Top Themes in English Literature: A Comprehensive Guide
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 9 min read


  1. Love as a dominant theme
  2. Exploration of identity
  3. Death and the afterlife
  4. Power and corruption
  5. Survival and the human spirit
  6. Nature and the natural world
  7. Class and society
  8. War and conflict
  9. Faith and religion
  10. Gender roles and sexuality

Picture this: You're sitting in your favorite comfy chair, a hot cup of tea by your side, lost in a world of words spun by a master storyteller. What is it that makes these tales so compelling? The answer lies in the themes in English literature that weave through these stories, guiding the plot and shaping the characters. Let's take a deep dive into these themes, starting with one of the most dominant ones: Love.

Love as a dominant theme

Love, in all its forms, has always been a powerful driving force behind some of the most memorable stories in English literature. It's a theme that has the power to bring people together, tear them apart, and everything in between. But love in literature isn't just about the romantic kind. Let's break it down:

  • Family Love: You'll find this type of love displayed in works like Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird", where the Finch family's bond is a central theme.
  • Romantic Love: Who can forget the tragic love story of Romeo and Juliet penned by Shakespeare? It's the quintessential example of romantic love as a dominant theme in English literature.
  • Unrequited Love: A theme that has given us poignant stories like "Wuthering Heights" by Emily Bronte, where Heathcliff's unreturned love for Catherine drives the narrative.
  • Friendship Love: The bond of friendship is another form of love that shines in books like J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" series.

Exploring themes in English literature like love brings a new depth to how we understand and enjoy these works. Whether it's a story of star-crossed lovers or the unbreakable bond of friendship, the theme of love continues to be a compelling thread that ties together some of the greatest works in English literature. So, next time you pick up a book, take a moment to consider the themes. You might just find that it enriches your reading experience.

Exploration of identity

Have you ever asked yourself, "Who am I?" or "What is my purpose in life?" These big questions are central to the theme of identity exploration in many works of English literature. The journey to self-discovery is a winding road that often leads characters—and readers—through a maze of introspection, self-doubt, and ultimately, self-acceptance.

Take for instance, the classic novel "The Catcher in the Rye" by J.D. Salinger. The protagonist, Holden Caulfield, grapples with his identity, trying to navigate the tricky path from adolescence to adulthood. His struggle to find his place in the world is something that resonates with many readers, making the exploration of identity a powerful theme in English literature.

Or consider "To Kill a Mockingbird"—yes, the same one we mentioned earlier. Scout Finch, the young narrator, learns about the harsh realities of life while also discovering her own identity. The story underscores how our identities are often shaped by the world around us, for better or worse.

Themes in English literature like identity exploration reflect the human condition, making the stories more relatable and timeless. So next time you're engrossed in a novel, look beyond the plot. You might just find a reflection of your own journey of self-discovery.

Death and the Afterlife

One of the most common themes in English literature, and perhaps the most mysterious, is death and the afterlife. This theme pops up in both old and new literature because it's a universal experience—everyone, at some point, must reckon with the idea of mortality.

Remember the famous line "To be, or not to be: that is the question" from Shakespeare's "Hamlet"? This quote is a perfect example of a character wrestling with the concept of life, death, and what comes after. Hamlet is stuck in a moral dilemma, questioning the nature of life and death, and the fear of the unknown that comes with it.

Then there's "The Lovely Bones" by Alice Sebold, a novel told from the perspective of a teenage girl who's been murdered and watches over her family from the afterlife. This unique perspective offers a new take on the theme of death and the afterlife in English literature, exploring the pain of loss, the longing for justice, and the hope for some form of life after death.

So, while the theme of death and the afterlife might seem a bit dark or heavy, it's a central part of human existence. And who knows? You might find some comfort, or at least a fresh perspective, when you encounter this theme in your next read.

Power and Corruption

Ah, power and corruption—one of the grittiest themes in English literature. This theme has a way of revealing the darker side of human nature, especially when individuals or groups gain control.

Let's take George Orwell's "Animal Farm" as an example. It's a tale of farm animals who overthrow their human farmer in the hope of creating an equal society. However, the pigs, who assume leadership, become corrupt, leading to a society worse than the one they overthrew. This story serves as a powerful reminder of how easily power can corrupt if not checked.

Then there's "Macbeth" by William Shakespeare, in which the main character, Macbeth, is consumed by his ambition for power. He is willing to commit terrible deeds, including murder, to become the King of Scotland. Ultimately, his quest for power leads to his downfall. Macbeth's story is a timeless reminder that unchecked ambition and the desire for power can lead us down a dangerous path.

So, when reading literature that explores the theme of power and corruption, you might want to think about the balance of power in your own life or society. It's a theme that encourages us to reflect on our values and the lengths we're willing to go to achieve our desires.

Survival and the Human Spirit

Sometimes, literature gives us an opportunity to step into the shoes of characters who are fighting for survival. These stories remind us how resilient the human spirit can be when faced with extreme circumstances.

Consider "To Kill a Mockingbird" by Harper Lee. The young characters, Scout and Jem Finch, learn harsh truths about their society and its prejudices. But the survival element here is not just physical—it's also about maintaining moral integrity. The characters grapple with injustice and learn to uphold their principles, showing us how the human spirit can thrive even in the toughest of situations.

