Theme Versus Subject in Fiction

Posted by Big Universe on Oct 17, 2012 4:38:32 AM

A common misconception – and sometimes even a challenge even for seasoned readers – is differentiating between a written work’s theme and subject. In order to help students understand a literary work’s theme, teachers must first make sure that the students understand what the subject is.

Early reading fiction usually keeps the subject simple. For example in We Share One World, the subject is about all children, from all nations, sharing one Earth. The author, Jane Hoffelt, throughout the story’s words and beautifully illustrated depictions of children of the world, crafts a theme, or reinforces an opinion or message of multicultural peace.

Young readers need to gain the important skill of differenting between the topic (subject) and author’s theme (opinion). We as educators -- and parents -- must present subject and theme not as one-in-the-same but instead as related concepts, in order to increase critical thinking skills for young readers.


(topic) (Author’s opinion or main point)

For the younger children who are trying to grasp the subject, asking them, “What is the author saying?” is too abstract. One concrete approach is to ask “What details did the author provide?” For example, every page in We Share One World supports a multicultural theme of living in peace. The author reinforces her opinion (theme) through the book’s words (children all sing songs, play with friends, go explore nature) and Marty Husted’s illustrations of Asian, Africa, Arabian, and other children happily living indigenously and within a multicultural community. The author shows readers that as many nationalities and races share the physical world (air, land and sea), we also share universal traits – and living in peace is the central message.

More advanced fiction, however, may include a variety of subjects, and the theme about one of those subjects may not be so straightforward and, many times, even difficult to discern. Readers must dig deeper to understand what an author is saying about the subject – and not impose their own set of values and opinions onto an author’s work. It is important for teachers to communicate to students that a reader’s personal views may not be implicit in a work of literature, and may even be contrary to it. Also an author’s theme is not always a universal truth, it is merely one’s opinion. Knowing this is a cornerstone to critical thinking skills applied to reading comprehension.

What has worked for my students in literature-based writing classes is helping them separate the subject from the theme by setting up a rubric, drawing the line between both (see below). Fact gets a narrow column, whereas the author’s opinion about that subject gets a much larger column. When the theme is complex, sometimes we work on the third column (listing details) second – and can glean the theme after the details are in place. And this segways neatly as the basis of a theme-based essay assignment.

Fiction Subject (topic) Author’s Theme (Opinion): List details, examples, character actions (support theme):

Topics: Literacy

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