A theme is the main idea or general message of a story -- what it says about life and/or the human condition. It is similar to a "moral of the story", but not exactly the same. It does not always concern moral development or a "lesson", and is often subtlely woven into the dialogue, as opposed to being explicitly stated at the end of the story in a bland "And that's why you should always remember to..." format that tends to turn most readers off. In fact, the themes of stories are sometimes easy to miss.
Examples of themes from some well-known books/stories:
- TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (by Harper Lee): People that have been closed off from the evils of the world are often destroyed when they do encounter them.
- LORD OF THE FLIES (by William Golding): The human race must control their savage instincts for civilization to succeed.
- THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA (by Ernest Hemingway): One can work their whole life to achieve a goal, actually achieve it, but still have it taken away in a flash with nothing to show for it.
- MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (by Edgar Allan Poe): Death is inevitable, despite our constant battle to avoid it.
- FARENHEIT 451 (by Ray Bradbury): Censorship will have a detrimental impact on society if it is not prevented.