This week, Insight writer and English teacher Melanie Flower provides tips on how to identify and engage with key themes in a text.
In English, it is essential to be able to identify themes within the texts you are studying. Themes are the big ideas about human experience that an author or director explores throughout a text. Most texts will explore multiple themes. They are often not explicitly stated but rather are developed through events, characters and settings. A good knowledge of the key themes in a text is essential for developing a thoughtful interpretation. It can also help you structure your written responses – thinking in terms of themes can provide a focus for that elusive third or fourth body paragraph – as well as generate and organise quote banks. Following the tips below will help you effectively identify and engage with the key themes in your set texts.
Understanding the difference between theme and subject
The subject of the text will be more concrete than the theme. The subject is the key focus or topic of the text – what it is about in literal terms. It establishes the setting, plot and characters. A theme, in contrast, is a big idea that comes out of the narrative but goes beyond it to express something about human experience.
For example, the subject of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood is the murder of the Clutter family, while its main themes centre on crime and morality. The murder and subsequent investigation and trial form the basis (or the subject) of the narrative. Using this narrative as a framework, Capote presents his ideas about the morality of the death penalty, the relationship between mental illness and crime, and the relationship between religion and the legal system – all aspects of the broad themes of crime and morality.
Finding the themes
Even if you have identified some important themes as a class, with your teacher’s help, you should also consider the text independently to develop your own understanding of its central preoccupations. Ask yourself which ideas or concepts you think the text’s creator is focusing on.
One strategy can be to try and summarise one main idea in the text in a single word. For example, for Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness this word might be ‘gender’, while for Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See it might be ‘communication’. While a text will obviously encompass many ideas, trying to find a single word to describe one important idea can help you identify an avenue for exploring related themes. You can then try to identify some specific messages the creator is conveying or aspects they are examining under the umbrella of this big idea. For example, Capote suggests that, like the criminals it punishes, the legal system can also be brutal and unjust.
TIP: To test the importance of potential themes, ask yourself whether you could support a discussion of that idea with evidence from the text, and whether the creator’s choices with regard to characterisation or plot development are consistent with this idea. If the answer is yes, you have identified one of the big ideas.
Using outside sources
Additionally, explore both online and print study guides and make a list of all the themes identified by these sources. You can then group these into categories and give yourself a list of synonyms to use when writing analytically. For example, when considering the themes in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, you might use the main heading ‘morality’, under which you could make notes about the themes of virtue, ethics, responsibility and moderation.
Developing a concept map
Once you have identified your main themes, you might find it useful to generate and organise your ideas on each theme in a concept map. Write the key word in the centre and then draw four boxes around it, labelled ‘plot’, ‘characters’, ‘quotes’ and ‘other evidence’.
Fill in the ‘plot’ and ‘character’ boxes with evidence that demonstrates how these elements explore and support the theme. The ‘quotes’ box should include relevant quotes from the text, and the ‘other evidence’ box gives you a place to note important structural elements, such as the setting or the title. A finished concept map will be a summary of the key elements in a text and can be useful for quick reference.
Building thematic quote banks
Writing up a detailed quote bank helps embed the quotes in your mind, which will help with memorising them for an exam or SAC response. Organising quotes by theme is a very effective way of noting how various characters and narrative events connect. You will also find that some important quotes can be used to explore more than one central idea and can appear under multiple headings.
TIP: When building your quote bank, make sure you include page references and some notes on the context. This is also a good place to list synonyms for each theme.
A good understanding of the themes in your set texts is essential to producing a thoughtful interpretation during your SACs and in the end-of-year examination. Consider the key concepts the text explores and make sure you are comfortable discussing these ideas by preparing a selection of evidence and examples to use. Most essay topics will ask you to explore these central ideas in one way or another, and if you prepare for them carefully you will find you are able to tackle any topic with confidence.
Need help getting to grips with your Year 12 texts? Our Insight Text Guides provide clear, comprehensive analysis of the whole text, and include chapter-by-chapter analysis, discussion of characters and relationships, practice essay topics, in-depth analysis of themes and much more! Head to our website to view our list of Insight Text Guide titles.
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