Theme (Literary)

The four essential attributes of a novel are: Theme—Plot—Characterization—Style.

These are attributes, not separable parts. They can be isolated conceptually for purposes of study, but one must always remember that they are interrelated and that a novel is their sum. (If it is a good novel, it is an indivisible sum.)

A theme is the summation of a novel’s abstract meaning. For instance, the theme of Atlas Shrugged is: “The role of the mind in man’s existence.” The theme of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables is: “The injustice of society toward its lower classes.” The theme of Gone With the Wind is: “The impact of the Civil War on Southern society.”

A theme may be specifically philosophical or it may be a narrower generalization. It may present a certain moral-philosophical position or a purely historical view, such as the portrayal of a certain society in a certain era. There are no rules or restrictions on the choice of a theme, provided it is communicable in the form of a novel. But if a novel has no discernible theme—if its events add up to nothing—it is a bad novel; its flaw is lack of integration.

Louis H. Sullivan’s famous principle of architecture, “Form follows function,” can be translated into: “Form follows purpose.” The theme of a novel defines its purpose. The theme sets the writer’s standard of selection, directing the innumerable choices he has to make and serving as the integrator of the novel.

Since a novel is a re-creation of reality, its theme has to be dramatized, i.e., presented in terms of action. Life is a process of action. The entire content of man’s consciousness—thought, knowledge, ideas, values—has only one ultimate form of expression: in his actions; and only one ultimate purpose: to guide his actions. Since the theme of a novel is an idea about or pertaining to human existence, it is in terms of its effects on or expression in human actions that that idea has to be presented.

A cardinal principle of good fiction [is]: the theme and the plot of a novel must be integrated—as thoroughly integrated as mind and body or thought and action in a rational view of man.

The link between the theme and the events of a novel is an element which I call the plot-theme. It is the first step of the translation of an abstract theme into a story, without which the construction of a plot would be impossible. A “plot-theme” is the central conflict or “situation” of a story—a conflict in terms of action, corresponding to the theme and complex enough to create a purposeful progression of events.

The theme of a novel is the core of its abstract meaning—the plot-theme is the core of its events.

The theme of a novel can be conveyed only through the events of the plot, the events of the plot depend on the characterization of the men who enact them—and the characterization cannot be achieved except through the events of the plot, and the plot cannot be constructed without a theme.

This is the kind of integration required by the nature of a novel. And this is why a good novel is an indivisible sum: every scene, sequence and passage of a good novel has to involve, contribute to and advance all three of its major attributes: theme, plot, characterization.

Those who may be interested in the chronological development of my thinking . . . may observe the progression from a political theme in We the Living to a metaphysical theme in Atlas Shrugged.

[We the Living] was published in 1936 and reissued in 1959. Its theme is: the individual against the state; the supreme value of a human life and the evil of the totalitarian state that claims the right to sacrifice it.

[Anthem] was first published in England in 1938. Its theme is: the meaning of man’s ego.

[The Fountainhead] was published in 1943. Its theme is: individualism versus collectivism, not in politics, but in man’s soul; the psychological motivations and the basic premises that produce the character of an individualist or a collectivist.

[Atlas Shrugged] was published in 1957. Its theme is: the role of the mind in man’s existence—and, as corollary, the demonstration of a new moral philosophy: the morality of rational self-interest.

Copyright © 1986 by Harry Binswanger. Introduction copyright © 1986 by Leonard Peikoff. All rights reserved. For information address New American Library.


Excerpts from The Ominous Parallels, by Leonard Peikoff. Copyright © 1982 by Leonard Peikoff. Reprinted with permission of Stein and Day Publishers. Excerpts from The Romantic Manifesto, by Ayn Rand. Copyright © 1971, by The Objectivist. Reprinted with permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc. Excerpts from Atlas Shrugged, copyright © 1957 by Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead, copyright © 1943 by Ayn Rand, and For the New Intellectual, copyright © 1961 by Ayn Rand. Reprinted by permission of the Estate of Ayn Rand. Excerpts from Philosophy: Who Needs It, by Ayn Rand. Copyright © 1982 by Leonard Peikoff, Executor, Estate of Ayn Rand. Reprinted by permission of the Estate of Ayn Rand. Excerpts from “The Philosophy of Objectivism” lecture series. Copyright © 1976 by Leonard Peikoff. Reprinted by permission. Excerpts from Alvin Toffler’s interview with Ayn Rand, which first appeared in Playboy magazine. Copyright © 1964. Reprinted by permission of Alvin Toffler. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Plume, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc.