and feel a sense of satisfaction when (if) the character obtains it.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is a coming-of-age novel that also features a strong justice theme, as it follows the main character’s father’s quest for justice in the face of a broken, racist system and community.
8. Unrighteous justice
In stories about themes of unrighteous justice, also sometimes called the revenge theme, the character intent on getting their due is either inarguably in the wrong, or they’re going after their justice or revenge in a morally questionable manner.
The character Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights is one example of a character that’s intent on getting their justice, but his behavior as he pursues this justice is often cruel.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
Wuthering Heights certainly has its love themes, but it also can be considered a justice novel. Heathcliff demands the retribution he feels he deserves after his true love marries another person. He begins enacting a long plot to get his revenge, hurting everyone around him, including himself, in the process.
The corruption theme shows how an external influence changes a character over the course of a story, and serves as a warning to the reader that they, too, could become corrupted if they’re not self aware.
Lord of the Flies by William Golding
In Lord of the Flies, a group of boys find themselves alone, self-governing on an island, where chaos and violence quickly ensue. Although it’s written as a boys’ adventure story, it has a deeper meaning: the story shows how humans, when given enough free rein and their own power, are apt to turn evil.
10. The American dream
Independence, wealth, the nuclear family. The American Dream is hyped up to an extreme degree, and often literary works that use this theme attempt to reveal the complexity behind the whitewashed exterior.
This main idea will most resonate with Americans, but the contrast of expectation and reality can exist anywhere.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
One of the most notable examples of a literary work with this central theme is the jazz-age novel The Great Gatsby.
The titular character has seemingly everything he could want, as do all of his friends around him, living a life of extravagant wealth and freedom. However, our narrator—who is not quite so fortunate in life—reveals that these characters are, in many ways, as emotionally bankrupt as they are physically rich… which leads to their lives falling apart.
11. The circle of life
There are several types of literary themes that deal with life and death, or mortality, and for good reason. Mortality is the one thing that every single human being has in common. As such, these mortality-related themes ask (always) and answer (sometimes) big questions, like, how do humans respond to death? Why do we respond the way we do? What does trying to run from our own mortality do? What’s the purpose of death?
The circle of life theme in particular often paints the inevitability of death in a positive or neutral manner. While death is inescapable, it’s not something to be feared and part of the natural process.
Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
In Charlotte’s Web, death is presented as a natural part of living. The story begins and ends with death, with Wilbur escaping death at the start of the book, kicking off a series of events that all ends up leading to the death of the spider Charlotte.
12. The inevitability of death
In this theme, the take on mortality is often one that strikes fear and anxiety. Death is an all-powerful, antagonistic force that the characters spend most of their time trying to avoid at all costs, often going to great lengths to escape death’s clutches.
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
In this classic example, Dorian spends all his efforts attempting to escape death and aging, going to extreme lengths. But even then, he can’t escape his ultimate fate.
13. Family dynamics
Family themes in literature often ask readers to look beyond blood ties and to analyze what the true meaning of family is. Characters may lose their biological family in some manner and then discover a new one, either with another literal blood family or with a group of friends. Or, a character’s biological family may become threatened in some way.
Whatever the case may be, a family unit is always a prominent part of the story and guides the plot points and conflict. Interpersonal relationships and character development should be at the forefront for anyone writing a story with these recurring themes.
In the family dynamics theme, the story examines how family members interact with one another, and how those dynamics are capable of driving a plot.
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Anna Karenina deals with family complexities and looks at three different families that are all experiencing different degrees of success in their interpersonal relationships. This book shows how the family theme doesn’t always need to trend positive.
14. The power of family
In contrast to the above example, the power of family theme is always positive. These stories show how family is a powerful force that can help a character overcome challenges, both internal and external.
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
In Little Women, the story reaches its happy ending all because the main characters rely on one another and their family unit, supporting each other through times of hardship.
Think of the hubris theme as the central character saying, “I’m great, am smarter than everyone else, and will do whatever I want because of it.” One of the most tragic themes in literature, this theme is designed to teach the reader a lesson about the limitations of human nature.
In books with this underlying focus, you’ll always have a character who plows forward into whatever they think is best, to disastrous consequences—because, of course, pride always comes before the fall.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
A well-known example is Frankenstein, in which Victor Frankenstein feels he can channel the power of God by creating life. When his little experiment goes awry, he digs his heels in and continues to think of himself as blameless and worthy of admiration—which ends up being his downfall.
Faith might refer to religious belief, or a belief in another spiritual entity, people around them, a political system, or a culture. A character might lose their faith, or develop a new one.
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
The Poisonwood Bible explores the great lengths we’ll go to when we have faith in something, and what happens when we lose it. A family follows their missionary father to Africa, where he intends to convert the locals and blindly digs in his heels at every challenge. However, as the challenges increase, his family begins losing their faith in both his message and him.
17. Fate vs. Free will
Are you really in control of your own actions? Or has fate determined the course of your life? Those are the questions that these stories ask, and they can be answered in limitless ways.
