How to find a theme

Hey, this is Mr. Sato. Let’s talk about theme. OK, you have to find the theme in some book
you read for school? Well, I think that, with a few exceptions, theme is the most important element in a work of literature, because the theme is the literary work’s
primary purpose. And by literary work, I mean any written work
of art, like a novel, play, short story, poem, or even a screenplay. The theme (and here’s
your definition) is the central idea of a work of literature. I often over-simplify this term for students
by saying it’s kind of like the moral of the story, the life lesson the author wants you
to take away from the book. It’s the message or meaning. And that meaning isn’t just about the characters; it’s more abstract than that; it applies to you and me, and everyone. The theme is usually universal, but at the very least it’s an idea that’s bigger than just these characters and
this fictional world. Don’t tell me that the theme, in the Lion King, is that Simba had
to go back to rule his kingdom. The theme is bigger than just that one character. The
theme is that all people should live up to their responsibilities because they are needed by the people around them. You see? That’s a theme. Also, theme is not the same as a “subject.” The subject of a work can usually be expressed in a word or two: family, courage, the nature of love. Right? That’s the subject. However, the theme is the idea the writer wishes to
express about that subject. It’s an opinion, not a fact. If you tell me the theme is “love,”
I’ll say that’s wrong, and ask you, “what ABOUT love?” The theme isn’t a thing;
it must be an opinion about that thing. That’s why I tell students not to merely Google “what is the theme of this book?” Because you’ll often get things like, “one of themes
of this book is love” or “social justice.” The way I define it in my classes, those are
subjects, not themes. Love isn’t a theme. Love stinks is a theme.
Get it? And it would be best if the opinion you came
up with wasn’t too obvious, like, “it’s good to be fair.” That’s pretty obvious and almost
no one would disagree with that, so it isn’t very interesting. And if that’s all you need for the assignment
you’re currently working on, you can stop watching now. But theme is actually a little more complicated than that. You know how in life, we notice things and
have experiences, we put things together in our minds and we gain insight or understanding about the world? We develop generalizations about how the world works, or what people are like. For example, after several instances of having people pop up unexpectedly to help
you reach some important goal, if you’re an optimistic sort of person, you might say to
yourself: “Well, I guess that’s how life is. When you’re trying to reach a difficult goal
worth reaching, help will become available even in the unlikeliest of situations.” It’s
a nugget of wisdom you earned through observation and experience. You do this. Everyone does this. Chimpanzees can do this. Chimps learn that every year about this time, food can be found in this particular area. They make a generalization based on their experiences. That’s a similar process as detecting a theme
in a work of literature. When you read a work of literature, that book is a model of the
real world. It’s like a map or a globe. The author who created that model wants you to
see the world through his or her eyes, and probably hopes you’ll come to similar conclusions about it. But she usually doesn’t put it on a plate and just say it outright because it wouldn’t really mean anything to you that way. So she shows you what some slice of the world looks like and expects you to put things together in your mind, just like you do in
real life, making generalizations about the world based on these imagined experiences.
We gain insight and understanding about the world that way. This is something that chimps can’t do. If
you show a chimpanzee a map of a room and show them that the banana is behind this door — on the map — the chimpanzee can’t apply that understanding to find the actual banana in the actual room. This process of making abstract meaning
from a model is one of the things that makes
us human. And just like in real life, a good work of
literature is complex and could contain many themes, some large and obvious, some small
and less obvious. If you’re writing a theme essay for the first time, it might be a good
idea to go with the big, obvious theme. That’s completely fine. I recommend it. But if you
want a more interesting challenge, you could write about some smaller, more original theme. Either essay could earn you a good grade, as long as it was well written and well supported. In some cases, a book could even contain contradictory themes. A play or novel could even present two opposing themes and leave the choice to the reader. Or two separate readers could come to opposite conclusions. You might read a
book and you say the theme was that “hard work pays off.” Then your friend reads the
same book and says the theme is that “hard work is meaningless; it’s luck that matters.”
So, just like in real life, two people with similar experiences can come to
very different conclusions. And as long as each person can back up his or her theme with evidence from the book, then his or her opinion is legitimate. Now this might sound strange, but you can
even come up with a theme that the author did not intend or even flatly rejects. The
