11/07/2009

Most Common Themes in Literature

Have you ever tried teaching theme to a class of middle schoolers? Trust me, it requires patience and a LOT of examples.  One problem is that there's no widespread agreement on a basic list of "most common literary themes."  (Believe me: I've done a lot of research on this.)  I think one reason is that all but the most primitive tales have numerous themes that can be interpreted in numerous ways, so categorizing texts by theme isn't really possible.  For example, is Don Quixote "mostly" about Man vs. Himself (Quixote's inability to see his own failings), or Man vs. Society (society's inability to recognize his innate nobility), or Good vs. Evil (rescuring people in distress), or the Nature of Love (his chivalric love for Dulcinae)?  See what I mean? 

Over time I've managed to winnow down my nominees for "most common literary themes" to the following. I realize that this isn't an inclusive list, but it incorporates (I believe) the most prevalent themes in classic and popular literature.
  1. GOOD VS. EVIL 
    1. AKA: Courage, Duty, Loyalty, Patriotism, Heroism, Nobility/Honor, Crime Does Not Pay  
    2. EXPLANATION: Most stories exploring this theme feature good triumphing over evil, and all the better if "good" is is vastly outmatched by "evil" but triumphs anyway, a la David and Goliath, The Lord of the Rings, or Harry Potter; though, sometimes, evil ends up triumphing over good (Night). 
    3. OVERLAP:  This category often overlaps with Love and Friendship (since the heroes risk their lives to preserve those they love), Man vs. Himself (since the heroes often struggle with themselves to find the courage to go on), Fate vs. Free Will (since often there is a prophecy or some other supernatural agency that has thrust heroism upon them), and Suffering and Redemption (since they often have to overcome their own demons in order to prevail).
    4. OTHER EXAMPLES: The Lord of the Rings, Tolkein; Le Morte d'Arthur, Malory; Ivanhoe, Scott; all stories with detectives or superheroes
  2. MAN VS. NATURE 
    1. AKA: Survival, Quest for Immortality 
    2. EXPLANATION:  Includes all stories in which the main character finds himself pitted against weather/environment (To Build a Fire), animals (Moby Dick), or life/death (Frankenstein). Sometimes humans triumph over nature (Swiss Family Robinson); more commonly, nature triumphs over humans (Jurassic Park).  Rarely, man and nature learn to exist together in harmony (Jungle Book); more often, mankind risks destroying nature and themselves with untamed technology (most science fiction).
    3. OTHER EXAMPLES: The Old Man and the Sea, Hemingway; Call of the Wild, London; Robinson Crusoe, Defoe; Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Stevenson; The Picture of Dorian Grey, Wilde; Flowers for Algernon, Keyes
  3. LOVE AND FRIENDSHIP 
    1. AKA: Sacrifice, Love, Duty
    2. EXPLANATION: Includes pretty much all stories about love, in all its forms: romantic, platonic, godly, unrequited, familial, altruistic.  Usually, love triumphs over the barriers (natural, societal) placed in its way (Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, Taming of the Shrew) though, sometimes, love is unable to overmaster the odds set against it (The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Romeo and Juliet, Ethan Frome). The one thing they almost all have in common is the overarching message that a life lived without love is a life half-lived.
    3. OVERLAP: Stories about obsessive love/jealousy (ex: Wuthering Heights) or improper love/jealousy (Sons and Lovers, Lolita) more properly belong under Man vs. Himself 
    4. OTHER EXAMPLES: All's Well That Ends Well, Shakespeare; Harry Potter, Rowlings; Fried Green Tomatoes, Flagg
  4. MAN VS. SOCIETY 
    1. AKA:  Freedom vs. Authority, Individuality, Justice, Social Justice
    2. EXPLANATION:  My entirely unscientific survey of literature suggests that there are, alas, more examples of society conquering man (Catch 22, Farenheit 411, 1984) than examples of man conquering society (Moll Flanders, Tom Sawyer); though sometimes these two forces end in an uneasy draw (To Kill a Mockingbird).  A common subtext is that even society seems to triumph, the human spirit remains unconquered (Scarlett Letter, Uncle Tom's Cabin; Les Miserables).