Oedipus Rex by Sophocles
The Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex explores what happens when you try to outwit fate. Oedipus gets into his horrible situation (marrying his mother and murdering his father) because he tried to outrun his destiny, which only brought him closer to it.
Most of us have an idea of who we are or, if we don’t, it’s a question we’re trying to figure out. Since this is such a universal experience, it should come as no surprise that this is also a theme you’ll see in a range of literature and other art mediums.
The self-identity theme follows a character who is asking: Who am I?
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
Jane Eyre is a coming-of-age novel that also explores the theme of self-identity. These themes often overlap because coming of age is about discovering ourselves. Jane, through the various difficulties and challenges she faces over her life, learns who she is and isn’t, who she wants to be, and how to be it.
Extended isolation can do a lot to a person. Being removed from other humans can impact our mental health and cause us to think or act in ways we might not normally. In some instances, we may feel more free to act like our true selves. In others, we might behave rather poorly. The isolation theme explores these possibilities.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
In this classic short story, we see how isolation impacts our protagonist in a negative manner. The main character is isolated at home, in a single room, and eventually that isolation drives her to madness. As a result, the story brings up questions regarding mental health, gender, and domesticity, and how isolation interplays with all three.
20. The power of nature
In this theme, it’s typically the case that your hero is up against the power of nature in some way.
Nature may serve as the antagonist within the story. If not the story’s central conflict, nature may play a role in moving the plot along, forcing your character to make decisions that they might not otherwise. Nature is all-powerful and your characters are powerless in contrast.
This is not to say that a power of nature-themed book or story always has an unhappy ending. Sometimes, characters learn to live with nature, adapt to it and survive—but nature always wins.
Hatchet by Gary Paulsen
This classic childhood favorite about a boy who survives a plane crash and finds himself stranded in the wilderness is a good example of how a “power of nature” story can provide plenty of conflict without ending unhappily. Over the course of the story, the protagonist must overcome various challenges within his natural surroundings, but he eventually learns to overcome and survive.
21. The influence of the mob
Similarly to the power of nature theme, the mob mentality theme forces characters to face group dynamics that pose a large-scale problem. Maybe the social order is a threat to a character’s life. Maybe the social order is harming everyone around them, but other characters are just too blind to see it.
The message in these stories is that, under the right circumstances, a group or society’s strength can become too powerful for the group’s own good. Man becomes corrupted and that corruption is even stronger when it pervades an entire group.
“The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson
“The Lottery” says quite a lot about the universal human condition, and maybe that’s why so many first readers of this early horror story found it to be so disturbing. One of its main themes is how a group of people can become so blind to their own problems that there are fatal consequences.
22. Self destruction
This theme explores another relatable universal truth—sometimes, you’re just your own worst enemy. Sometimes, all of the problems around you, all of the worst things happening to you, can all be traced back to you and you alone.
Stories with these literary themes can be tragic, or they can be learning experiences.
Emma by Jane Austen
While this classic novel is a lighthearted romantic tale following our titular character’s matchmaking mishaps, Emma soon learns that all of her problems are her own fault. She has to do some soul searching before her problems can be solved and before the book can come to a satisfying conclusion.
The survival theme intersects with many other popular themes on our list. For example, you might have a survival theme story that’s also a power of nature story or a power of the group story. In these stories, your main characters are fighting for survival throughout the course of the book, and that continued survival is the entire focus of the plot.
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
In this popular young adult novel, our main character Katniss spends nearly the entirety of the book trying to ensure her own survival, as well as the survival of those she cares about. The book also weaves in other themes, such as mob mentality and corruption, as Katniss wouldn’t need to be so focused on her own survival if her society hadn’t become so corrupt.
In the heroism theme, our story’s hero is courageous, they make sacrifices, they’re saving someone or something. The heroism theme shows that sometimes life calls you to discover extraordinary strength in order to save something worth fighting for.
The Lord of the Rings series by J. R. R. Tolkien
In this book and series, as well as in many high fantasy books, a large number of characters act as heroes. They bravely walk into dangerous situations to fight for what they feel is right.
The redemption theme is a hopeful one that shows how, even when our main characters behave poorly, there is often always a chance of redemption. These stories might follow a character seeking redemption throughout the entire plot, or it might follow a character’s downfall before their chance at redemption in the end.
Atonement by Ian McEwan
Atonement is often considered a coming-of-age story, but, as the title suggests, it also offer a redemptive literary theme. One of the main characters makes a tragic mistake as a child and then spends the rest of their life dealing with the fallout of that mistake, trying to find redemption in their old age.
What’s your story’s literary theme?
When it comes to theme in your fiction writing, your options are near-endless. There will always be an abundance of central ideas, experiences, and emotions that remain universal throughout time and across cultures.
The next time you pick up a novel or a book of short stories, pay special attention to the major themes and how the author weaves their message into each plot point. They can help you learn how to apply story elements like character development or conflict to create and enforce that underlying message.
What’s the theme of your current work in progress or the last thing you wrote? Can you amplify it with some attention to detail?
Once a theme emerges from your plot, taking care to weave that theme into every aspect of your work will result in a story that’s more impactful and universally appealing.