Literary Term: THEME
Complete Answer Key
THEME: the theme, or topic, is what a poem, story, or novel is about.
This is a complete lesson about THEME. The definition of the term is followed by a discussion using excellent examples in prose. Activity sheets provide questions that promote and ensure understanding, and a writing exercise that provides an opportunity for application.
Includes a teacher guide that discusses literary terms, suggests a lesson cycle, provides NCTE/IRA standards, and includes an answer key.
THEME is excerpted from THE LITERARY TERMS HANDBOOK.
Meets National Council of Teachers of English/International Reading Association Standards for the English Language Arts.
Literary Terms: THEME
- Grades 9-12
- 7 Pages
- Activity Sheets
- Teacher Guide
- Complete Answer Key
- Meets NCTE/IRA Standards
- eBook/PDF Download
ALLEGORY A story in which characters, actions, or settings represent abstract ideas
Symbolism comes to life in an allegory. Allegories are fictional tales, where characters, their actions, and the story's setting symbolize an abstract idea. These characters breathe life into the ideas they represent. Dante's Divine Comedy is a lengthy, complex allegory story in which characters, actions, or settings represent abstract ideas.
ALLITERATION When two or more words begin with the same sounds, usually consonants
Dylan Thomas recounts what it was like each time he heard a word for the first time as a young child. These words were “as the notes of bells, the sounds of musical instruments, the noises of wind, sea, and rain, the rattle of milk-carts…the fingering of branches on a window pane…might be to someone, deaf from birth, who has miraculously found his hearing.” Thomas recognized early on the importance of sounds in literature.
ALLUSION A reference to a well-known person, place, or thing in history or in fiction
One thing often reminds us of another. A random object or event can trigger the memory of something that happened years ago; when this happens, your present situation feels connected to your past experience. Writers try to recreate this feeling when they use allusions. An allusion in a novel can remind us of a song we've heard, which in turn brings a newspaper article to mind. Allusions come in many shapes and sizes, like direct and indirect allusions.
ANALOGY An analogy compares two things closely.
You've probably heard the objection, “That's like comparing apples to oranges,” when someone compares two different kinds of things. The truth is, though, that apples and oranges are just as similar as they are different. Analogies in literature often compare things that seem to differ in kind, but which turn out to have many things in common, like apples and oranges. By pointing out both these differences and similarities, analogies offer a new perspective on each object.
ASSONANCE The repetition of vowel sounds in two or more words that appear close to each other, while not repeating the surrounding consonants.
Do not only mind our p's and q's, but also your a's, e's, i's, o's, u's, and sometimes y's. Assonance, like alliteration, uses a repetition of similar sounds to create a certain effect. Alliteration is a repetition of similar consonant sounds, but assonance is a repetition of similar vowel sounds. These two elements show just how important sound is in literature.
ATMOSPHERE The mood or feelings brought forth by a poem or a piece of prose
When you write, it's important to “set the scene.” The mood of a passage should jump off the page. Writers provide lots of sensory details so that you can imagine being in the book, and they describe characters, events, and settings so that, all together, they give off a certain feeling. The atmosphere of a piece of writing can be eerie, cheerful, or contemplative, etc. The possibilities are endless.
BALLAD A ballad is a short song or poem that tells a story.
Herodotus, the great Greek historian, wrote so that “time may not draw the color from what man has brought into being.” Ballads, which are usually dramatic tales, have been composed and sung for centuries. People who sang ballads were often illiterate, but this did not keep them from accessing an extensive tradition of storytelling. A folk ballad is passed down orally, and often has an unknown author. An art ballad is a modern poem that emulates a folk ballad.
CHARACTERIZATION All of the elements that come together to create an imaginary person or character.
People are complex in real life, and so is a well-written fictional character. As we become acquainted with characters in literature, we observe how they act, and what they look like. We hear what they say, listen in to their thoughts, and eavesdrop as other characters think or talk about them.
COUPLET A couplet is two lines, generally written in the same style.
