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How do you find the theme of a story?

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Sometime the writer will just come right out and tell the reader. You could look for this. The theme is the main idea that links all the parts of a story together, and some books will just say straight out in the beginning what they are going to show you. Sometimes, though, the writer isn't so forthcoming and the reader has to deduce the theme by himself. If that is the case, here are some things to look for:

  • Ask what lesson would I learn if I went through the experiences in this book? For instance, in Tess of the d'Urbervilles you might be inclined to suspect that life is just one endless tragedy. In The Odyssey you might think that clever people always triumph.
  • Ask yourself how the story makes you feel. Sometimes the theme is difficult to express in only a few words and is only a nebulous collection of impressions. In The Furnace the theme could be 'God is best when he is far away.'
  • Follow the protagonist. Anything she is supposed to learn about herself or a problem is usually an important theme.
  • Look for any patterns or repeating ideas (i.e. Poe's use of heightened senses)
  • Look at the genre - every genre has themes that are common to the genre.
  • What mistakes must characters learn from, or what difficult decisions must they wrestle with?
  • Analyze the conflict (man vs. man, vs. society, himself, nature, supernatural, technology, etc. At the heart of the conflict is often a theme the author wants you to chew on.
  • Look for an idea that fits with many parts of the story or one that is repeated.
  • Don't overthink it. Themes are usually simple. Here are some examples: honesty, acceptance, don't be greedy, treat others the way you want to be treated, beauty is only skin deep, love others, don't boast, don't think you are better than others.
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