What is the theme of your life? Everybody has at least one; most of us have a number of them, each taking a turn in the spotlight, and then fading for a time. However, it may not have occurred to you to see things in that way. Writers consciously make use of themes in their works so they are accustomed to employing them as an important aspect of writing fiction. Not surprisingly, many great writers use the themes from their own lives as the themes in their books and stories. To put it another way, writers tend to write about what deeply interests or preoccupies them. Readers tend – often unconsciously – to choose writers and books that deal with their own themes.

Wisdom Harvests the Tree of Knowledge

Many great writers have used the themes from their own lives as the themes in their books and stories. Do you know what your themes are? (Image: public domain.)

Writers embody the theme or “idea” behind any particular story in the work’s characters, places, and events. They usually settle on a strategy during the conception and design stage of the writing process. You might say that the basic theme or idea of a novel has something to do with what the author “loves well.” In the course of the story, authors contrast what they love with what they reject, thus clearly presenting the theme, and their position on it, to the reader.

Regular visitors to this blog will recognize my themes in the assorted posts, although some get more exposure than do others. You are probably visiting this blog precisely because some of my themes are also your themes. I am sure you have already realized that it is not necessary to have the same viewpoint on a theme to share that theme.

What Are My Themes?

As you can see, the things I “love well” comprise a package of related and overlapping ideas. Whenever I lose sight of my dominant themes, my life begins to flounder. You may already be aware that the same is true for you. Here are a few of my less dominant themes:

Examples of What Classic Authors Have Loved Well:

  • Henry James – Europe and its culture. Although American, James lived in England and often toured on the continent. He filled his novels with contrasts between Americans and Europeans.
  • Ernest Hemingway – courage and death. We all know the stories of Hemingway’s macho lifestyle. His novels are legend.
  • E. M. Forster – human decency, freedom from artificial constraints and constrictions. The Merchant Ivory films (A Room with a View, Howard’s End, A Passage to India, etc.) of Forster’s novels have made his themes familiar to millions.
  • D. H. Lawrence – sex. Or as Colin Wilson more elaborately put it, “social life distorts us and prevents self-realization.” Lawrence challenged conventional morals with such novels as Lady Chatterley’s Lover and The Rainbow. He sought to find an English vocabulary for writing about sex in the more open way practiced by the French.
  • T. S. Eliot – religion. After living an ascetic life for years, Elliot converted to Anglicanism. His poetry is an expression, and extension, of his spiritual beliefs.
  • Albert Camus – justice. Camus was born in Algeria and became caught up in the moral aspects of that nation’s ruthless war of independence against colonial France.
  • Bernard Shaw – evolution. He was against the Darwinian kind, however, and considered it ugly. Shaw was a member of the Fabian Society, an organization of English socialists aiming to achieve socialism by non-revolutionary methods. They believed in slow but steady change. His plays often dealt with moral, economic, and political issues, especially the promotion of his own socialist ideals.
  • H. G. Wells – science. Wells combined his love of science with a burning desire to live by his pen. The result of his search for commercially viable books based on science was such novels as War of the Worlds, The Time Machine, and The Invisible Man.

I will mention just one example of a contemporary writer’s theme. Booker Prize winner Penelope Lively’s work often deals with the effect of the past on the present. I have singled her out because I happen to like this theme and it is becoming remarkably popular.

Preoccupation with Themes

As I have already noted, the nature of their work makes writers more conscious of life themes than are most people. As is the case for everyone, the themes that preoccupy a writer are laid down or, if genetically determined, activated in childhood. Once established, a theme undergoes a process of evolution. It begins to unfold and develop by picking up related information and integrating relevant life experience. The mind, equipped with its set of major and minor themes, becomes an evolving system. As adults, writers incorporate their themes in their work, where they continue to unfold and develop in ever-greater complexity and subtlety. Occasionally, significant insights will lead to paradigm shifts, whereupon the writer moves to a deeper understanding of the themes with which they grapple.

