Understanding Texts

Theme

Theme

Themes of a story are the underlying ideas which an author presents throughout their writing. Stories and novels vary in how much they differ from our actual world. Some use familiar places and familiar people, while others can create settings and characters and place them in a fictional setting which is grounded in the real world. Other authors create their own worlds, removing the safety net of familiarity with our society’s rules.

CaptureHowever, regardless of whether a story of other piece of fiction is fantasy, science fiction, historical or any other genre, they can be linked with common themes. Fiction examines these themes through its characters and plots, creating competing ideas which leads to conflict.

An example of this is conflict between characters and either other characters or society (the culture in which the characters live). An author may intend to expose conflict which exists in the real world, such as the conflict which arises between characters when dealing with racism. This is explored in To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee. Conflict is an important part of fiction and forms the basis of every plot.

When you analyse the themes in a piece of fiction, you should always think about how conflict relates to them. It is also important that you make your own judgements and evaluate whether or not the author’s attempt to present the conflict within a theme is effective.

Below is a list of common themes which you may be asked about in your exam. Other themes will depend on the specific text you are studying. In addition, there are examples of conflict which can develop from a theme:

Family

  • There can be conflict within families. For example, a son could be expected to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a doctor. However, he has other dreams and, if the father and mother disagree with his dreams and push him towards a medical profession, this creates conflict.
  • Conflict can also arise between opposing families. For example, a new family moves in next door and they are smokers but their neighbours are non-smoking. If the neighbours are firmly non-smokers and disagree with even seeing people smoke, this could cause problems, as could the friendship between the teenagers in the family is the smoking teen convinces the non-smoker to try it.

Harry Potter conflict: Harry must stay with his horrible aunt, uncle and cousin during the holidays. They are cruel to him. Torn between the desire to run away and the promise he makes to Dumbledore, Harry has to endure the summers. However, this family conflict leads to arguments until the tension develops in Harry’s character and he takes actions.

Love

  • CaptureA female character may have an image of the perfect love in her mind and struggle to match this with the character she is intended to fall in love with. This could create conflict between her and the other character as well as conflict within herself.
  • A male character could be presented with two potential female characters and have to decide which of them he truly loves.
  • Two male characters could be in love with the same female character and are in conflict as they try to get her to fall in love with them.
  • There are also conflicts which occur with a different type of love. A character may love their home, town or country but have to leave it to make a better life or survive.

Harry Potter conflict: Harry loves his father, James, even though he never really knew him. However, as the novels progress, Harry discovers hints that James was a bully and used to tease Professor Snape mercilessly with his friends. This leaves Harry wrestling with the love for his father and the need to see him realistically.

There is also conflict between Harry and his friend, Ron. Harry has been friends with Ron for a while but develops feelings for his sister, Ginny. This leads to Harry having to not compromise his friendship with Ron, whilst falling in love with Ginny.

Innocence

  • Characters often start off innocent in novels then, as they are met with hardships, have to fight to keep their innocence. An example of this is a young boy sent to war. The innocent boy has a view of heroism and fighting as the good guy. However, when faced with the brutality of war and having to kill people just as desperate as him, he loses his innocence.
  • In Victorian novels, a young woman sent to the city loses her job and is forced into the streets. She loses her innocence in two ways: firstly, discovering that the world is not as kind and easy and the city not as helpful and full of opportunity as she had thought. Secondly, she is forced into a situation in which stealing is the only way to make enough money to survive.

Harry Potter conflict: Harry never directly kills anyone in the novels. However, throughout them, he is put more dangerous situations which require him to fight and experience pain and suffering. He also expects that he will have to kill Voldemort. The conflict here lies in the need for an innocent childhood and the reality of Harry’s childhood which, from the moment his parents were murdered, has never been innocent.

Loneliness

  • Characters could find it difficult to connect to other people because of their personality or the fact that they are different, which makes them lonely. This creates a conflict between the need to create relationships with others, balancing their personality with conforming to society.
  • A character could become lonely by losing their loved ones or friends or by moving to another place. The conflict is created as they struggle to adapt their life to endure the change.

Power

  • CaptureIn a grand sense, conflict can arise when a less powerful person or group struggles against those in authority. This conflict concerns society and the shift of power, with one side seeking change and the other seeking to prevent it.
  • Another example of conflict could be two powers fighting for the same thing, such as a piece of land. While they fight for the land, the winner also proves that they are the more powerful power.
  • The struggle for power does not have to be on a large scale. It can be between two individuals. For example,

Harry Potter conflict: Power creates on of the main conflicts in the series. Voldemort is constantly seeking to seize control of the wizarding world. This leads to conflict between him and the current leaders.

Prejudice

  • Prejudice is one of the main themes in Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. It is all about forming opinions and making judgements about people without the substance of fact or experience.
  • Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice is prejudiced against Darcy after he is rude to her once. From then, she allows herself to believe anything negative that is spoken about him, including claims made by Mr Wickham.
  • Prejudice can be present in characters when faced with other character with a different social standing. Upper class people could be prejudiced about the lower class, thinking of those characters as being less important or intelligent just because of the parentage or amount of money they have. Lower class characters could be prejudiced about the upper class and think of them as lazy individuals who leech off their parents or uncaring.

Harry Potter conflict: Throughout the novels, Harry is prejudiced against Professor Snape and vice versa. Snape’s prejudice rises principally because Snape was bullied by Harry’s father and in love with Harry’s mother. Harry’s prejudice could be attributed to Snape’s past alliance with Voldemort and his being the Housemaster of Slytherin. This prejudice creates conflict between the two characters which is present until the end of the last book.

Racism

  • CaptureThere is racism in The Merchant of Venice (Shakespeare) which provokes a character to seek revenge. Shylock is persecuted in the play for being a Jew. He is called names and spat at.
  • Racism is also a key factor in To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee) with Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a young white woman, being given an unfair trial for no other reason than the colour of his skin. The evidence of his innocence becomes more an more substantial but is ignored.

Harry Potter conflict: The situation with the House Elves creates racial conflict. The outward conflict only surfaces when Hermione presses for their freedom, rather than from the elves themselves (society and human rights). However, it is still present in the treatment of house elfs as servants compared to the treatment of other races. Dobby has an inner conflict regarding his desire to be independent and his ingrown need to follow the convention forced on his race (individual desires and habit).

As you can read, conflict appears in every story and novel. The reason behind this is that authors want to try and examine the reality of life. They could show us the ideal situation, for example an ideal world in which everyone is equal, but what would make it more realistic and more interesting is if they showed us the struggle to achieve this world. Another option could be to write about the ideal then to show the cracks within and make us realise that a true ideal could never really be achieved.