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A Writer's Handbook

Literary Theme Analysis

A literary theme analysis will synthesize several elements within a work and prove an overall message with those elements.

  • Beginning the analysis (using Harry Potter as an example)
    • Theme can be discovered only by becoming aware of the relations among the parts of a story and of the relations of the parts to a whole:
      • Characters:  What kind of people does the story deal with?
      • Plot:  What do the characters do?  Are they in control of their lives, or are they controlled by fate?
      • Motivation:  Why do the characters behave as they do, and what motives dominate them?
      • Style:  How does the author perceive reality?
      • Tone:  What is the author's attitude towards his subject?
      • Values:  What are the values of the characters in the story?  What values does the author seem to promote?
    • The importance of theme in literature can be overestimated; the work of fiction is more than just the theme.  However, the theme allows the author to control or give order to his perceptions about life.
  • Think of the possible messages within the story – why was this story told (EX. Harry Potter series has a classic “good vs. evil” theme or even a finding out about one’s true self theme.  Maybe I would look at the symbolic fight between good and evil or at a coming of age story…Harry Potter series also has a look at family relations where blood family is not necessarily a person’s true family…)
  • Choose a theme/issue that will be supported with enough examples from text (EX.  Coming of age, Familial vs. adopted relations and how friends and mentors can become family)
  • Through what channels do you see this theme?  Create a working thesis:
    • State what you want to present about the theme in the story in the body of the paper
    • Be careful not to use a summary of the story as the thesis
      • EX:  A true coming of age is seen in the characters Harry, Ron, and Hermione in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.  **Note:  This would be the X, Y, Z thesis

      • EX: Characters in Harry Potter’s life illustrate the notion that a father figure does not necessarily have to be one’s biological father.  **Note:  This thesis is put into a general thesis format, not X,Y, Z

  • Find evidence within the work to illustrate your points

  • Find secondary sources as needed that help you prove your points

Exercise 10

Exercise 10:  Brainstorm some possible theme analysis ideas with Harry Potter; start with the following – what could you do with these:

  1. Notion of competition in children
  2. Comment on bullying
  3. Comment on children having to grow up too quickly
  4. Class difference
  5. Good versus Evil
  6. Jealousy among siblings

Overall Tips for Literary Analysis Essays

  • Be careful not to summarize the story – this is not an analysis
  • Find connections and be original in your synthesis
  • When using secondary sources, proof of your exact idea may not be readily available – what you will do is use support of individual elements to then address your main thesis idea
  • Never use just the author’s first name – use the last name only or both names when discussing the author
  • Always use present tense when talking about literature unless something directly happened “in the past” in the literary piece