Return to Theme (Literary)
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.