The "theme" of a work of fiction is its central idea. The theme goes beyond the plot or the subject of the story to raise an issue or general idea that applies to people in the real world. To find a theme, try to generalize the particular characters and events of a story to find the values, ideas or human situations they suggest.
In order to accomplish this, you can, as you have seen, examine plot, character, setting, point of view, tone, style, and symbolism. But still, sometimes it's difficult to figure out the theme. There is no single method to use to figure out theme, since every writer has his or her own way of telling a story, and every story works differently.
So if you've been through all the questions we've asked before, and you're still stuck, here are a few more methods you can try:
- Isolate everything that is not just narration, description, or dialogue, and you will probably be left with a few clues. The most striking of these will be the title, which can often provide direction.(Why is Faulkner's story called "A Rose For Emily," for example, when roses are never mentioned in the story?)
- Look for passages in the writing that are commentary by the narrator: any time a narrator steps outside the action to comment on it, his statements may contain clues to the theme.
- Look for patterns of repetition. Any words, phrases, events, objects, or experiences which repeat themselves usually are important to the theme.
- Try to find ways to generalize the characters and events in the story, and then check back against the story to see if your interpretation is valid: is there symbolism which supports your reading? Do the plot, characters, tone, setting, style, language contain evidence that support your interpretation?
- Be sure not to impose an unsupported theme on a story. In other words, don't read your own experiences into a story. It is often tempting to find interpretations which support our own opinions and views. But when you interpret a story, you must move, mentally, in the opposite direction: instead of beginning with your ideas and then looking for them in the story, look at the story as objectively as possible, verify your theories about the theme with evidence from the story, and then see what it can add to your ideas.
Remember that a story may be interpreted in more than one way. An interpretation that does not agree with yours may still be right. And you, yourself, may see several possible interpretations. Don't spend a lot of time worrying about which is the "right" one; just enjoy the fact that there are so many ways to be right.