Themes! What Are They?

by John Holbo on March 6, 2018

I’m writing something introductory (intended for a general audience) about ‘themes’ in literature. Obviously my theme must be that the term is a bit hopeless until you say what you mean by ‘theme’. I’m thinking of introducing it with reference to memories of writing book reports in 6th grade (I think it was.) Mr. Lofton’s (?) class at McCornick Elementary. (Or was he my 5th grade teacher? Can’t remember.)

Anyhoo: it was requisite, on pain of getting no credit for your report, that you correctly check one or more box(es) for ‘theme’. There were exactly four options:

Man vs. Man
Man vs. Nature
Man vs. Society
Man vs. Self

That’s all there is, there ain’t no more!

(Sorry, ladies! It was the 70’s, and Ms. was a magazine, but you got no love when it came time for themes.)

Now obviously this is a scheme of possible conflicts. (That’s what Wikipedia calls it.) It’s a bit weird to use ‘theme’ and ‘conflict’ as synonyms. But it makes sense, too. By reading this story you gain insight into these subjects. Theme = subject. Fine, fine. It does imply the only subject literature invariably teaches about is conflict. It’s all about the ‘vs.’. (Well, also all about the ‘man’.) That all literature is about conflict is not a crazy notion, so long as you mean story, by ‘literature’. The only other thing I remember from that class is writing haiku. I don’t remember being struck by the contradiction that your typical haiku does not report a conflict, yet is literature. My critical faculties were, evidently, still budding.

Stories are essentially about conflict is plausible but not exactly synthetic a priori. But my question for you is: where does this four-option schema of conflicts come from, and who decided it would get taught in my 5th grade (or was it 6th grade) language arts class? Are kids still checking those boxes, 40 years on? Some influential scholar or writer must have published an influential ‘these are the basic forms of story’ book, and it got picked up by (some?) US public schools as a Thing to force kids to check boxes about. Who was that scholar? Wikipedia is letting me down. All references are from the 80’s or later, and I for sure was checking boxes in the 70’s. The earliest textbook Wikipedia cites is:

Roberts, Edgar V.; Henry E. Jacobs (1986). Literature: An Introduction to Reading and Writing. Prentice-Hall. p. 103.

Checking Amazon, there are editions going back to the 60’s, so this could be it. Is it? Does anyone know who taught a generation of kids to see all stories in these terms. Was it a regional thing? I went to school in Oregon. I remember thinking at the time: Man vs. Self was the cool one. The paradoxical one. How could you be against yourself? It was weird. I must have been a 5th grade philosopher or something, checking my little Man vs. Self box and feeling rather proud of myself for solving the riddle of what the story truly was.



peter 03.06.18 at 5:58 am

The four possible themes remind me of Russian musicologist Mark Aranovsky’s classification of the movements of the typical symphony:

Movement #1: Homo agens: man acting, or in conflict (Allegro)
Movement #2: Homo sapiens: man thinking (Adagio)
Movement #3: Homo ludens: man playing (Scherzo), and
Movement #4: Homo communis: man in the community (Allegro).


John Holbo 03.06.18 at 8:46 am

Aranovsky’s labels sound more ornamental – optional – whereas what Mr. Lofton taught me has some plausible claim to exhausting the possibility space of conflict (well, maybe we need to add God.)

On the other hand, I think I’m probably about to learn that Mr. Lofton was, like, the only teacher in America to teach this way and I’ve hallucinated all these years that I partook of this mass teaching moment that defined my generation’s early literary critical experience.


GregMc 03.06.18 at 9:52 am

This isn’t, I suspect, directly useful, but there’s never a bad time to mention Vonnegut.


Theo 03.06.18 at 10:49 am

The confusion of theme and conflict reminds me of an old blogpost I read about Japanese stortelling: .

Not really relevant to your search, of course.


Theo 03.06.18 at 10:50 am

Sorry for the tag fail, but if you click on the tiny dot, the link does work. Or:


Liz 03.06.18 at 11:51 am

Those definitive conflicts were definitely taught to me in high school in Indiana (90s). If the idea originated in one text and was subsequently copied by everyone, that fits the historic pattern for textbooks on literature and writing.

