Critical Concepts


(1) We can think of theme as the overall reason for being of a story or poem — what the author cared about enough to be moved to spend the time and energy required to decide on exactly what this story, in its particular facts and wording, would be.   We need to restrict this definition, however, to a certain kind of reason for a story's being.  We speak of theme when we sense that by choosing these facts, and this wording, the author decides and defines exactly what issues will or will not be raised, and which positions the perceptive reader will be invited, or discouraged, to consider taking on those issues.  

That is, we have to take note that not every work of literature is motivated even in part by what we call themeNot every story or poem that claims our attention as a worthwhile work of art is concerned with clarification of issues (of why people do certain sorts of things, or suffer in certain ways, and what we are to make of this).  A story might aim more simply at producing an effect of surprise at the outcome, or wonder at a character (consider the amazing -- to most of us -- dangerous but unselfconscious amorality of the Duke in Browning's poem "My Last Duchess").  It might be an extended series of jokes, the purpose of which is simply to get us to laugh.  A lyric poem might give moving expression to grief, or longing, or delight.  In such cases, it makes little case to speak of "theme."  Clarity about what theme is, is helpful to the degree that, with these works, the sooner we realize that they are unconcerned with it, the quicker we can tune in to, and possibly savor, what it is they do propose to offer us.

An account of what the author might be using the invented facts of the story to call our serious attention to, and the reasons he or she might have thought this worth calling to our attention, would then be an account of the story's theme.

We need not suppose that the author thought out these reasons to himself or herself in explicit terms.  In fact it is unlikely that the author ever formulated them in an expository statement, the sort of formulation you will be seeking to provide in explaining what you take the story's theme (or some part of its theme) to be.  Fiction writers think narratively, by constructing a story that, when they're done, strikes them as "right."  

Readers work on the assumption that most of the time what moves writers to compose a short story or novel is likely to be, in important measure, something they care about that might be formulated in "issue" terms.  In cases where the assumption that theme is at work leads us nowhere (lyric poetry is a notable genre in which this is often the case), experienced readers will cast about for other reasons the story might convincingly justify its asking for their attention.  (If they find none, they will conclude that the author was either motivated solely by vanity, or cursed with incompetence.  [As you might expect, it's unlikely that such a story will find its way into an anthology aimed at college-level courses.)

(2)  Hence, a story’s theme is not the same thing as its “subject.”  The subject of “Story of an Hour” is a woman’s surprising discovery of her true feelings about the death of her husband.  On a more general plane, the story’s subject is the implications for women’s happiness of the prevailing concept of marriage in Chopin’s day.  The story’s theme is what the story “says [both directly and implicitly] about” its general subject.  [See example (a), below.] 

(3)  Theme is not the same thing as a “moral,” the kind of thing traditional fables and cautionary tales are designed to drive home.  A “moral” can be expressed in some simple practical maxim (like “Look before you leap” or “He who hesitates is lost” or “Greed is bad for you and not just others.”).  But theme is more complex and nuanced:  the larger vision of life that the story seems designed to convey.  Chopin’s “Story of an Hour” is notable for its brevity.  Still, no statement of its theme can be crammed into a proverb.  Consider this (which is not, of course, the only formulation possible):

(a)   Human nature — a nature shared by women and men — requires for its fulfillment a degree of personal development on the part of individuals.  Such a nature is not fulfilled but grievously frustrated by an ideal of marriage under which both partners should strive to submit to what they perceive as the will of the other, and under which the achievement of such “joint personality” is a higher order of personhood than merely individual fulfillment.  Buying into such a view of what “true marriage” is puts people into a cruel dilemma:  either they have to think of themselves as defective persons (not fit for marriage, a condition for the achievement of a full life as a human being), or they have to suffer the pain of renouncing deep elements of their personality.  If they are especially sensitive and scrupulous, they can live with this dilemma only by deceiving themselves into believing that they have needs that are inconsistent with this ideal.  That ignorance of self is itself a high price to pay for accepting a view of what we should become that is so at odds with what we are. 

[   For an important reassurance to take into account at this point, see point (6) below!] 

(4) Theme will involve general insights (or supposed insights).  What is thematic is not confined to the particular characters or circumstances of the story itself.  Statements about particular characters in the story can imply thematic insights, but do not themselves directly state these.  Consider: 

(b)   Mrs. Mallard suffered during her marriage, though she had no understanding of why.

This is certainly an important fact of the story, and it is one that has to be inferred.  That is, it is not an explicit fact of the story, so that it is the reader that has to come to this realization by reflecting on the facts that are conveyed directly in the words of the narrator.  It is a fact that any full appreciation of the story's overall theme will surely take into account, at least implicitly.  

