Course 10—Lecture

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How to Read: Theme
After all the words and all the pages, what is the author getting at, what larger issues is she exploring? In LitCourse 10, we talk about what a theme is—and what it isn't—and how we can suss out a story's central ideas.

Reading
James Joyce—"Eveline"


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Theme—what it's all about

Finally, what we've been waiting for. After all the talk about setting, plot, characters, and so on . . . here's the Big Question:

What's it all about? What is the author getting at?

Theme is what it's all about.
Theme is a story's central idea(s)—it is the element that expresses a writer's vision of life...or explores certain questions.

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Theme—what it's all about

The elements of fiction—plot, characters, setting and symbols—work together to form the central ideas of a story.

Theme is a generalized statement about a story —and must be supported by the text. But be careful—theme is not . . .

the story's moral
a plot summary
the story's subject

Let's look at what themes are not by revisiting a few previous LitCourse stories


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Theme is not . . .

"Horse Dealer's Daughter" (Course 9)
Men are the stronger of the sexes. Women are weak and dependent; only marriage saves them from a life-in-death.


Problem: unsupported. Only some of the story elements support this statement. Other important ones are ignored. It's a misreading to select only part of a story to represent its central ideas.


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Theme is not . . .

"A & P" (Course 4)
Sammy acts rashly and is left all alone at the end. The story's moral is that acting on impulse causes trouble—it's better to think before you act.


Problem: moral. This is a statement of the story's moral, not it's central idea (nor is it exactly the moral or the lesson Sammy learns).


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Theme is not . . .

"Babylon Revisited" (Course 5)
Charles Wales returns to Paris, the scene of his former debauchery, to reclaim his daughter. His sister-in-law, however, refuses to turn Honoria over to him.


Problem: plot summary. This is a brief restatement of the events of the story, not one of the centrals idea behind the plot.


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Theme is not . . .

"Powder" (Course 3)
A father-son relationship needs to be mended.


Problem: subject. This states the subject of the story, not it's central idea.

Now let's look at the actual themes for those same stories.


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Theme is . . .

"The Horse Dealer's Daughter" (Course 9)
Female sexuality is a powerful force, giving women power over men.


Supporting evidence: the title which connects Mabel to her father—one subdues horses, the other men; frequent references to men as "subject animals;" the sexual symbolism of the pond, which Jack enters reluctantly; the last scene in which Mable holds sway over Jack.


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Theme is . . .

"A & P"
Standing up for principle—or refusing to conform to society's narrow conventions— are difficult, lonely gestures, rarely appreciated and often condemned.


Supporting evidence: Sammy lets us know the A & P with its restrictive conformity feels like a straitjacket. Fed up with the boredom and standing up for the girls—doing what he feels is right—gains him no acknowledgment, let alone reward. He learns that life will be hard.


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Theme is . . .

"Babylon Revisited"
Redemption is possible—but never easy. The past reasserts itself, always threatening to pull us back into old habits.


Supporting evidence: Duncan and Lorraine, "ghosts out of the past," appear and reappear to disrupt Charles's attempt to recover Honoria and his honor.


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Theme is . . .

"Powder"
Spontaneity and risk, not always knowing or able to control the outcome, are important for a full life.

Supporting evidence: After removing the roadblock, the boy begins to enjoy the downhill drive and realizes that a bit of risk and uncertainty are exciting. "And the best was yet to come—switchbacks and hairpins impossible to describe.... If you haven't driven fresh powder, you haven't driven."


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Identifying theme

It's not always easy to pinpoint a story's central idea. Start by paying attention to the elements of fiction:

title and setting
repetition of words, phrases, actions
characters who change or grow

Title and Setting

Revisit LitCourse 4 for its discussion of how title and setting often reflect theme.

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Identifying theme

Repetition: words, phrases, ideas or actions are often repeated, pointing to their importance and leading to thematic clues.

"The Horse Dealer's Daughter"
Repeated references are made to brother Joe and his resemblance to horses. The men are "subject animals" in this story; and women exert power over them.

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Identifying theme

Characters who grow and change, who learn something valuable or see the world in a new light, usually point to theme.

"A & P" and "Powder"
Both young heroes undergo change and gain insight into the adult world. Those insights are thematic.

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Identifying theme

Some final words about theme:

Many stories have multiple themes.

 Not every story has a theme: horror, detective, and adventure-thriller stories may not have themes.

 A theme can oversimplify. Discerning its themes enlarges our understanding of a work but doesn't capture the totality of its richness and complexity.


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Congratulations!

You've reached the end of the Lecture. To continue with LitCourse 10, click "Readings" on the Course Tools menu to the right.

"Eveline"
James Joyce

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