Since the very first stories were written, they have continually served as powerful vessels for expressing and exploring the depths of human experiences.
Through the ages, writers have weaved intricate narratives that delve into universal themes, resonating with readers across time and culture.
This article will shine a spotlight on 20 significant themes that have resonated throughout storytelling history.
From the complexities of good versus evil to the search for meaning and the transformative power of redemption, we will explore the multifaceted nature of these themes through a diverse range of literary works.
Drawing examples from classic literature to contemporary masterpieces, we will analyze the ways in which authors skillfully employ symbolism, character development, and narrative structure to convey profound messages and insights.
Here are 20 of the most common themes in storytelling:
Love and relationships
Love, in all its forms, has always been a central theme in literature.
From the passionate romance of Romeo and Juliet in Shakespeare’s play to the enduring love of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, literature explores the complexities of human relationships and the power of love to transform lives.
Coming of age
The journey from childhood to adulthood is a recurring theme.
In J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, we witness Holden Caulfield’s struggle with growing up, while Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird follows Scout’s moral awakening as she navigates the prejudices of her society.
Power and corruption
The corrupting influence of power is a theme that permeates literature.
George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 depicts a totalitarian regime where power is used to manipulate and control, while Shakespeare’s Macbeth explores the destructive consequences of ambition and the lust for power.
Identity and self-discovery
The search for identity and self-discovery is a theme that resonates deeply.
In Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, the protagonist grapples with his racial and personal identity, while J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series follows Harry’s journey of self-discovery as he learns about his magical heritage.
Good versus evil
The eternal struggle between good and evil is a theme that captivates readers.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings presents a battle between the forces of light and darkness, while Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde explores the duality of human nature.
Freedom and oppression
The desire for freedom and the fight against oppression are powerful themes in literature.
Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale examines a dystopian society where women are oppressed, while Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn follows Huck’s quest for freedom from societal constraints.
Death and mortality
Death and the contemplation of mortality have inspired countless works.
Emily Dickinson’s poetry delves into the mysteries of death, while Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude explores the theme of mortality through generations of a family.
Nature and the environment
The beauty and power of nature are celebrated in literature.
Henry David Thoreau’s Walden explores the transcendental connection between man and nature, while Jack London’s The Call of the Wild tells the tale of a dog’s return to its natural instincts.
War and conflict
The devastating impact of war is a recurring theme.
Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front provides a harrowing account of World War I, while Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 satirically captures the absurdity and futility of war.
Betrayal and deception
The theme of betrayal and deception adds layers of intrigue to many narratives.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby examines the disillusionment and betrayal in the pursuit of the American Dream, while Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None keeps readers guessing as characters deceive one another.
Social injustice and inequality are themes that challenge societal norms.
Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird confronts racial injustice in the American South, while Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist exposes the harsh realities of poverty and child exploitation.
Family and legacy
The bonds of family and the weight of legacy feature prominently in fiction.
Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude follows the Buendía family across generations, while Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman explores the legacy of a struggling salesman and the impact on his family.
Isolation and loneliness
The theme of isolation and loneliness speaks to the profound human experience of longing for connection.
In Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, the eponymous protagonist endures a solitary childhood and seeks companionship and love as she navigates the challenges of her life. Similarly, Albert Camus’ The Stranger explores the existential theme of alienation, as the protagonist, Meursault, feels disconnected from the social conventions and emotions of those around him.
Justice and morality
The concepts of justice and morality are recurrent themes in literature.
In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, the trial of Tom Robinson raises questions about racial injustice and the pursuit of true justice. Meanwhile, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment delves into the moral implications of crime, guilt, and redemption.
Hope and resilience
The theme of hope and resilience portrays the indomitable spirit of the human condition.
In Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, the author shares his experiences in Nazi concentration camps and reflects on the importance of finding meaning and purpose even in the most challenging circumstances. Similarly, Yann Martel’s Life of Pi tells the tale of Pi Patel, who clings to hope and imagination while stranded at sea.
Social change and revolution
Literature often explores the themes of social change and revolution, reflecting the turbulent times in which they are written.
George Orwell’s Animal Farm uses a fable-like narrative to critique the corruption of power and the failure of revolutions, while Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities depicts the French Revolution and explores themes of sacrifice and redemption.
The quest for knowledge
The pursuit of knowledge and wisdom is a theme that has fascinated writers for centuries.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein explores the consequences of unchecked scientific ambition and the limits of human knowledge. In Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, the protagonist embarks on a spiritual journey in search of enlightenment and self-discovery.
Dreams and illusions
The theme of dreams and illusions delves into the human desire for escapism and the clash between reality and fantasy.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby explores the illusory nature of the American Dream, while Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote follows a deluded knight who chases impossible dreams.
Loss and grief
The theme of loss and grief encompasses the emotional journey of characters coping with tragedy.
In Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, the protagonist endures the loss of loved ones during World War II and finds solace in the power of words. Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking recounts the author’s experiences following the sudden death of her spouse and explores the complexities of grief.
Redemption and forgiveness
The theme of redemption and forgiveness explores the possibility of personal growth and absolution.
In Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge undergoes a transformative journey of redemption, learning the importance of compassion and second chances. Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner follows the protagonist’s quest for redemption and forgiveness in the face of past mistakes.
Are you ready to use these storytelling themes in your own writing?
In summary, as the above list shows, literature is a vast creative space that embraces every theme of the human condition, each reflecting the complexities of the human experience.
From love and relationships to power and corruption, authors navigate these motifs to provoke introspection, challenge societal norms, and evoke profound emotions.
Ultimately,, the above list is by no means exhaustive and there are countless other themes that one would find if they continued this analysis, which is one of the great benefits of engaging with books and indeed other creative mediums; there are multiple lifetimes worth of stories to explore.
So why not make the most of the lifetime you’re living and write a story of your own?
You can use your knowledge of theme to leave a lasting legacy as a fiction author.