    3. OTHER EXAMPLES: Cry, the Beloved Country, Paton; Heart of Darkness, Conrad; Invisible Man, Ellison; Native Son, Wright; Diary of Anne Frank, Frank; Animal Farm, Orwell; Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck
  5. MAN VS. HIMSELF 
    1. AKA: Obsession, Greed, Pride, Hubris, Corruption
    2. EXPLANATION:  The usual subtext of these stories is that man carries within him the seeds of his own destruction, and the causes of self-destruction are indeed myriad: pride/vanity/selfishness (Hector in The Iliad, Rebecca Sharp in Vanity Fair), greed/ambition (Dr. Faustus, Richard III), obsession (Moby Dick), insanity (The Telltale Heart), desire for revenge (Othello, Count of Monte Cristo), jealousy (Wuthering Heights), cruelty (The Lord of the Flies), etc.  Sometimes, however, "Man vs. Himself" shows up as "You should never give up on your dream, no matter how hard the struggle," a particularly popular theme in teen fiction and movies about sports.
    3. OVERLAP: Stories about the ability of power/money to corrupt the human spirit overlap with Man vs. Society; though allowing themselves to be corrupted is a human failing, the instigating event is often a social inequality (political corruption, as in All the King's Men)
    4. OTHER EXAMPLES: Oedipus Rex, Sophocles, The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald.
  6. FATE/FAITH/PREDESTINATION VS. FREE WILL. 
    1. AKA: Truth, Faith, Fate. 
    2. EXPLANATION: These books explore whether man has the power to create his destiny, or whether his destiny is predetermined, whether by willful gods or fickle fate.  This theme is more common in pre-20th century literature, when believe was more widespread that the gods meddled in the everyday lives of men. However, the theme lives in on literature by worth authors (think magical realism) and in novels that feature reluctant heroes who are somehow "chosen" or "predestined" to save the world. 
    3. OTHER EXAMPLES: The Bible; Oedipus Rex, Sophocles; Macbeth/Hamlet, Shakespeare; Harry Potter, Rowlings; The Lord of the Rings, Tolkein.
  7. SUFFERING AND REDEMPTION 
    1. AKA: Triumph over Adversity, Self-Reliance, Perseverance
    2. EXPLANATION:  These stories typically feature characters who seek to overcome obstacles or redeem past mistakes through courage, sacrifice, remorse, or divine intervention.  Sometimes they succeed (A Christmas Carol, Dickens); sometimes, however, one lapse in judgment haunts them forever (Lord Jim, Conrad; Atonement, McEwan)
    3. OTHER EXAMPLES: The Bible; Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky;  Scarlett Letter, Hawthorne; Oliver Twist/David Copperfield, Dickens; Les Miserables, Hugo
HONORABLE MENTIONS (themes that pop up in literature frequently, but not as often as those noted above):
  1. Appearances can be deceiving.  EXAMPLES: Frankenstein, Shelly; The Phantom of the Opera, Leroux; The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hugo
  2. Innocence, once lost, can never be regained. EXAMPLES: Peter Pan, Barrie; The Outsiders, EF Hinton; Catcher in the Rye, Salinger
  3. Mankind's imperative to discover/explore (aka Man's ingenuity). EXAMPLES: Around the World in 80 Days, Verne; Journey to the Center of the Earth, Verne; Atlas Shrugged, Ann Rynd.
  4. The glory of battle/the horror of war.   EXAMPLES: Iliad, Homer; All's Quiet on the Western Front, Lemarq; A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway
  5. Never make a deal with the devil.  EXAMPLES: Dr. Faustus, Marlowe; The Monk, Lewis; The Devil and Daniel Webster, Longfellow 
  6. The American Dream represents both great promise and great temptations. EXAMPLES: Sister Carrie, Dreiser; The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald; The Magnificent Ambersons, Tarkington

3 comments:

  1. Fantastic list man. I'm printing this and posting it to my wall.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hi there. Great list. I was wondering how I might get permission to republish your list in a self-help book I'm writing. Please let me know. I'd be happy to tell you more about my book if you are interested.

    ReplyDelete