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Universal Theme: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:00 Understanding Universal Themes
  • 1:00 Examples of Universal Themes
  • 4:25 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Andrew Sedillo

Andrew Sedillo has taught Language Arts, Social Studies, and Technology at a middle school level. He currently holds a Bachelor's of Arts in Education, Master's of Arts Educational Learning Technology, and a Graduate certificate in Online Teaching and Learning.

This lesson will define universal theme and give you examples you can refer to in order to identify universal themes in other pieces of literature. At the end, you'll be able to test your understanding through a quiz.

Understanding Universal Themes

A theme can be described as the central idea found within a story or passage. It can also represent a message or lesson the author wants to convey. When a theme is relatable by a wide range of readers, we call this a universal theme. These are themes that many people can relate to for a number of reasons, whether it's because they incorporate common life experiences or are simply concepts of human nature that most readers can understand. Universal themes allow readers to connect to the story emotionally.

Some of the more common universal themes found in literature include individual struggle towards a personal goal, a person's struggle with humanity, falling in love, life cycles, karma, coping with tragedy, adolescence and discovering the world around us. These are universally understood by a majority of readers due to how easily they can be applied to their own lives.

Examples of Universal Themes

In the story 'Little Red Riding Hood', a girl goes on a walk through the forest to her grandmother's house. On her way, she meets a wolf, who appears to be nice. She tells the wolf where she's going, which later leads to the downfall of her grandmother. The overall theme of this story might be do not trust strangers. Is this a universal theme? Perhaps, but perhaps not - there are certainly cultures that don't put a high value on mistrusting strangers.

It's important to note that there aren't really a finite number of universal themes. Many themes are subjective. In reading or seeing the play, Romeo and Juliet, for example, one person might conclude that the main theme is tension between two groups, while another person would say it's cause and effect of rebellious behavior. Many readers would agree that both of these themes, along with others, like first love, are present in the story. Below you will find more examples of universal themes found in literature.

Coming of Age

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a story about a boy named Arnold, who has lived most of his life on an Indian reservation. Wanting to try something different, he decides to attend school outside the reservation but receives little support from many people he is close to. During this time, we see Arnold go through puberty, get his first girlfriend, experience grief and face many other situations common to teenagers. Most readers, or adult readers, anyway, can connect to this theme because most of us can recall what it's like to grow up.

Loss of Innocence

The 1967 novel The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton tells the story of youths in the mid-60s who are separated from each other by the groups they are associated with. These are the Greasers and the Socs, and there is a constant tension between the two. One of the story's main characters, Johnny, is seen as timid and good-hearted. He eventually loses all innocence one night when he experiences a situation that causes him to kill one of the Socs. This theme is universal because most of us have experienced something that led us to losing some innocence, even if we haven't killed anyone.

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