Finding the Theme of a Story

by Dr. Rosette Liberman, www.cooperhillstylebook.com

This copyrighted article is the first of a series of 6 articles that teach students to write an effective essay.

Writing a winning essay is not as hard as you think. The key is having an excellent system at your fingertips!* — not just any system, but one developed and tested in actual classrooms in high school, college, and graduate school. If you are a student, keep reading, because you’re about to catch a lifeline to a lifetime of academic success. If you are a professional teacher or a homeschool parent, you are about to extend that lifeline to your high school student.

So what’s the story really about?

You’ve finished reading the short story, or play, or novel, and your teacher smiles and says, “Okay, now find the theme of the story and write an essay about it.”

Your reaction? Panic!
“Yeah, right, an essay. How do I begin? Where do I find the theme?”

You’ve just tumbled onto a crucial fact: before you can write about a piece of literature, you must read it attentively. Reading and writing go hand-in-hand. Before you can analyze a story, you need to know what it says — both its plot (the events) and its theme (the main idea that connects those events).

The plot of the story

Let’s imagine that you’re at your best friend’s birthday party.
• You arrive with a nice gift, but she doesn’t even greet you at the door.
• She sees you from across the room, but doesn’t speak to you.
• At one point she whispers with some other guests who look over at you and laugh.
• You take some refreshments, but your friend doesn’t move over to make room for you at the table.
• When she chooses teams for games, she leaves you for last.
• When you ask her what the problem is, she turns her back on you and starts talking to other people who whisper and look over at you.
• You leave early.

The next day when your mother asks you what happened at the party, you say, “Nothing much. There were some people there already when I arrived. People talked, and ate, and played games. I came home early.”

What you told your mother was the plot.

The theme of the story

Was your plot summary true? Yes. But, did it let you mother know what really happened? No. What really happens in a story is the theme. The theme is the idea that underlies the events in the plot. You find the theme in two ways: repetition and contradiction.

Finding the theme through repetition

To find the theme through repetition, list its main events (plot) and ask yourself:

1. What does each event in the plot show?
• You are fond of your friend, and bought her a nice gift.
• You feel unwelcome when your friend doesn’t greet you at the door.
• You feel that you don’t belong when she sees you from across the room, but doesn’t speak to you.
• You know she’s making fun of you when she whispers with some other guests who look over at you and laugh.
• You are insulted and humiliated when she doesn’t move over to make room for you at the table.
• You are again humiliated when she leaves you for last in choosing teams.
• You are confused and angry when she turns her back on you and starts talking to other people who whisper and look over at you.
• You leave early because you’re hurt and angry that a friend can behave this way toward you when you had such good feelings toward her.

2. What do all the events have in common? What repeated idea connects all the events? How would you summarize the events?
Your best friend insults, confuses, and humiliates you when you did nothing to hurt her.

Finding the theme through contradiction
A contradiction is ideas or events that oppose each other: if one is true, then the other can’t be true. Contradictions are often suggested by the title of a story, are found throughout the story, and most importantly are located in the final chapter of a novel or the final paragraph of a short story.
To find the theme, look for the contradiction in the repeated events. What’s the contradiction in the repetition below?
Your best friend insults, confuses, and humiliates you when you did nothing to hurt her.
Obviously, the behavior contradicts the rules of friendship. Friends don’t humiliate each other.
So, what does her behavior say about her?
a. She’s not your friend.
b. She betrayed you.

So, what is this story really about? What is the theme of this story?
We could say, “unfairness,” but we need to be more precise. Anybody can be unfair. However, a friend’s unfairness is much more serious. What do we call unfairness that contradicts the rules of friendship? We call it “betrayal.”
Then what’s the theme of this story? Betrayal, friendship betrayed, the meaning of friendship.

Practice finding the theme

Below is a re-telling of a famous Aesop fable, “The Dog and the Wolf.”
• Read the story attentively.
• List the events in the plot.
• List the repetitions and summarize them.
• Find the contradiction in that summary. Name the theme.

The next installment, Writing the Basic Analytical Essay Part 2,
(see http://cooperhillstylebook.com/archive/) will give you a foolproof guide to writing the Introduction to your essay based on its theme.

The Dog and the Wolf
A re-telling of Aesop’s fable
Once upon a time a hungry Wolf was wandering in the forest in search of food. But the land was as bare as a baby’s bottom. It was winter; the snow was a heavy frozen lid over the earth. There was no food anywhere, and the Wolf was suffering.

Just then through the trees the Wolf noticed a farmhouse in front of which sat a well-fed Dog.

“Good-day, Cousin,” the Dog called out. “You don’t look very cheerful. Do you have a problem?’

“Yes, I do,” answered the Wolf. “I have not eaten in several days, and my stomach is groaning like a dry branch in the wind. How are you feeling, Cousin?”

The Dog’s smile was a bright light on the gloomy day.

“I feel just fine,” said the Dog. “I have a home and food that I can depend on.”

“How do you get such fine gifts?” asked the Wolf.

“My master gives them to me,” said the Dog.

“Do you think that your master would give me such gifts too?” asked the Wolf hopefully.

“Of course he would,” said the Dog cheerfully. “All you would have to do is obey his commands because he would own you. You would simply have to agree to do anything he wants.”

“Does your master own you?” asked the Wolf thoughtfully.

“Of course,” replied the Dog.

The Wolf studied the Dog closely.

“Tell me, Cousin,” he asked the Dog. “Why is the hair on your neck so thin and worn?”

“Oh, that’s from the collar that my master forces me to wear when he chains me outside at night,” explained the Dog.

“And do you like to wear this collar?”

“Well it rubs my neck and sometimes it irritates my skin. And the chain is quite heavy.”

“So why do you wear it?” asked the Wolf.

The Dog lowered his head in embarrassment.

“I don’t have any choice,” he said, “because my master gives me food and shelter. So, come along, and I will introduce you to him.”

“Thanks, Cousin, but no thanks,” said the Wolf. “I think I’d rather remain hungry in the forest.”

With these words, the Wolf returned to the forest to continue his search for food. And although he was still very hungry, he nonetheless felt quite satisfied.

*The Basic Essay is copyrighted © by Rosette Liberman, Ed.D. Dr. Liberman is the co-author of the classic The Cooper Hill Stylebook — a digital writing and revision text that can be ordered through www.cooperhillstylebook.com.