How to Write an Analysis of Theme

What is it?

Analysis of theme involves working the concept, thought, opinion or belief that the author expresses. It is very common (and helpful) to consider theme when analyzing another aspect of literature rather than on its own. The theme of a work is the main message, insight, or observation the writer offers.
The importance of theme in literature can be overestimated; the work of fiction is more than just the theme. However, the theme allows the author to control or give order to his perceptions about life.

How do you find the theme?

Sometimes the theme can be discovered by reading through the work and looking for topics that show up again and again. When you were reading the work, did you think, “Ah, didn’t he already talk about that?” If you did, then you have probably noted a theme.

If you are having trouble picking out a theme, examine the relations among the parts of a story and the relations of the parts to the whole:
Characters: What kind of people does the story deal with?
Plot: What do the characters do? Are they in control of their lives, or are they controlled by fate?
Motivation: Why do the characters behave as they do, and what motives dominate them?
Style: How does the author present reality? Does he habitually use long or short sentences? What kind of paragraphs are there? Are they short and conversational or are they long and involved? Is the work divided up? If so, how and where?
Tone: What is the author’s attitude towards his subject?
Values: Does it seem like the author is making a value judgment? What are the values of the characters in the story? What values does the author seem to promote?

Think about how the author conveys his ideas.
o Direct statements.
o Imagery and symbolism.
o A character’s thoughts or statements.
o A character who stands for something (e.g. an archetype*)
o Overall impression/tone/moral of the work

Can you identify major and minor themes?
A short story probably only has one theme.
A novel often has several.

Discovering minor themes
Are there recurring images, concepts, structures OR two contrasting ones?
Motifs often support minor themes.

How can allusions make a difference?
An allusion is a figure of speech wherein a phrase which is culturally recognizable is used as a type of shorthand for something else.

Often allusions are used to make a large point quickly. “He was a Houdini” means he can get out of tight situations. He might even be an actual escape artist.

Are there any allusions? Are these historical, biblical, modern?

You will not be able to recognize allusions if you do not know the cultural reference, so many readers looking at a work will miss the allusions. If you happen to be knowledgeable about the allusions in the work, this might be a good point for you to begin with.

If there are multiple allusions about a particular topic, that is a good indication that the topic is a theme in the work.

*Is there a conspicuous recurring element which appears frequently in works of literature?
This is called an archetype: a character, an action, or situation that seems to represent common patterns of human life. For example, in fairy tales the abused person is always good. This lets you know who is good in the story immediately (a character identification) and it helps you to believe that good will triumph over evil (a theme).

An example of the beginning of a theme analysis

A major theme in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is growing up. Throughout the work Alice changes size twelve times. People change size when they grow up. The size change equating to growing up is also a metaphor; in English the description “being bigger” often means “being older.” For the purposes of the story, Alice grows both larger and smaller, but with each change, Carroll is symbolizing Alice’s maturation process. Each time she grows larger or smaller, she has to deal with a problem related to the change in her size.

The very first size change comes when she has recklessly followed the White Rabbit down the hole and into Wonderland. She found a key which unlocked a door, but she could not go through it because she was the wrong size. This fantastical situation happens often in real life. As children are growing up, they often feel that they are not the right size to do whatever they want to do. One day they might feel that they should be bigger so that they might go wherever they wished and the next day they might feel that they should be smaller so they do not have to do chores. Thus Alice’s desire to be a different size in the very first chapter of the book indicates that growing up is a major theme in the work.

Of course, the analysis is incomplete, but it shows how a theme analysis might start.

How to Write a Literary Analysis

When you are assigning a literary analysis, you need to make sure that your students know several things. Writing a literary analysis will be difficult for the students if they don’t know these.

First of all, students need to know what a literary analysis is.


A literary analysis essay is an attempt to evaluate and understand the work of an author, either a single work or an entire body of work. Literary criticism is a description, analysis, evaluation, or interpretation of a particular literary work or an author’s writings as a whole.

Second, they need to know what types of literary analysis there are.

Types of literary analysis

Character Analysis defines characters’ qualities to explore how they react to various conditions or attempt to shape their environment. In other words, the reader/writer seeks to explain why characters behave/think/act in the manners they do. Sometimes, comparing/contrasting two characters is helpful, although a concentration on one character often offers the more complete analysis for short essays (and is what I recommend).

