Common Themes in Literature

The world of literature offers a huge variety of themes and ideas, but there are some themes that are more common than others.

Common Themes in Literature

Individual Identity

How does an individual become distinct from her community? How does a person discover how he relates to the world around him? What does it mean to be oneself? These questions and others like them exist at the core of many works of fiction. From Shakespeare’s King Lear to Mark Haddon’s Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, individual identity – in all its complexity – has been a driving thematic force in creative writing.

Literature interested in individual identity will often follow a character’s path toward self-discovery. In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for example, presents us with the story of a boy who takes a winding path toward the realization that he is his own person, regardless of his relationships with other people. He has his own moral center and has to do the work of figuring out what exactly that means for the decisions he makes.

In a very different way, Moby Dick is also a novel about individual identity. Both Captain Ahab and the narrator, Ishmael, are involved in a process of testing an initial self-understanding against extreme circumstances. They have to find out if they are correct in their understanding of their place in the world. 

While we might alternatively name this theme “the process of discovering identity,” the root often runs very deep, reaching into philosophical ideas (what does it mean to be a human individual or a moral person) in addition to social ideas (where does the character fit into the community). If the work features a character that seems to ask, what is the truth of myself? one of the themes of the text is individual identity.

Texts & Authors Exploring Individual Identity

  1. Moby Dick – Herman Melville
  2. The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
  3. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain
  4. All the King’s Men – Robert Penn Warren
  5. The Odyssey – Homer
  6. The Epic of Gilgamesh
  7. The Color Purple – Alice Walker
  8. The Kite Runner – Khalid Husseini
  9. Death of a Salesman – Arthur Miller 
  10. For Whom the Bell Tolls – Ernest Hemingway
  11. Giovanni’s Room – James Baldwin
  12. Wise Blood – Flannery O’Connor

Community Identity

How does a community come to attain an identity and how does that community identity function to connect, shape, and determine the lives of the people within it? These questions become thematic interests in some works of literature such as Toni Morrison’s Sula and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.

As a means of exploring social politics and, more fundamentally, the nature of community, literature sometimes explores the interactive and reflexive nature of social networks, looking at ways in which individuals are defined by very local cultures that are in turn influenced by the individuals within them. Friendship and common struggle are hallmarks of these texts as they depict communities of people as subject to the same hardships, apt to enjoy the same pleasures and to orient themselves around the same beliefs and rituals. The friendships and common struggles, however, are often not simple affairs in these texts and are instead locations for an investigation into the true strength of a community when faced with adversity.

Texts & Authors Exploring Community Identity

  1. Sula – Toni Morrison
  2. Paradise – Toni Morrison
  3. Waiting for the Barbarians – J. M. Coetzee
  4. Joe Turner’s Come and Gone – August Wilson
  5. The Namesake – Jhumpa Lahiri
  6. A Raisin in the Sun – Lorraine Hansberry
  7. The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck
  8. Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck
  9. Another Country – James Baldwin
  10. Things Fall Apart – Chinua Achebe
  11. White Teeth – Zadie Smith
  12. Hadji Murad – Leo Tolstoy
  13. Tortilla Flat – John Steinbeck

Questioning Ideology

Some of the most famous and widely-read works of literature in the last few centuries have been concerned with questions about dominant ideologies within society. Novels like George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm and Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale join the company of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn when they pose challenging questions about how a society’s value system can become corrupt and how this corruption manifests itself in social institutions like slavery, fascism and totalitarianism.

In questioning the ideology of a society, literature can seek to cast a light on presumptions within a culture that are often taken for granted but which also usually benefit one group over another. Assumptions of racial superiority or inferiority, gender superiority or inferiority or class superiority or inferiority can and do become institutionalized within a culture, manifesting in systems of education, systems of politics and in the work place. Social norms are also locations where ideology is given expression and it is often in this area where literature levels its challenge to cultural biases and intrinsic values.