Presently, theme is part of our 7th-8th grade academic standards here. The conflicts do come up in those discussions, but they’re not centered by any resource I’ve encountered. It’s rough going getting kids that age to think that abstractly, so simplifications and approximations get you through the day. Mostly, I see theme conflated more with moral. Which is fine so far as it helps students, but I wonder about my coworkers sometimes.

Sidestepping a moment, one of my lit professors once insisted “themes are statements” when the seminar disappointed her with a mere list of subjects from the novel we were studying. I don’t know if any single sentence uttered by a professor has helped my reading and writing more than that one.


John Crowley 03.06.18 at 12:01 pm

Actually a quite prominent German professor (that is a professor who was from Germany) who taught at Indiana University in the 1960s when i was thee definitely had this scheme, though he was to sophisticated a thinker to merely list the four. (I’m afraid I can’t just now remember his name.) His basic take on “To the Lighthouse” was man v. nature or at least thinking man v. blind nature. (The interlude in which the house grows old and untended was his big piece of evidence.) This was the last straw for me. I have never after given thought to themes in literature.


MisterMr 03.06.18 at 12:18 pm

I associate this way of thinking to french structuralist semiotics, so Barthes, Greimas or someone from that school.

The reason I think this is that in many books I read during university (I had to study some semiotics) I saw a similar tendency to schematize, and to schematize via opposition.

Also, themes that are clearly literarly worthy:

Man vs. woman (multipliable at will as the number of gender identities increases)
Father Vs Son (Law vs chaos)
Manly manlyness Vs intellectualism


ph 03.06.18 at 1:07 pm

I’m glad John Crowley chimed in here. Thank you! I teach ‘themes’ twice a year among other literary terms. As a reader and a teacher I don’t have much use for the term, and find conflicts much more interesting, both latent and explicit. That said, themes are fairly easy to teach if one considers the term as shorthand for ‘meditation upon’ or ‘about’ – as in, A Christmas Carol is ‘about’ 19th century English society, or ‘about’ redemption, or ‘about’ hope.

I do find it useful to stress that each reader can determine the theme for herself, or himself, and that stories can have multiple themes. Conflict is much more interesting, but I wouldn’t restrict the topic of conflict in any way.


novakant 03.06.18 at 4:10 pm

“Man vs. …”

I remember this being taught in high school and thinking :

“seriously? you’re kidding, right?!”

Fortunately it was only briefly mentioned and we didn’t actually have to apply it. It did diminish my respect for the way literature was taught in high school, though not my love for literature and I ended up studying Comparative Literature.


Piers 03.06.18 at 4:29 pm

Here’s the definition of theme that I insist on in my literature classes:


Lee A. Arnold 03.06.18 at 4:43 pm

The distinction may have originated in Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren who were very influential. Understanding Fiction by Brooks & Warren (1943) has a threefold distinction under “conflict” in their glossary: “The characters struggle against environment or with each other (external conflict) or are engaged in struggles with themselves (internal conflict).”

Perhaps “Man vs. Society” was added as an important category by other critics sometime during the 1960’s counterculture? You could hardly categorize a lot of the fiction and film without it!

“Theme” in narratology now refers to any set of ideas that recur explicitly or implicitly in the narrative.

A Dictionary of Narratology by Gerald Prince (1987) defines THEME as “a semantic macrostructural category or FRAME extractable from (or allowing for the unification of) distinct (and discontinuous) textual elements which (are taken to) illustrate it and expressing the more general and abstract entities (ideas, thoughts, etc.) that a text or part thereof is (or may be considered to be) about. …it is an “idea” frame rather than, for example, an action frame (PLOT) or an existent frame (CHARACTER, SETTING).”

Prince’s caps signify other dictionary entries. Each entry is referenced to the literature on narrative. He explains how this literature has distinguished theme from MOTIF, TOPOS, and THESIS.

In the current critical constructions, “Man vs. Man, Man vs. Nature,” etc. might now be referred to as a categorization of mid-level “deep structure” conflicts, which is superimposed on top of something like the deeper structures of Souriau or Greimas. (Get Prince’s dictionary for the easiest route to all of this.)

I wish to put in a request that someone write a comprehensive history of narratology, i.e. a history of the theoretical study of abstract structures of storytelling.


