Themes, or ‘thematic concerns’, are issues or concepts covered by works of literature and works of art. Some such ideas or concepts are intentionally discussed, portrayed or promoted by the author or artist; others may be unintentionally implied. Various techniques, including literary techniques, punctual techniques, advertising techniques, film techniques and visual techniques, are used to demonstrate the text’s thematic concerns.
Identifying thematic concerns requires analysis and consideration of the non-literal meanings of a literary text or artwork.
For example, consider the following very basic poem, which was written specifically for this Open Site article:
The girl stepped forwards,
The boy stepped backwards.
The literal meaning of the poem is a description of a girl stepping forwards and a boy stepped backwards. The poem lacks contextual detail, so the literal meaning of the poem is very limited.
However, if a contextual assumption is made by the reader, the text can carry more meaning. For example, the boy may be stepping backwards because he is scared and the girl may be stepping forwards because she is not scared. The technique of antonym use creates a contrast between the girl and the boy and the use of parallel construction suggests the girl and boy are being compared.
One might then make some bold generalisations based on the situation, given the evidence provided. One might draw the conclusion that the girl is strong, brave or heroic and the boy is weak, cowardly or lazy, and may then further generalise that females are strong, brave or heroic and males are weak, cowardly or lazy.
From these generalisations, the reader can then identify some of the themes raised by the text. In this example themes could include gender roles in society, the contrast between the brave appearance of men and the cowardly reality of men, and gender equality.
One will often have a personal response to the text based on personal experiences, religious and cultural values, upbringing and various other factors. One will also be able to compare this to what they believe to be the author or artist’s purpose. In this example, the author/artist may have intended to show that females are often more capable than males and the reader/viewer may have responded based on an upbringing where the female was dominated by the male or personal experiences where they have encountered gender discrimination.
However, non-literal meanings are often ambiguous: the simple two-line poem could possibly be interpreted hundreds of different ways by different readers. For instance, one might think that the poem demonstrates the advance of females over males in society, the dominance of females over males in society, the more outgoing personalities of females compared to males or the relationship or conflict between males and females in society.