The Life-long Commitment to Themes

Since the themes in their work are so often themes in their lives, writers sometimes display life-long commitments to their dominant themes. One might say that writers embody their theme, or that the theme is incarnated within them. This reality leads to the phenomenon of recurrent themes where an author will return repeatedly to ideas that are related. Canadian poet and prose writer Duncan Campbell Scott wrote stories with themes like the growth of self-knowledge, the effects of emotion and time, the devotion and tensions of family life, the commitment to one’s fellows. The practice of repeating reflects writers’ attempts to explore and understand the themes in their own lives.

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9 thoughts on “What Is Your Life’s Theme?

  1. I was really fascinated by that list of authors and their themes. I wonder what Byron’s theme could be said to be? Emily Bronte, with that bleak ending to Wuthering Heights, when she could easily have made the inhumanly pitiless Heathcliff repent; was her theme exploring unrepentant revenge?
    A theme in that strange writer, HP Lovecraft seems to have been innate evil. I suppose that is a fear in all of us.

  2. I think the dominant theme in Wuthering Heights is love. Romantics like Bronte do not find it necessary that love go smoothly. Tragic love is extra romantic. (I always suspect romantics of being masochists!) However, Bronte did not want to suggest love always causes grief so her minor characters do have a better time of it. Revenge is definitely a significant theme as well. Those of us who are less romantically inclined tend to give the revenge theme more weight than do the romantics.

    It has been a long time since I read his works, but H. P. Lovecraft is a favourite of mine. His main theme is indeed evil. He comes at wickedness through the idea of forbidden or occult knowledge. His characters are always exploring or toying with some arcane belief system, which ultimately corrupts or destroys them. For reasons I did not understand at the time, I spent my troubled adolescence and young adulthood poring over the works of writers like Lovecraft. Another favourite was William Hope Hodgson. The idea so often seen in these writer’s works of some sinister unseen thing or power stalking and menacing people fascinated me. Later in life, I was diagnosed with manic-depressive illness.

  3. Great insights, Thomas. Well, you’re in great company with Pushkin and many others with the manic depressive states…Lovecraft seems to have been in a state of permanent horror about surreptitious alien invasion, too…

  4. I came across Pushkin in books by Kay Redfield Jamison, an American psychiatrist who is herself bipolar. I think you have already mentioned that Byron was a sufferer. I like to learn how others have fared with the illness and read many books about prominent manic-depressives after I was diagnosed. My case was typical in that diagnosis came late. No one goes to the doctor because they feel unusually happy or (as in my case) unusually irritable. I’m annoyed that I didn’t get the euphoric version of the illness. It’s really crappy being anxious and extremely irritable during the “up” cycles. The medications make you feel like a zombie.

    Lovecraft did write about alien invasions. I have always thought that the later seasons of “The X-Files” were partly inspired by his work.

  5. Sorry to hear that the medications have such unpleasant side effects, Thomas. It doesn’t seem fair not to have the euphoria at least.
    Lovecraft horrified me when I was about thriteen, but I did fall about laughing at one of his supposedly horrific descriptions where a man has his body taken over by an alien force, while he is regulated to a corpse (i’ve forgotten how). He tries to warn people with a phone call, but his vocal organs have rotted, so the voice on the phone that people hear is only ‘an obscene gurgling’. Horror and farce are so close together, one can easily tip over into the other…

  6. What you say about horror and farce being close together is true. I think we have all had a few laughs over some attempt at horror that just did not come off. I find that monster movies are often more funny than scary. (But I love them.) The thing to remember about Lovecraft is that he wrote his most famous works for the horror and science fiction “pulp” magazines. They paid only a penny a word (a penny and a half if you were truly favoured and the mag was flush) and standards were correspondingly low. Stories had to be wildly sensational and weird to get an editor’s attention and many of those editors were not above altering a writer’s work to “enhance” its appeal.

  7. And we envy those authors as publication in magazines was so much easier, but at what price? A penny a word, not generous. Maybe the editor added the voice being ‘an obscene gurg;ing’…Horror tipped over into farce in another story, where a dog attacked an alien who was breaking into a library to steal a copy of the ‘Necrominan’ (spelling) , ripping his trousers (like a postman) and causing fatal injury. Probably that Editor again…

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