But the statement is about the (fictional) particular individual Mrs. Mallard, whereas a theme will concern a host of potential real individuals (individuals in the plural, and outside this particular story) who suffer, or might come to suffer, for the particular kinds of reasons and in the particular kinds of ways that we infer Mrs. Mallard in her marriage did, all the while failing to grasp, for the reasons she did (i.e., being subject to the same factors she was).  To get at the kind of case Chopin might be pointing to through the imaginary Mrs. Mallard, we'd need to get clear for ourselves XXX

(c)   The pain that Mrs. Mallard endured in her marriage was a barbaric violation of her deepest nature as a human being.

Neither (b) nor (c) then can function as a statement of the story’s overall theme.  But either could be developed in a way that would result in a formulation of an important part of the story's theme.  We wouldn't want to "throw them out."  Rather, we'd want to "add something to them."

(5) Though theme is in its nature "general", an effective grasp of theme can’t be expressed in vague and indefinite terms.  It’s possible to be too general to do justice even to a part of a story’s theme.  You’ll still need to be specific about what you say concerning the thematic dimension of the story.  Contrast any of the following with  example (a), above — but also with the more limited statements in (6) below:

(d)   The theme of “Story of an Hour” is that the idea of marriage current in Chopin’s social world is mistaken.  

Be specific:   how is it supposedly mistaken.  Different individuals might make different diagnoses of marriage in Chopin's world.  In some other story, Chopin herself might explore a different analysis of what is wrong with it, or with a different version current in her day of what marriage should be.  What aspect of a generally accepted notion of marriage does Chopin call into question in this story, and on what grounds?

(e)   Chopin doesn’t buy into the middle-class notion of marriage in her day.

Like (d) above, a sentence like this could serve as a "thesis pointer" in an essay or paragraph that undertook to clarify the theme of "Story of an Hour."  But it could not itself function as that claim.  Somewhere, we'd have to pay off produce the goods that this statement promises, and that means spelling out what particular aspect of the middle-class notion of marriage in her day would Chopin be focusing on here, and what

(f)    Not all happy marriages are happy. 

Everyone knows this.  We don't need to be convinced of it.  So it's unlikely that any hard-working author would be moved to invest his or her energies in getting us to imagine this on the basis of a carefully constructed imaginative experience.  Put another way:  a truth like this is too flaccid to function as the theme as the story.

Here we have to be careful, though.  There are some truths that everyone "knows" but that in some sense most people really haven't taken to heart.  And some of these truths might be important to take stock of in a personal, "existential" way.  A reader's life might well be genuinely deepened by undergoing and reflecting on an experience that drives home such a truth in a way that enables us to clarify some of its important implications, including perhaps some implications of not taking adequate stock of it.  An example is of such a truth might be "Every human being dies."   An example of a story that undertakes to bring this home to the reader is Tolstoy's "The Death of Ivan Illych."  But even here, 

(6)  Note that, in the short-answer part of our exams, you aren’t being asked for a comprehensive statement of the story’s theme, but only for an indication of how something you’ve been led to notice in light of the critical concept might be important to the theme, by indicating some central issue the story is concerned with, or nudging us to decide some issue in one way rather than another.)  It might be, for example, that what you have come up with in your answer to the “take-off” question supports one of the following claims (so long as we understand we’re dealing with late 19th-century middle-class notions of marriage):

(g)   Chopin believes that even marriage to a loving spouse can result in unjustified  misery.

(h)   “Story of an Hour” shows how marriage can be repressive even when a partner is voluntarily committed to it.

(i)   The ending of the story shows how, if a married woman is honest with herself, she might end up living in a good deal of bitter resentment.

(j)   Mrs. Mallard’s death shows how, if a woman knows herself, marriage can mean a life unbearably full of shame and guilt. 

A good rule of thumb might be that, in a short-answer task in which the "follow-up" question asks for an indication about how what you've developed so far contributes to a story's theme, a sentence with the sort of information exemplified above should suffice.  In a short-essay question, you should strive to explain things a little further:  a couple of additional claims would be in order.  In an out-of-class essay, you should strive to be more comprehensive yet.  While you won't be expected in our course to come up with as much as you see in example (a), above, you could devote a decent closing paragraph to this part of the job.

(7)  Note that you are not, as a reader, compelled to adopt the views or values the author seems committed to.  Your job is to discern what these may be, and how the story seems to point to them.  (Only if we see these can we be in a position, for example, to reflect on whether in our view they count as sound or unsound.  

In general, given the kind of time pressure you may be working under on an in-class exam, it might make sense not to take time to enter into your evaluative judgments upon various stories' thematic commitments -- unless you finish the exam and discover you have the time to return and work these in, or unless a question you're addressing explicitly calls for you to say something about your own view on the issues the story seems to be taking a position on.

Out-of-class essays are a different matter:  here you have time necessary to formulate your own counter-view, and even to present arguments on its behalf.  You need not do this (unless the assignment directs you to do so).  But you're certainly welcome to, and you don't risk forcing yourself to leave something essential undone.

  Return to the Index to the Glossary of Critical Concepts.

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      Contents copyright © 2003 by Lyman A. Baker

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  This page last updated 15 February 2005 .