What do ‘themes’ mean in English?

what are themes?

What do ‘themes’ mean in English?

I have a habit of teaching people things I’ve newly learnt. Whether this has been through reading, things I’ve been told, information online, or through my experiences of everyday life. One of my golden mantras that shape my tutoring philosophy is that when a student can confidently explain a concept back to me in their own words without using notes, I know that they have achieved understanding.  The more eloquent and succinct the speech, the more points they get. (Challenge #1 – find the Einstein quote that relates to this). Too often, we students (myself included) fall into the trap of reading from a textbook and ‘smiling and nodding’ before proceeding to blank upon the challenge of recalling the knowledge. 

I always find it incredibly useful to engage with any explanation by relating the information to everyday life. The aim is to make it memorable so you can hold their precious, hard-earned attention. Making important points memorable through various techniques is something you will come across often in your literary analysis. The challenge is to be able to identify and analyse literary techniques with an emphasis on why they are used and how they are used to create the author’s intended impact on the reader/audience. (Challenge #2 – which techniques in English can be used to relate something to something else for the benefit of the reader’s understanding?). With this preamble finished, it is (finally) time to delve into themes.

So, what are themes?

When the word ‘theme’ is mentioned, my first thought is of a theme park. This usually ends in disappointment as I realise that this option is not on the cards. I then start thinking about somewhere like Disneyland. Those of us lucky to have been to will know it is full of Disney-themed rides and activities. Dreamworld in Queensland is similar in that it has attractions from another major animation studio in Dreamworks (think Shrek, Madagascar, Kung Fu Panda). Think about themed restaurants you know of. Maybe a place made to look like an American diner or somewhere that looks culturally traditional. What these things share is that they permeate the whole area. The theme is what different aspects of the place or design are brought together by. It is the ‘big idea’ or a ‘thread’ that shapes the presentation/appearance.

How do I apply this to my English class?

Applying this to English, we can take the idea of ‘big ideas’ and say that themes are possibly the most important aspect of any work. They are what the author is trying to get across (like a package you’ve bought online), and the words are just the vehicle (like the plane or ship that brings it to you). When you eat a meal, you have the food (the author’s work) and all of the flavours (themes) that come with them. The theme is linked to what something is ‘about’. Have you ever asked for a film recommendation and then rejected the idea after asking what it was about? The ‘about’ gives you the theme. I generally accept offers to watch superhero films – it is very common for these to have themes like ‘good versus evil’ and ‘teamwork’. You can find a more comprehensive list by having a look at Netflix categories online. (Challenge #3 – what themes are common in your favourite film genres?).

A lot of literary works incorporate themes to guide them and resonate with the audience, while the authors generally add their own personal opinions regarding the topic. The themes are what stick with you long after you’ve forgotten what actually happens in a novel or film. I have very little memory of the specific events in Romeo and Juliet, but I definitely remember it was about love.

What are themes for?

Identifying and understanding the themes present in a literary piece are key skills to have as they can guide you towards the overall ‘meaning’ or purpose of the work. This will allow you to appreciate the author’s contention, which can then help you pick out quotes or aspects of the work that relate to these themes, which you can explore in your analysis. Explaining and analysing appropriate quotes is where the majority of your marks will come from.

My task with this piece was to teach you about themes in English, but I hope you have become more knowledgeable in general, having reached the end of this prose. Thanks for your attention!


English tutor at Evergreen Tutoring Services

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