Identifying Multiple Themes & Theme Hierarchy

Instructor: Patrick O'Reilly
Most works of literature feature several themes at once. Some of these themes are more important than others. In this lesson, we will be defining theme, and discussing methods for identifying and ranking themes as they appear in a work of literature.

Theme and Theme Hierarchy

Theme refers to the ideas addressed by a work of literature. Theme is the discussion the story is having with us as readers. Usually, a single work will suggest many themes. When this happens, we may feel that some themes are more important than others. The ranking of themes in order of importance is referred to as theme hierarchy, and requires identifying primary, secondary, or minor themes.

In this lesson, we will be looking at ways of identifying themes and placing them within a hierarchy.

Identifying Theme

Identifying themes, whether they are major or minor, often requires some intuitive work. We may sense that the author wants us to think about a certain ideas. But what those ideas are, and how the author wants us to feel about them, are not always clear.

It helps to think of the challenges being faced by the characters, especially the protagonist. What are they struggling with? What do the characters say and do about their problems, or other people's problems? These are the strongest indicators of theme, and they link theme closely to the plot: both plot and theme develop over the course of the story, and are, in a way, resolved. Important moments in the plot are often important moments thematically, and we might say that plot is the development of a character's physical circumstances, while theme is the development of a character's intellectual, spiritual, or emotional circumstances.

Recurring motifs and images also help; for example, if a character remembers his father wearing a particular style of hat, and later he wears a similar hat, the parallel might suggest themes of aging or inheritance.

In all cases, repetition is important: a theme must be addressed throughout the story, and characters' thoughts on those themes will develop, just as the plot develops. In this way, the characters (and the readers) will have engaged with an idea.

Themes are open to personal interpretation. A story can have as many themes as the reader can identify based on recurring patterns and parallels within the story itself. In looking at ways to separate themes into a hierarchy, we might find it useful to follow the example of a single book. To Kill a Mockingbird, for example, features some commonly-used themes. In To Kill a Mockingbird, however, the themes are very pronounced and the importance of each theme in relation to the others is more or less apparent.

Primary Theme

Most readers will identify the evils of prejudice as the central theme in To Kill a Mockingbird.

The narrator, Scout, observes the injustice of Tom Robinson's imprisonment and eventual death as the result of racism, and characterizes Tom's accusers in a negative light. In this case, the theme of prejudice is identified very directly: Scout is directly challenged by the idea of prejudice, and her thoughts about prejudice develop over the course of the novel.

Prejudice, however, appears in other subplots. Scout is fascinated by, and afraid of her neighbor, Boo Radley, a mysterious shut-in and neighborhood boogeyman. However, Boo Radley later rescues Scout from an attack by the same people who accused Tom Robinson, and Scout discovers Boo Radley is actually kind and gentle. This event ties the two storylines together. The recurring motif of unfair accusations in these and other storylines marks prejudice as the primary theme of the novel.

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