How to Find the Theme or Central Idea

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  • 0:01 Get to the Point!
  • 1:02 Finding Theme in Fables
  • 2:35 Finding Theme in Literature
  • 3:38 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jason Lineberger

Jason has 20 years of education experience including 14 years of teaching college literature.

In this lesson, you'll learn how to identify the theme or central idea of a text, and you'll get some specific examples of themes from famous stories.

Get to the Point!

Let's start out by imagining a situation. Here's a teen girl, Lisa, talking to her mother. She says things like, 'Come on mom, everybody has one.' 'You'll be able to keep track of me. I'll actually be safer with one,' and 'It has a calculator on it, so I can use it in math class.' Lisa's mom says, 'Just get to the point!'

Lisa is trying to convince her mother to buy her a smartphone. The central idea, or main point, of her argument could be simply stated as, 'I would like for you to buy me a smartphone.' The central idea isn't hard to figure out, especially when you think of how important central ideas are to our everyday communication.

Well, literature has central ideas, too. Stories, novels, plays, and poems all have themes, ideas about life that the author is trying to express. Let's start figuring out themes by looking at some stories that you've grown up reading.

Finding Theme in Fables

A great place to start when you're thinking about themes is with fables. Fables are short stories, usually about talking animals, that teach a lesson. Since fables teach a lesson, you know they have a theme; after all, themes are really just lessons about life!

Think back to that classic, The Tortoise and the Hare. In that famous story, you have a rabbit and a turtle racing each other. The turtle just clonks along, one foot in front of the other, while the rabbit runs as fast as, well, as fast as a rabbit! The rabbit brags a lot, stops to mock the turtle, and eventually gets so far ahead that he takes a nap. While he's napping, the turtle passes him and crosses the finish line.

You know the moral of the story, 'Slow and steady wins the race.' The author is trying to express an idea about life - that it's better to be humble and persistent than to be arrogant and rush through things. Since that's an idea about life expressed by the author, that's the theme of the fable.

Here's another one: the fable of The Lion and the Mouse. Big, bad lion catches a mouse, but decides to let him go rather than eat him. Later, when hunters have trapped the lion, the mouse sneaks up, gnaws through the ropes, and sets the lion free. Aesop, the author of the fable, stated that the theme of this fable is, 'Little friends may prove great friends.' He just means don't underestimate people; even someone small can be a big help in the right situation.

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