I have a more developed discussion of how to write a character analysis.

Point of View (POV) Analysis explores why the author chose a particular pov, and how this viewpoint affects the reader-writer’s perception of the work.

Analysis of Setting explores how and why a work’s time and place affects the events and/or the characters of the work. Often the reader-writer will want to consider setting as part of another form of literary analysis (extending the analysis of a character, for example).

Analysis of Theme involves working the concept, thought, opinion or belief that the author expresses. It is very common (and helpful) to consider theme when analyzing another aspect of literature rather than on its own. The theme of a work is the main message, insight, or observation the writer offers.

The importance of theme in literature can be overestimated; the work of fiction is more than just the theme. However, the theme allows the author to control or give order to his perceptions about life.

See a discussion of how to write a theme analysis, including how to find the theme, recognizing major and minor themes, and an example of a theme analysis.

Analysis of Structure demonstrates how a work’s organization influences (or is influenced by) the plot and theme of the work.

Analysis of Symbolism (and Imagery) involves demonstrating why an author chooses to use one or more dominant, recurring symbols or images.

Analysis of Style is an attempt to show how and why the author employs word choice, sound or rhythm to convey ideas. In prose, the reader-writer may look at a key passage and consider diction, grammar, sentence length, and rhythm and sound.

An advanced analysis of a literary work could discuss:
· How the various components of an individual work relate to each other
· How two separate literary works deal with similar concepts or forms
· How concepts and forms in literary works relate to larger aesthetic, political, social, economic, or religious concepts.
· What is the literary tradition of the story and how well does the work fit within it?
Examples: romantic, realistic, naturalist, existential, transcendentalist, neo-classical, etc.
· Is there a sub-tradition and how well does the work fit this sub-tradition?
Example: In romanticism, there are sub-traditions of gothic, exoticism, nationalism, etc.
· Are there multiple competing genres which fit the work? Which one best describes it?

Third, they need to know that literary criticism is a more focused kind of literary analysis.

Approaches to literary criticism:

Professionals write literary analyses which are known as literary criticism. The approaches these people take depend on their theoretical orientation. If a student reads the criticism without an understanding of the theoretical orientations possible, the student will be very confused. They will ask questions like, “How can Frankenstein be about motherhood?”

For an excellent short overview and history of these see this page at Southern Oregon University. For a more in-depth examination, go to
this University of South Dakota page.
Basically, though, some of the major forms (with brief notes) include:
• Formalist (looks at work as a whole- chapters, books, volumes, editions)
• Biographical (looks at author’s life through the work)
• Historical (both Old [focuses on work as an artifact; how was it written or printed? How many copies were made? How it was received…] and New [contextualizes it by looking at the culture, the times, the social context the work was written in])
• Gender (primarily looks at the work through a feminist lens: how are women treated? What is feminine in the work?)
• Psychological (Freudian, hidden desires–What is the main character really wanting?)
• Sociological (conscious political ax, for example, Marxist. Is the good guy rich and the bad guy poor? Do the rich win? How is this work portraying different classes?)
• Mythic/Archetypal (Jung, archetypes appeal to collective unconscious–What are the main symbols in the work and what do they stand for? This could also include characters.)
• Reader-Response (ideal reader)
• Impressionistic (gut level- This tends to be what students go for. Discuss it as a critical analysis to be avoided unless they are able to explain why they do or don’t like a work.)
• Deconstructionist (decentering dominant stances by examining opposites–What two things are compared/contrasted and which has the dominance in the work?)

Students, papers, Fs

(Kept private until 2008.)

I was grading my first essays for this semester this week. That just about killed my week. There is not a lot that is more of a bummer than a college essay with 72 marks against grammar on the first page. That was the first essay. The second essay wasn’t any better. I did finally get some decent papers, towards the end of the bunch. (I saved the ones from students I knew wrote well till later.)

I know some of my students are my age and older. But it is the younger students who seem unable to use their computers to do grammar and spell checking. I have one student who thinks that every time he pauses he needs a semi-colon. That’s going to be a tough habit to break.

The papers were a short story analysis. They had to read three Flannery O’Connor short stories and write on one or all three. They could pick which they wrote on. But they had to have quotes from the story in their paper. They did okay on the quoting part.

I actually had my last semester college kids write a process essay. They did fairly well on that one. Some of the other types were much harder.