Texts & Authors Exploring Questioning Ideology

  1. The Dutchman – LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka
  2. The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath
  3. A Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
  4. Animal Farm – George Orwell
  5. 1984 – George Orwell
  6. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain
  7. A Doll’s House – Henrik Ibsen
  8. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – Ken Kesey
  9. Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison
  10. Native Son – Richard Wright
  11. In Dubious Battle – John Steinbeck
  12. Disgrace – J. M. Coetzee

Subjective Reality

What determines the way we interpret the world around us, the meanings we ascribe to certain events or behaviors? What are the building blocks of a person’s “world view”? Can one person’s way of looking at the world be translated? Is it possible that we share an objective experience of the world or are we ultimately stuck inside our own minds, constrained to a subjective experience?

The subjectivity of human experience is mitigated by shared language, of course, but this area of inquiry remains fraught with complexity (and drama). Stream-of-consciousness novels like Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying address this subjectivity directly, crafting novels that are actually built as stylistic expressions of individualized, internal perspectives. Other works approach the interesting problems of interpretation, giving us literary works that invite us to consider the notion that our methods of “reading” reality are probably just as imperfect as our methods of reading literature. We often end up selecting one meaning for a text out of potential dozens of meanings simply because we prefer that meaning or because it correlates with our own preconceptions. Gabriel Garcia Marquez is well-known for his style of narrative where fantasy and reality co-mingle in ways that defy easy explanation or quick, meaningful interpretation. The problem of interpretation, mired as it is in subjectivity, ends up being one of the main points of stories like “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.”

There is also an important consideration to be made in this thematic area regarding judgment, both legal and personal. When we evaluate the intentions and actions of another, are we capable of truly understanding that person’s point of view? Or are we restricted to our own point of view and so forced to judge according to a limited and subjective sense of things? What does this do the ethics of judgment? Works like The Stranger by Albert Camus and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee explore some of the issues that arise when empathy fails yet (social) judgment persists. In a different way, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men explores the theme of subjective reality in the character of Lenny, a man who is incapable of seeing the world as others do and who pays the ultimate price for that incapacity.

Texts & Authors Exploring Subjective Reality

  1. The Stranger – Albert Camus
  2. One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  3. “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  4. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – Edward Albee
  5. The Sound and the Fury – William Faulkner
  6. As I lay Dying – William Faulkner
  7. Mrs. Dalloway – Virginia Woolf
  8. “Auroras of Autumn” – Wallace Stevens
  9. Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck
  10. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime – Mark Haddon
  11. Slaughterhouse Five – Kurt Vonnegut

The Costs of Ambition

Many works of literature present us with characters that believe in themselves, in one way or another, and take that belief a step too far. Famously, Icarus flew too close to the sun on wings made of wax. But he is not alone in literature – far from it, in fact.

In Greek tragedy, the quality of hubris is often ascribed to characters who assert their own desires over those of the gods. Even when they are warned against it, figures like Oedipus and Orestes insist that they are capable of handling things their own way.

American literature features characters who are similarly insistent on asserting themselves over and against boundaries that would otherwise govern their behavior. Sometimes these are moral boundaries, transgressed by people who believe they can establish a new or higher morality (like Kurtz in Heart of Darkness or Darth Vader in Star Wars). Sometimes these are social boundaries, transgressed by people who feel that the usual constraints to honesty don’t apply to them (like Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby or Troy Maxson in Fences). Often, the moral and social boundaries are tied up with legal boundaries too.

In literature dealing with the costs of ambition as a theme, there is a tendency to provide a clear comparison between the two paths that a person can take. This can be a before-and-after comparison so that the reader is perfectly aware of what a character’s life was life before he engaged in a reckless pursuit of his ambitious goals. Alternatively, the work might offer the reader a second character that is not ambitious in the same way and thus provide a one-to-one comparison of how the ambitious character arrives at a crisis – a fall from grace of some kind – and the other character is there to witness the disaster.

These are stories that acknowledge the glory of achieved ambition but highlight the ancient connection between these figures and Icarus – what goes up must come down.

