12 Most Common Themes in Literature

The 12 most common themes in literature are repeated in story after story and movie after movie. You may think every book has a unique premise behind it, but you'll discover the same themes are repeated in many stories. What exactly is this concept, the theme? And what are the 12 most common themes in literature?

What Is a Theme?
The theme of the book differs from the plot, although many people think plot and theme are one and the same. You can explain the difference to your students by saying that plot is what the characters do, but the theme is the lesson or moral underlying the plot. The theme of a book is a message that describes an opinion about life, human nature or elements of society.

The 12 Most Common Themes in Literature

  1. Man Struggles Against Nature: Man is always at battle with human nature, whether the drives described are sexual, material or against the aging process itself.
  2. Man Struggles Against Societal Pressure: Mankind is always struggling to determine if societal pressure is best for living. Check out books like Revolutionary Road or Mrs. Dalloway for examples of characters who know how society says they should live, but feel society's dictation is contrary to what makes them happy.
  3. Man Struggles to Understand Divinity: Mankind tries to understand and make peace with God, but satisfaction is elusive and difficult.
  4. Crime Does Not Pay: A popular theme played out in books throughout time is the concept that honesty is honored and criminals will eventually be caught. Crime and Punishment and "The Telltale Heart" are two stories written on this theme.
  5. Overcoming Adversity: Many books laud characters who accept a tough situation and turn it into triumph. Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind exemplifies a shrewd person who finds a way to come out on top despite failed relationships and an economic depression after the Civil War.
  6. Friendship is Dependant on Sacrifice: This is the idea that you can't have friends if you don't act like a friend.
  7. The Importance of Family: Sacrifices for family are honored and explored, as are the family bonds that survive adversity.
  8. Yin and Yang: Just when you think life is finally going to be easy, something bad happens to balance it all out. 
  9. Love is the Worthiest of Pursuits: Many writers assert the idea that love conquers all, appealing to the romantic side of us.
  10. Death is Part of the Life Cycle: Literary works with this theme show how death and life and intricately connected.
  11. Sacrifices Bring Reward: Sacrifices and hard work pay off in the end, despite the challenges along the way.
  12. Human Beings All Have the Same Needs: From Montagues to Capulets in Romeo and Juliet or the characters in S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders, book after book asserts that rich or poor, educated or dumb, all human beings need love and other basic needs met.
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