SusanC 03.06.18 at 5:03 pm

The massively multiplayer online games have “Player vs Player” and “Player vs Environment” so there’s sort of an argument that this schema lives on in a different medium (computer games vs stories).

I don’t recall this schema from when I was a kid (I went to school in the UK).


William Berry 03.06.18 at 5:23 pm

I was taught that the oppositions you list were the types of conflict found in fiction, and that for any piece of fiction to qualify as “story”, there had to be at least one of these, ideally a combination of them, present. Further, “man against himself” was pretty much essential to every story (in “To Build a Fire”, an apparently clear case of “man against nature”, the protagonist’s struggle against his own frustration and impatience is just as central as his struggle against the freezing cold).

Theme is different, and is often related to the presence of one or more universal literary archetypes as, e.g., renascence, withdrawal and return, ritualistic purification, etc.


rote 03.06.18 at 5:48 pm

I was still checking those boxes in the early 2010s, though at least there was a recognition that they weren’t mutually exclusive.


soru 03.06.18 at 6:23 pm

Sir Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch had a clearly-related but different list:

– man against man
– man against nature
– man against himself
– man against God
– man against society
– man caught in the middle
– man and woman


Gabriel 03.06.18 at 6:50 pm

Had the same theme breakdown in school as a young lad in the rural Midwestern U.S. I think the attraction of ‘theme’ is that it’s easy to teach and easy to test, and gives the illusion of conceptual mastery via an organizational schematic. Hard to see how it says anything useful about an individual story, but I’ve spent a little time thinking about how certain story forms (in particular, man vs. nature) might be more popular in some societies than others, and in this particular case, a story form that might at different points in history been very relevant looks absolutely pathological in light of climate change, etc.


altofront 03.06.18 at 7:09 pm

Similar oppositions are used in Laurence Perrine’s hugely influential textbook Story and Structure, first published in 1959. But he discusses them under “Plot,” as you would expect, not “Theme.”


John Holbo 03.06.18 at 10:12 pm

Thanks for this. Most educational. I think maybe I’m misremembering that I had it as early as 6th grade. Maybe it was junior high instead? It wasn’t high school. And I’m not totally sure that the word ‘theme’ went with it. Rather than ‘plot’ or something else. But I think it was ‘theme’.


ph 03.06.18 at 11:23 pm

Very useful comments, particularly @12.

For discussion purposes, theme is an excellent starting point for discussions of voice and point of view, and thesis. A popular exercise is to ask readers to summarize a short story from the perspective of a different character, or to make a significant change to the plot. What happens to Hamlet if the ghost doesn’t show up on the battlements? Discussions of theme also allow readers to personalize the reading experience. ‘Remains of the Day’ is about what? Vonnegut’s novels are ? generally? Alone, literary terms don’t have much utility, but theme, I think, does help readers conceptualize the reading experience as an act of creation, and cognition, rather than one of reception.


J. Mac 03.07.18 at 12:14 am

I was taught those, and they were conflict, connected to plot. They served/delineated the subject [sometimes concept or topic]. But themes are, similar to Liz above, what the author has to say about the subject.


Plarry 03.07.18 at 1:13 am

Seconding William Berry @14, your list is a list of what are typically called types of narrative conflicts, and most would not consider it exhaustive, although they may be the most common.


John Holbo 03.07.18 at 1:16 am

I think Piers is probably feeling sad because no one is apparently laughing at his (her) clever joke. Themes as Byzantine districts. Let me say: that’s a great joke, and I just might steal it!


Raven Onthill 03.07.18 at 6:38 am

I had thought it was from Aristotle’s Poetics, but a quick search doesn’t confirm that. Hunh.


pnee 03.07.18 at 6:24 pm

That’s OK, there are only two plots after all:

1) Going on a journey
2) A stranger comes to town



engels 03.07.18 at 8:41 pm

Man vs. Man

Man vs. Nature

Man vs. Society

Man vs. Self

That’s all there is, there ain’t no more!”

Man and van


Piers 03.10.18 at 6:29 pm

You’re welcome to it, John. If there’s a serious point behind that flippancy, it’s that Themes are very large scale and rather abstract–suitable for organizing the military that defends your empire, not so suitable for the everyday practice of close reading.

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