author of a poem might say in an interview that he did not intend for readers to conclude
that the strong should conquer the weak, but you might see that theme in his poem anyway, regardless of what he says. And if you can back that up with evidence from the text, then, for you, that’s
a theme in that poem. The reader owns the meaning,
not the author. One of the best ways to find a good theme
is – A. – to see what happens to the main character. Readers usually identify with the
main character, especially if he or she is a protagonist, a sympathetic character with
whom we identify. I say this because some main characters are unsympathetic, like the
main character of Crime and Punishment, a very bad guy, and not all readers will identify
with him. In either case, if the main character changes
over the course of the book in a good way, then a theme could be that readers
should do whatever he did. So if a character is heroic in some way, the theme could be that those qualities
are admirable and that we should be that way in our own lives. If the main character changes in a bad way,
then the theme might be to avoid making that character’s choices. For example, in Arthur C. Clarke’s science-fiction story, “If I Forget Thee, O Earth…,” we learn that the main characters are
stranded on the moon because the human race has made
the Earth uninhabitable because of nuclear war. Because we see that the characters’ situation has changed in a very negative way, the theme is to avoid doing what they did. A theme of this story could be that mankind should learn
to solve its conflicts without war or violence. And if you’re interested in
symbolism, here’s a key to theme that served me well
in college. Ask yourself: if the main character is a symbol for all mankind, what is the author saying about mankind? The answer to that could be your theme. B. Sometimes, authors have a character just state the theme, often near the end of the book.
It’s often some meaningful conclusion about mankind or some aspect of life. A character might say something like, “Well, Bob, love
is like that, isn’t it? Sometimes it’s sweet and sometimes it’s sour. But you know, I’ll
take my chances.” So the theme could be exactly that: that love can be pleasurable and it
can be painful, but it’s worth the risk. Not all books contain a statement like that, but
some do, and it’s worth keeping an eye out for one. C. Another way to find a clue is to look at
the title. That won’t help with titles like Animal Farm or Romeo and Juliet, which are
merely descriptive, but a lot of the time, authors put hints in the title. After you read Harper Lee’s novel, To Kill
a Mockingbird, think about when the killing of a mockingbird was talked about and what
was going on in the book at the time. What was being referred to? That will point you
towards a main theme. Finally, D. Look at the main conflict. What
forces are pitted against one another in this story, and who wins? And why? I don’t mean
what specific characters, I mean step back and look at what big group or idea is struggling against some other bigger group or idea. Let’s say it’s a ship captain and his crew struggling against a massive, uncontrollable white whale,
like in Moby Dick. Look at that in an abstract way.
That’s mankind vs. nature So maybe the theme has something
to do with man’s conflict with the massive, uncontrollable forces of the natural world. So, let’s review quickly. And I’ll put in
some time indexes too, so if you want, you can re-hear those particular sections. 1) Theme is kind of like the moral of the
story. It’s the message or meaning. 2) Theme is bigger than just these characters and this story. 3) Theme and subject are not
the same thing. Theme is a debatable opinion
about a subject. 4) The abstract meaning in the book applies
to the real world we live in. The ability to do this is uniquely human.
5) Literary works can contain many themes. Any theme is legitimate if you can
back it up. 6) The meaning belongs to you,
not the author. 7) Ways to find the theme include: Looking for changes in the main character,
Watching for clear statements of theme, Examining the title,
And looking at the conflict. Making meaning from literature–finding a theme– is one of the best things you can learn because it’s a real world skill that will allow you to learn from experiences that someone else has had, that you haven’t actually
experienced yourself– and in turn, you can apply that wisdom to your own life, to be a smarter and
happier person. And what is more important than happiness?

100 thoughts on “How to find a theme

  1. why the hecc do you have so many subscribers when you're a heccin teacher

  2. This is awesome!!! Please continue making these great videos!!!

  3. Very good video thank you so much its going to help me past my test

  4. Great video 🙂 Just a heads up though, it's somewhat alienating for a portion of your audience if you use "he or she" instead of "they."

  5. Found this vid after failing a theme comparison paper… This cleared things up, I hadn’t found a relevant theme. Thanks!!

  6. literally everyone's watching this in english class and complaining about it in the comments it's great

  7. Goddamn, Mr Sato. Everyone here is watching this vid, and we're kind of using this as an assessment revision vid. YoU'Re FaMoUs!

  8. Very good video. My students understood the topic well after watching this.

  9. I think that Mistersato has an intriguing way of teaching this subject, Thanks!

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