Bedford/St. Martin's virtuaLit Interactive Fiction Tutorial Notebook VIEW SEND
Fiction in Depth Approaches and Contexts
Select a StoryElements of FictionCultural ContextsCritical Approaches
Point of View
Style, Tone, and Language
Symbolism, Allegory, and Image


Theme is the meaning or concept we are left with after reading a piece of fiction. Theme is an answer to the question, "What did you learn from this?" In some cases a story's theme is a prominent element and somewhat unmistakable. It would be difficult to read Kate Chopin's "The Story of an Hour" without understanding that the institution of nineteenth-century marriage robbed Mrs. Mallard of her freedom and identity. In some pieces of fiction, however, the theme is more elusive. What thought do we come away with after reading Jamaica Kincaid's "Girl"? That mothers can try too hard? That oppression leads to oppression? That a parent's repeated dire predictions have a way of becoming truth?

Too much focus on pinning down a story's theme can obscure the accompanying emotional context or the story's intentional ambiguity (especially for contemporary fiction). In fact, the function of some contemporary short stories, such as Donald Barthelme's "In the Tolstoy Museum," is in part to make us confront the limitations of traditional processes of establishing meaning and coherence. In most cases, though, theme is still an important element of story construction (even in its absence), providing the basis for many valuable discussions.

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