Texts & Authors Exploring the Costs of Ambition

  1. All My Sons – Arthur Miller
  2. Moby Dick – Herman Melville
  3. The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
  4. Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad
  5. The Island of Dr. Moreau – H.G. Wells
  6. The Pearl – John Steinbeck
  7. The Big Sleep – Raymond Carver
  8. Babbit – Sinclair Lewis
  9. Jurassic Park – Michael Crichton
  10. Oedipus Rex (Oedipus the King) – Sophocles
  11. Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  12. Henderson the Rain King – Saul Bellow
  13. Macbeth – William Shakespeare

The Social Function of Morality

When we talk about morality, we are talking about right and wrong, good behavior and bad behavior. We often think in terms of individuals when we talk about morality and ask if a person is moral or immoral. Morality, however, is as much as social concept as it is an individual one. Many works of literature have illustrated this precise point by depicting characters and conflicts that demonstrate the ways that morality functions to maintain the integrity of a community. Morality, in these works of literature, is shown to be the essential fabric of society.

This theme plays out in many science fiction stories where the question of what makes humans human is central to the narrative, but it also plays out in other literature. If a text takes up the social function of morality as a theme, it will usually offer a clear articulation of the community’s values and later explore the consequences that ensue when one or more characters reject and betray those values.

In The Lord of the Flies, this arc is at the heart of the story-line. The boys expressly discuss rules and establish a moral code. Over time, the code is broken and the microcosm of society on the island disintegrates into a moral chaos of violence and brutality.

While this theme can be expressed in this rather stark fashion in some texts, it can be also be presented in more subtle ways. In some works, the family unit is used as a stand-in for society at large and one characters betrayal of the family’s values – one immoral act – can lead directly to the disintegration of the family unit. Following this pattern, the author is exploring the social function of morality, posing questions about how morality is not solely an individual concept but is critically important to maintain the social fabric of any community.  

Texts & Authors Exploring the Social Function of Morality

  1. The Island of Dr. Moreau – H.G. Wells
  2. Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad
  3. The Lord of the Flies – William Golden
  4. A View from the Bridge – Arthur Miller
  5. Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck
  6. Absalom, Absalom! – William Faulkner
  7. Hamlet – William Shakespeare
  8. Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway
  9. The Crucible – Arthur Miller
  10. To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee

Relation to the Past

A theme that overlaps with individual identity, the theme of “relation to the past” is a theme that has been increasingly popular since the industrial revolution. As changes in the world around us have picked up speed, authors have turned more and more often to the question of how to understand our relation to the past.

Literature in the 20th century framed this theme within the context of family history but also explored the idea in terms of personal history. August Wilson’s Fences does both by presenting a protagonist who is bitterly fixated on how his race kept him from achieving his dreams and who is also enmeshed in a fatal effort to break the cycle of failed family relationships that he inherited from his father. Wilson looks at this theme from a different angle in The Piano Lesson, where two siblings engage in a prolonged conflict over how to deal with their family legacy, which is given symbolic form in a valuable piano. Both plays demonstrate some of the ways the past remains active in the present and individuals are challenged to achieve a stable and satisfactory relationship to their history.

Story’s that focus on this theme will tend to present flashbacks and narrative breaks, but they will also almost always literally bring the past into the present in some way by building some aspect of history (personal, familial, or societal) into the central conflicts of the narrative. Thus, resolving the conflicts of the story will also mean reckoning with the past in one way or another.

Texts & Authors Exploring Relation to the Past

  1. The Piano Lesson – August Wilson
  2. A Light in August – William Faulkner
  3. “A Rose for Emily” – William Faulkner
  4. The Waves – Virginia Woolf
  5. The Price – Arthur Miller
  6. Swing Time – Zadie Smith
  7. Herzog – Saul Bellow
  8. Flood – Robert Penn Warren
  9. “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” – Flannery O’Connor
  10. A Streetcar Named Desire – Tennessee Williams
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