A lot can be said in two lines of poetry. A couplet made of two lines which, in some way, belong to each other. Usually, they rhyme with each other and are written with the same meter. Couplets also usually make up one complete thought.
John Denham's poem “The Thames,” consists entirely of couplets.
FIGURATIVE LANGUAGE Figurative language, or a figure of speech, is any use of language, like similes, metaphors, and personification, not meant to be taken literally.
Life, for all of its twists and turns, would be pretty boring without figurative language. Many situations do call for speaking literally, and often there is a need for literal language in the most creative of poems. Yet if we were limited to “just the facts” of life, the world around us would end with what we could see and touch. There wouldn't be much room for the imagination, which helps us see beyond our daily experiences.
FORESHADOWING An indication of events to come
In literature, it is sometimes possible to tell the future. You don't need a crystal ball, though, to determine what will happen next; instead, many authors leave clues as to how their story or poem will end, and as to what will happen in the meantime. These hints make a story feel cohesive. Foreshadowing also intrigues readers and keeps them reading, anxious to find out what happens at the end.
IMAGERY When a vivid mental image is developed with words.
The Persian poet Rumi once wrote, “Close both eyes/to see with the other eye.” We see with our “other eye” when we encounter imagery. Imagery usually refers to the use of words to create a mental image, but it can also refer to words that appeal to the other senses, like smell, touch, and hearing. Although we won't find real sights and sounds, tastes and smells, in books, imagery makes us feel as if we do.
INVERSION Writing a sentence out of its normal order, particularly when the subject and predicate, or verb clause, are switched.
Sometimes a sentence can be turned on its head and still be readable. A sentence is inverted when the subject and the predicate — the verb and the whole phrase associated with the verb — are thrown into a surprisingly orderly state of disorder.
IRONY A contrast or incongruity between what is stated and what it meant, or between what is expected and what actually happens
With irony, one should expect the unexpected. Writers play off of the difference between what you think will happen and what actually happens, or the difference between what someone says and what they mean. These differences can either turn into something funny or into something serious. Verbal irony is used when a character or narrator means something other than he or she says. Situational irony refers to surprising or unexpected occurrences.
METAPHOR A metaphor is a direct comparison of two dissimilar things.
According to novelist John Gardner, “every metaphor…ties the imagined to the fully experienced.” Metaphors, like similes and analogies, compare things that technically shouldn't be compared. They squish mismatched things together.
Unlike similes, metaphors don't use words of comparison such as like or as. Instead, one thing actually starts to become another thing in our imagination.
METER The patterned repeating of stressed and unstressed syllables.
There's no need to feel stressed out about meter. Usually, the metrical forms used in poetry imitate our speech and our songs. The metrical form used most commonly in English is iambic pentameter. A foot is the most basic unit of meter. It consists of one or two unstressed syllables and one stressed syllable. When there are five feet in a line of verse, or ten syllables usually, the meter of that line is called “pentameter.”
Scansion is a metrical analysis of a poem, which identifies the stressed syllables (/) and unstressed syllables (˘).
ONOMATOPOEIA Using words to imitate sounds associated with a thing or an action.
You may think that you only read with your eyes, but you also read with your ears. Good writers keep the sounds of words in mind as they write, and some use onomatopoeias, which sound like the things they name or represent. Some examples of onomatopoeias are splash, plop, and ring.
PERSONIFICATION When an animal, object, or an abstract concept is given human qualities
Who hasn't cursed at a computer as if it had a conscience, or spoken to a dog as if it understood English? When we do this, we personify the objects, animals, and ideas that surround us. This tendency of ours shows up in all kinds of literature as well as in all walks of life.
PLOT The sequence of events or actions that make up a short story, novel, narrative poem, or a play
When reading any piece of literature, there is a lot to think about. A short story, for example, could raise many interesting moral questions. Before we understand such elements of the story, though, we have to understand its most basic element of all, the plot.
