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Understanding Universal Themes in Literature

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karla hilliard

on 10 March 2015

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Transcript of Understanding Universal Themes in Literature

Understanding Universal Themes in Literature
A bit on "the human experience"
The human experience (also called the human condition)
is one of those terms tossed around in lots of college lit classes (and psychology and philosophy classes, too ).

Basically, when we talk about the human experience in literature, we are talking about...

A writer's attempt to describe what it is to LIVE (or experience) a human LIFE in a human SOCIETY.

A writer expressing some TRUTH about HUMANITY through his or her writing.

Anything dealing with humanity, human nature, society, or what makes people people.

For example:
(A Lord of the Flies reference...you knew it was coming...)

Ralph, Piggy, Jack and the gang building their own society, prioritizing their needs, and fighting over it all is a darker side of the human experience.

Their rule making, surviving, separating, fighting, and ultimately killing is a dark decent, but it is quite human, and the relationships forged and broken between the boys is universal to man.

Loneliness & Companionship
Revolutionary Road
Loneliness & Companionship
Of Mice and Men
Loneliness & Companionship
Travels with Charley

Literary themes are:

big ideas beyond plot

comments on the human experience

universal and applicable to all

What it is...
THEME defined
You've definitely heard the literary term "theme" before.

The definition you know from earlier grades is probably something like 'the central message or moral of the story.'

Yes? Good. Now, let's sharpen that up:

THEME is the big idea about human nature or the human experience being explored in a piece of literature.

THEME is not what happens (that's plot); it's WHY what happens.
Some more (on the fly, off the top of my head) examples of universal theme topics in literature...
Unrequited love
Fear of the unknown
Childhood innocence
Love & loss
Control & deception
Joy & Fulfillment
Power & corruption

* See handout for a more comprehensive and thoughtful list (but is NOT perfect or the end-all, be-all of theme topics).
Ideas explored?
Now that we've got that cleared up, here's the deal with theme.

Because big picture ideas about humanity and society are universal, and "universal" means "done by all people" or "applicable to all"...


Big Picture Ideas beyond plot +
Comments on the Human Experience =

The Why
We study theme in literature to:

Practice close and critical reading.

Read deeply for a greater purpose.

Develop and hone critical thinking skills.

Develop critical analysis skills, like making claims about literature and supporting claims with logical text evidence.

Learn about ourselves and the world around us.

Enrich our studies by becoming more culturally aware.

Theme is universal.
The example photos all come from stories that explore one of the same theme topics, Loneliness & Companionship.

The writers explore and reveal theme through different characters, plots, settings, conflicts, and complications.

The theme topic Loneliness & Companionship is:

1) a big picture idea that goes beyond plot
2) comments on something humans experience,
3) ...and is applicable to all -- universal.

Take a minute or two to think about any stories you might know that explore the theme topic of Loneliness & Companionship.
Now, a task...
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