Exploring themes

Conflicts represented by a handshake and fist, a bush fire and flowers, hearts with an arrow and lock , an aeroplane and home, hands held together and passport, a boat at sea and a car.

When you focus on a theme within a text, expand your exploration beyond simply identifying main themes, like hate, family, relationships, power. Instead look at how themes relate to each other, by exploring conflicting ideas and the clash of opposites at the heart of them. For example:

  • conflict - us versus them, friends versus foes, the state versus the citizen
  • family - feelings of safety versus desire for independence
  • love - desire for something forbidden versus attainable love
  • power - the individual versus the state, man versus nature
  • place - an idea of paradise versus reality, the idea of home versus exile
  • nature - the separation of man from nature, natural beauty versus destruction

An interesting theme involves a clash of opposites. Love as a theme is more interesting when there is conflict. If two people meet, fall in love and there are no problems, then it is not a very interesting story. Without something trying to stop love, the story has nowhere to go.

You can give structure and energy to an analysis essay by discussing the opposite sides of a theme.

The following extract is taken from a short story called Your Shoes by Michelle Roberts:

Your father didn’t mean it when he told you those things the other night. You’ve got to understand, he lost his temper and used some unfortunate expressions. At your age I’m sure I wouldn’t have known the meaning of any of those words. As a young girl I’d have been hit if I used such language as I’ve heard you use. I was very old-fashioned. Square, they called it then. I grew up in a very old fashioned family. Of course we had a marvellous time together, but my father was very strict. It didn’t do me any harm.

Your Shoes, Michelle Roberts

This extract suggests some interesting, contrasting themes:

For example:

  • family
  • parent/child relationships
  • mother/daughter relationships
  • conflict
  • differences between the generations