Identifying themes and ideas

A badge with a pound sign labelled money, a  badge with a clenched hand labelled power and a badge with a heart and arrow labelled love.

Although a text may appear to be about events that take place, the themes are the important ideas and meanings that run throughout the text. For example, Lord of the Flies by William Golding is about a group of school boys stranded on an island. However, the writer is also presenting the reader with some important ideas - themes like the loss of innocence and the conflict between violence and reason.

Other common themes in fiction include:

  • power
  • love
  • money
  • death
  • appearance and reality
  • heroism
  • technology in society
  • friendship

One of the easiest ways to spot themes is through motifs. A motif is a repeated image or idea in a text that helps develop a theme. It helps to know that the word ‘motif’ comes from the French word for pattern. For example, in the novella Of Mice and Men, there is a focus on the images of hands throughout the text. The image of hands could develop various themes, including violence and identity.

Identifying a theme in an extract

In an extract you might only be able to say what themes are suggested. When working with a short extract of a fiction text, it helps to look closely at the language choices to work out the themes.

Example

Look at the opening of Skellig by David Almond, where the narrator finds Skellig for the first time. Try to identify the themes that run through this extract.

I found him in the garage on a Sunday afternoon. It was the day after we moved into Falconer Road. The winter was ending. Mum had said we'd be moving just in time for the spring. Nobody else was there. Just me. The others were inside the house with Doctor Death, worrying about the new baby. He was lying there in the darkness behind the tea chests, in the dust and dirt. It was as if he'd been there forever. He was filthy and pale and dried out and I thought he was dead. I couldn't have been more wrong. I'd soon begin to see the truth about him, that there'd never been another creature like him in the world.

Skellig, David Almond

Analysis

There are plenty of hints that death is an important theme in the novel. For example:

  • the name of the doctor is "Doctor Death"
  • Skellig appears to be "dead"
  • there is also the "worry" about the new baby

However, there are also hints at renewal and life-after-death:

  • the family have moved ‘just in time for the spring’, a season of renewal
  • Skellig seems to have been there ‘forever’

The images and word choices in this opening paragraph suggest that a major theme in this book is death.

Identifying the themes of a text is an act of inference. You can make links between the themes of a text to the characters, the setting and the language.

Don’t confuse the topic with the theme. For example the topic of a text could be two friends travelling around looking for work on ranches, but the themes might be friendship and the pointlessness of dreams as seen in Of Mice and Men.