The plot of a story, novel, play, or poem itself consists of many different elements, including exposition, conflict, rising action, climax, and resolution.
POINT OF VIEW Point of view, speaker, or persona refers to the imagined person who tells a story or poem.
A story can be told from several perspectives. A first-person point of view actively participates and uses first-person pronouns like “I” and “me.” A third-person, omniscient point of view does not actively participate, presents tfrom an all-knowing perspective, and uses third-person pronouns like “she” and “him.” A third-person, limited point of view does not actively participate, presents from one or a few characters' perspectives, and uses third-person pronouns like “she” and “him.”
REFRAIN A refrain or chorus is a phrase or verse that appears at regular intervals throughout a poem.
Ezra Pound once said that “poetry begins to atrophy,” or decay, “when it gets too far from music.” Many poets seem agree with Pound, and they write poems that could almost be set to music. One of the ways poems are made more songlike is through the use of a refrain, a phrase that is repeated throughout the poem.
RHYME The repetition of sounds in two or more words that appear close to each other.
According to Samuel Butler, rhyme is “the rudder” of verses, “with which like ships they steer their course.” When a poet faces the challenge of the blank page, a rhyme scheme is a helpful framework.This is one of the many reasons that poets, songwriters, and children turn to rhyme. An exact rhyme repeats the sounds exactly. In an approximate rhyme or slant rhyme, the repeated sounds are similar but not the same. A rhyme that occurs at the ends of lines is called an end rhyme.
RHYTHM The natural, non-repeating pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in a poem.
If you've ever read something that set your toes to tapping, you were probably noticing the natural rhythm of the words. For most words, we emphasize some of the syllables, causing them to seem a bit longer, or a little bit louder, than unstressed syllables. Stressed syllables and unstressed syllables alternate, together forming a kind of dance, a sound pattern, which is similar to the pattern we hear in music. When rhythm and rhyme come together in a poem, the effect is even more musical.
SIMILE A simile is a direct comparison of two things using either the word “like” or “as.”
Like metaphors and analogies, similes compare two different things which, at first glance, seem to have little in common. Similes can be distinguished from metaphors and analogies, though, because they contain the words “like” or “as.”
SONNET A poem of 14 lines, usually written in iambic pentameter
Sonnets allow poets to sing. From the Italian word for “little song,” (sonneto), sonnets have been written through the ages. From Shakespeare, who wrote 154 sonnets, to Borges and Neruda, this poetic, songlike form has never lost popularity.
The Shakespearean sonnet, or the English sonnet, consists of three quatrains and one couplet.
STYLE Style refers to the unique qualities that make a single writer, a literary group, or period distinct.
Good writers have style. From their diction, or choice of words, to their sentence construction and use of figurative language, these writers are not afraid to show their individuality.
SYMBOLISM The use of images or symbols to represent something more, such as a flag symbolizing an entire country.
With symbolism, there is more than meets the eye. A black cat is hardly ever just a black cat, and a rose is hardly ever a rose. These things have ceased to be just things; they stand for different ideas and emotions.
THEME The theme, or topic, is what a poem, story, or novel is about.
When someone asks, “Well, what's the book about?” he or she is asking about the theme. A theme gets at the essential meaning of a story, a novel, or a poem. Each of these can have just one theme, or perhaps a few themes. X.J. Kennedy says that “great short stories, like great symphonies, frequently have more than one theme.” This phrase applies to other kinds of writing as well, and just as we often have many important ideas circulating in our minds at once, a poem or a piece of prose can discuss several ideas of equal weight.
TONE one is how the writer or speaker feels about the subject.
When people tell stories, their feelings on the subject usually show through. In writing, that subjectivity isn't always a bad thing; in fact, a writer's attitude, or tone, about the features of a story or poem helps us to understand that writer's purpose, and the message he or she wishes to convey.
- Teacher Guide
- Answer Key
- Definition of the Literary Term: THEME
- Activity Sheet: Understanding THEME
- Activity Sheet: Writing Using a THEME