Literary Themes & the Myth of Universal Themes in Literature

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Welcome friends! Today I’m talking to you about literary themes but more importantly the myth of universal themes in literature. Universal themes are essentially only universal to a certain demographic of people and imply that the experiences of others are not as valid as those that are supposedly “universal.” If you’re new here, I’m always trying to tear down some literary hierarchies, so let’s get started!

What are themes in literature?

Literary themes are the main ideas or underlying concepts within a novel. They are generally vaguer and touch on concepts that many people can relate to in order to make the story more relatable to a wider audience. Writers often show the theme through the plot, dialogue, characters, and setting. But the theme is not any of those aspects alone.

The literary theme of a novel is an overarching message or topic that is expressed throughout the entire story. It is often what the author is “really trying to say.” Themes can be as simple or as complex as makes sense for the story. For example, the theme can be “be true to yourself”. However, it can also be used to explain or explore deeper fundamental issues of humanity and/or society. Or both!

Many people will call literary themes “universal” because of their ability to connect with a wider audience, but there are many themes that are not universal in nature. For example, not everyone will personally relate to a theme of immigration or war. Especially if they have not been close to either in their lifetimes. Themes can help transcend differences and build a connection across peoples. However, they can also be used to connect with people who are similar to you. Though themes are very general aspects of human life, we do not experience themes in the same way. Paying attention to literary themes is a beautiful way for us to understand how different people react to different life events.

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How do we find themes in books?

FInding themes in novels can be difficult because they are subjective. Each reader comes in with their own prior life experiences and therefore may take out a different theme from a novel. This is one of the most beautiful things about reading! Each reader can read an entirely different story while reading the same words.

A story about a teenager whose uncle is in the hospital during a major breakthrough in her growth into adulthood is interpreted completely differently by different readers. Some readers may be more familiar with the coming of age theme. This is especially true if they haven’t experienced death in their family before. While other readers may have recently suffered a loss in their family and they may connect the most with the theme of grief.

Common Literary Themes

There are a wide variety of common literary themes but I’ll list a few that are common in Western canon:

  • Love
  • Death
  • Good vs Evil
  • Coming of Age
  • Power
  • Family
  • Friendship
  • Courage and Heroism
  • Prejudice
  • Individual vs Society

Why Do We Use Themes in Literature?

Literary themes are general and meant to appeal to a wider audience. For example, not everyone will relate to a main character that is a famous actor whose co-star gets murdered. However, they might connect to an overarching literary theme such as death or grief. Themes are what helps us connect to stories that we may not otherwise connect with. This means that they help more readers connect with the same story in different ways.

Some themes are more general and can help reach an even wider audience. There are certain themes that are so general that we call them universal themes. They transcend time, culture, differences, location, etc and they are something that connects us all through the virtue of being human. These themes help us, as readers, to be able to revisit older works. They keep the work alive in perpetuity because they include aspects of human life that many people can connect with. Theoretically, this is why people are able to connect to some very old novels without them becoming vastly outdated. We call these universal themes.

What are universal themes in literature?

Theoretically, universal themes are themes that are essential to the human condition. They are experiences that we all have and therefore they are able to bridge the divisions between cultures and geographic locations. As an example, universal themes can include topics such as grief, safety, and family. They’re generally very vague ideas that can connect over a wide variety of narratives and audiences. The idea is that all universal themes are central to human nature and therefore we all experience them.

In an ideal world, universal themes are themes that are written into books (and other media!) that will help make that book relatable to a wider audience, in turn, selling more copies. Everyone experiences grief at some point in their life, so including grief as a major theme in your novel may help more readers connect to the story.

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The Myth of Universality in Literature

One thing that I noticed when I was doing my research for this post on themes is the encouragement to make themes general. Lists that praise the “best themes” to write about or articles praising universal themes in literature. Theoretically, they transcend time, experience, location, and culture. But it makes me wonder whether universality in literature is even real. Universal themes are generalized so much that they start to lose all meaning all for the sake of being able to call them universal. But is universality even good? What does a story about “love” even mean?

Is Universality in Literature Bad?

Historically and even today, there is one prominent voice in literature. People from one single background are primarily driving the canon of today. The way that people with similar backgrounds experience love may all be very similar, but is it similar to the way that people from different backgrounds experience “love”? If we are only exposed to experiencing “love” in a certain way, will we start to think that other ways to experience and express love are less valid? Will we start to believe that only one way to “love” is the right way?

What, for example, happens after years and years of only being exposed to familial love from people of similar backgrounds and cultures? What happens when we are finally able to be exposed to experiencing and expressing love in a different way? How often have I heard an Asian American novel about a family being criticized because their parents don’t express love in a way that is familiar to the reader? How many times have I seen asexual characters be criticized for their friendships not “having enough romance in them”?

Being Cautious of Your Themes

To me, one of the most exceptional thing about art is how people can interpret it in completely different ways. Even differently than how the author intended. Sometimes there are themes within a novel that a reader may pick up on but the author did not intend to write at all. The same is true about any other kind of art. The way we experience art can be completely different from one person to the next.

Though I find this to be truly exceptional, I also think that it is something to be wary of. Artists will always bring their backgrounds and identities into their art and writing is no exception. Similarly, artists can only speak about their experiences and may be completely unaware of their own biases. Artists are human and we all have our own biases, whether we are conscious of them or not.

For example, a fantasy novel about princesses in a foreign land may initially sound harmless, but these stories are so often intertwined with themes of imperialism and orientalism. It’s important to recognize that stories about royalty are often based on our most famous royal family, who have direct influence on much of the world’s imperialism and colonialism.

It’s hard to make an argument for universal themes when one person may read this fantasy novel and think that it’s about love and wealth. While another person will read the novel and think about atrocities that may have been committed upon their ancestors. While the person who relates to the themes of love and wealth may not even notice the imperialist themes. Everyone is different and brings their own backgrounds and experiences into reading, and therefore everyone perceives themes differently or even sees different themes altogether.

Can Universal Themes Truly Be Achieved?

Honestly, I can’t tell you. What I do believe is that we don’t need to have universality in literature. Books do not need to be written for a universal audience. We do not need to diminish themes to the point of meaninglessness. Our themes can be specific themes that will touch the hearts of specific readers. Your story will not be any less impactful because of it.

What I also believe is that it’s crucial to hear stories from people of different backgrounds. It’s important for us to understand that, though a theme may be considered universal, it can be expressed and experienced in different ways. Love is expressed in infinite amounts of ways and none of them are less valid than the other.

All of this is to say that it is important for readers to read books by authors from diverse backgrounds. And it is just as important for all of you writers out there to write books that represent who you are. Write your truth.

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Hi! I’m Amanda. Bookish Brews started as a personal project to decolonize my bookshelf turned into a passion for diverse stories. Once I realized how much we can grow personally from stories by people with different experiences than our own, I realized how much they impact our world. But I also know that growth from stories does not happen without intentionality. Bookish Brews is dedicated to building meaningful conversations about how stories by diverse voices can change our lives, our culture, and our world.

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  1. Great question. I’ve not thought about it!

    1. Thanks for reading 🤍🤍

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