How Different Literary Genres Approach Similar Themes & Topics

Instructor: Monica Sedore

Monica holds a master's degree and teaches 11th grade English. Previously, she has taught first-year writing at the collegiate level and worked extensively in writing centers.

Different genres may approach themes in different ways, but similarities are always present when dealing with complementary ideas. This lesson uses the theme of justice to explain how different genres handle similar ideas.

A Different Take on a Theme

While works from different literary genres may tackle the same themes, they often do so in a way that is befitting the genre itself. For example, love is handled very differently in Jane Austen's romantic Pride and Prejudice, than in Anne Rice's horror/fantasy Interview with the Vampire. In the former, love is that which the characters are looking towards, while in the latter, love is something that works against the characters. Just because two works deal with the same theme does not mean that they will handle the issue in the same way. Two works in the same genre won't necessarily handle an issue the same, but two works in different genres will, by nature, approach similar themes in different ways.

Perspectives on Justice

Nathaniel Hawthorne's historical classic The Scarlet Letter and Suzanne Collins's young adult fantasy Hunger Games series both deal with judgement and justice, but in very different ways. In The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne, a Puritan in the 1600s, is convicted of adultery, and as a consequence, is forced to wear an 'A' on her clothing to signify to the other townspeople that she cheated on her husband. The idea of public humiliation as a way to enforce social order is echoed in the post-apocalyptic Hunger Games, wherein each year, two children from each of Panem's twelve districts are chosen via lottery to compete in the Capitol's Hunger Games, a fight to the death with only one winner. The purpose of the Hunger Games is to remind the districts of the Capitol's power. Naturally, the gruesome championship is televised to ensure that all citizens are aware that they are and will remain powerless against the Capitol.

Hester Prynne was branded with the letter A.
red letter a

Both The Scarlett Letter and The Hunger Games deal with the theme of justice in a similar way: public humiliation. Their societies and governments control their citizens by making an example out of Hester Prynne and the Hunger Games 'contestants' (known as tributes), respectively. Interestingly enough, the novels were published over 150 years apart, yet the idea of controlling society through public humiliation is still relevant. Due to the popularity of social media in today's society, however, it is not a surprising concept. With many people so concerned about how they appear in public spaces, it seems to follow that publicly broadcast punishment would be the ideal way to keep citizens from acting in a way that runs counter to society.

This, Not That

The differences between Hawthorne and Collins's novels, however, are vast, not least of all because they were written during two different centuries. Because The Scarlet Letter is historical fiction and The Hunger Games is young adult fantasy, the two universes differ greatly in the way they handle the theme of justice.

Justice in The Scarlet Letter is congruent with the historical context of seventeenth century Puritan life. As we know it, adultery, though socially frowned upon, is not a punishable crime. In Puritan society, however, adultery was seen as a crime against God. To step outside of one's marriage bed was akin to turning away from God and the promise of Heaven and life after death. Hester Prynne may as well have renounced her entire religion for what it meant to her family and friends. To be branded as an adulterer, then, was to be permanently marked as other--someone to be feared and reviled for the rest of her life. Prynne was to be punished for the rest of her life, in accordance with the justice of her society.

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