Another great example is "The Life of Pi" by Yann Martel. The protagonist, Pi, survives a shipwreck and is left stranded on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. Yes, you heard that right—a tiger! Fighting for survival in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, Pi's story is a testament to the strength of the human spirit and its will to survive against all odds.

Stories centered around the theme of survival and the human spirit can inspire us. They make us question: What would we do in those situations? How far would we go to survive? And importantly, how would our spirit stand up against the test?

Nature and the Natural World

Another prevalent theme in English literature is nature and the natural world. Authors often use nature as a backdrop to their narratives, but sometimes, nature takes a more central role and becomes a character itself.

Take, for instance, "The Secret Garden" by Frances Hodgson Burnett. The garden, hidden and untended, comes back to life through the care of the young protagonists. It becomes a place of healing and transformation. The novel uses nature to symbolize renewal and the resilience of life.

Then there's "Lord of the Flies" by William Golding. Here, a group of boys is stranded on an uninhabited island. The natural world around them becomes both a playground and a prison. It mirrors their descent into savagery, showing us that nature is not just about beauty and tranquility—it can also be wild and unforgiving.

So, next time you're reading a novel, take a moment to consider the setting. Does it take place in a city or the countryside? Does the author spend a lot of time describing the natural environment? These details might be hinting at a deeper theme about nature and the natural world.

Class and Society

Class and society is another theme that runs deep in English literature. It isn't just about the haves and the have-nots, but also the complex dynamics and interactions among different social classes.

Consider "Pride and Prejudice" by Jane Austen. It isn't just a love story, but also a critique of the rigid class system in 19th-century England. The novel explores how class affects people's behavior, relationships, and even their chances of happiness. It shows us that class is more than just about wealth—it's about values, manners, and prejudices too.

Then there's "Oliver Twist" by Charles Dickens. Here, we see the harsh realities of the lower class through the eyes of a young boy. Dickens doesn't just depict poverty—he criticizes the society that allows it. He shows us that class and society aren't just about individual wealth, but also about social responsibility and justice.

So, when you're delving into a piece of English literature, try to see beyond the plot. Look at the social context and the characters' social standing. You might find that class and society are not just background noise, but key themes that shape the narrative.

War and Conflict

War and conflict, another central theme in English literature, isn't just about battles and fights. It's about the human struggle, the moral dilemmas, and the lasting impacts on individuals and societies.

Take a look at "All Quiet on the Western Front" by Erich Maria Remarque. Here, war isn't just a setting—it's a character in itself. The novel doesn't glorify war, but rather shows its harsh realities: the fear, the loss, the trauma. It tells us that war isn't about heroism or honor, but about survival.

Then there's "1984" by George Orwell. This isn't a story about war in the traditional sense, but about a society in a perpetual state of conflict. The book explores how war can be used as a tool of control and manipulation. It makes us question the nature of war and its role in society.

So, when you encounter war and conflict in English literature, don't just think about the physical battles. Think about the internal and societal conflicts too. You might find that war and conflict are not just plot devices, but profound themes that challenge our understanding of humanity.

Faith and Religion

Faith and religion have long played a significant role in English literature. These themes are not just about religious beliefs or practices. They explore the human quest for meaning, the nature of belief, and the conflict between faith and doubt.

When you think of faith and religion in English literature, one of the first books that might come to mind is "The Chronicles of Narnia" by C.S. Lewis. The author uses the fantasy genre to explore Christian themes and values. The story isn't just about talking animals and magical wardrobes—it's about faith, sacrifice, and redemption.

Then there's "Life of Pi" by Yann Martel. This novel isn't about a specific religion, but about the idea of faith itself. The protagonist, Pi, practices three religions and believes in the power of storytelling. The book challenges us to think about the nature of truth and the role of faith in our lives.

In conclusion, when you're reading English literature, keep an eye out for the themes of faith and religion. They might be more complex and thought-provoking than you initially thought!

Gender Roles and Sexuality

Gender roles and sexuality are recurring themes in English literature, often challenging societal norms and expectations. By examining these themes, authors shed light on the complexities of identity and relationships.

For instance, in "Pride and Prejudice" by Jane Austen, the author turns a critical eye to the gender roles of her time. The novel's heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, defies the societal expectation of women to marry for wealth and status, instead choosing to marry for love.

Fast forward to the 20th century, and you'll find "Orlando" by Virginia Woolf. This novel pushes the boundaries of gender and sexuality. Its protagonist, Orlando, starts as a man in the Elizabethan era but transforms into a woman, living for centuries. The story challenges our understanding of gender as a fixed and binary concept.

More recently, in "Call Me By Your Name" by Andre Aciman, the author explores a passionate summer romance between two young men. The novel delves into themes of sexual awakening and the fluidity of desire.

Through these works, we see that English literature doesn't shy away from examining gender roles and sexuality. These themes can help us better understand the human experience, and challenge us to think more deeply about our own identities.

If you enjoyed delving into the top themes in English literature and want to explore even more, check out the workshop 'Navigating Life - Part V' by Rabih Salloum. This workshop will take you on a journey through literature and life, providing you with a deeper understanding of the themes that have shaped our world.