The fundamental or basic feature of the novel, as we know is story- telling and we have been told that this story is a product of the writer’s imagination. In most cases, the story is woven around a particular idea which the writer wants to communicate to his/her readers. This idea is what we refer to as the theme. It is not enough to just write the idea down that would not be a creative writing but just a word or group of words on a page.
It would not make sense. The writer decides on an idea and builds a story around it.Characters and actions are created to dramatise this idea. The way this is treated is the subject matter which sometimes is reflected in the title. This is different from the style which is how the idea is presented in form of language use, chapters and so on.We will explain this in details later.
Students often confuse theme and subject matter in literary appreciation. We will therefore try to explain the two very well with illustrations to make it clearer to you. You may also refer to your course material, ENG 162, Elements of Drama where I tried to distinguish each of them as it relates to drama.
Theme is the central dominating idea in a literary work. It is what Alternbernd and Lewis refer to as “the general vision of life or more explicit proposition about human experience that literature conveys.” (79) According to J. R. Harmsworth, “in non-fiction prose, it may be thought as the general topic of discussion, the subject of discourse, the thesis.” In literary works, theme is the “abstract concept which is made concrete through its representation in person, action and image in the work.” (123).
In her own definition, AkachiEzeigbo sees theme as representing for the “… reader what a story amounts to or the sum-total of the idea that the novel gives about life…It is something deeper than subject matter: indeed it is the vision of the novel and the profound questions it raises about life” (20). Morrell sums up the definition for us. He contends that theme which is a “conceptual distillation of the story, is often listed as one of the fundamental elements of fiction. It is the central idea or insight serving as a unifying element, creating cohesion and is an answer to the question, ‘What did you learn from the piece of fiction?’ In some cases, a story’s theme is a prominent element and somewhat unmistakable” (263).
You may have noticed that all these definitions have one thing in common, though presented from different perspectives. They present theme as the central or dominating idea in a literary work about human experience. Theme is usually seen as an abstract concept like love, marriage, corruption, bad leadership, crime, justice, and many other issues that reflect human experiences. This means that the theme is not written down anywhere in the work so you have to read the novel, novella or short story very well to decipher the theme. If you have read Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice,for instance, the central idea there is marriage. There are different forms of marriage and couples marry for various reasons. You will see also, how pride and prejudice affect a particular marriage.
In most novels from East Africa, we find the themes of possession and dispossession of land while the South African novels, until recently, present the themes of apartheid, racism. The themes of oppression and subjugation arecommon in the prose fiction from the two regions.
The subject matter in prose fiction is a kind of summary of what is presented in the work. It is what the story is all about. It is the subject of discussion in the work which is different from theme. The theme refers to the ideas which are stated abstractly but the abstract ideas are dramatized through the subject matter. Let us use NgugiwaThiong’o’s A Grain of Wheat for illustration. The theme of heroism and betrayal is dramatized through the presentation of the experiences of some characters who are presumed heroes by the public. Ironically they have in one way or the other betrayed their cause during the Emergency. On the eve of Uhuruthese characters are inundated with guilt, shame and jealousies.
These feelings threaten to ruin their inclination and commitment to Uhuru. They must resolve and reconcile these warring emotions and attitudes, and redefine their relationships with each other to be fully part of the Uhuru celebrations. Each character tries to analyse the reasons for his action in the Mau-Mau Freedom Fight and to resolve his inner conflicts, doubts and fears, and seek means of expiating his guilt and redefine his relationship with the other characters. “Each character is painfully groping his way towards self-knowledge. Wangari, Gikonyo’s mother, says very succinctly to her son: ‘But you are a man now. Read your own heart, and know yourself”’ (Palmer 26).
The title of any work is the distinguishing name of that work. The work is known by that name. It appears on the cover of the book and in most cases on the page after the cover. This page is not numbered but is appropriately called the title page. Usually the title appears on the top of the cover and the title page while the author’s name follows it either immediately below or at the bottom page. In addition to the title and the author’s name, the title page contains the publisher’s name. The title could be in upper or lower case. There are no strict rules about this but the author and the publisher decide what is preferable to them. The title varies from one word, a phrase to a sentence. Usually the title is not punctuated.
Sometimes, the name of a character in the novel is used as the title. In this case, you will notice that the entire story revolves around this particular character. Such prose fiction presents the life experiences or adventures of this character. Many early English novels have such titles. Some of them are: Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders, Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist and many others.
The title and the subject matter are interrelated. In most cases, the title reflects the subject matter. Festus Iyayi’s Heroesexamines the concept of heroism in the Nigerian civil war. This is explicated through the experiences of a journalist who encounters civilians, army officers and soldiers of the ordinary ranks who are involved in the war at different levels. The novel presents a situation where the masses are exploited by a few wealthy and powerful people.
The senior army officers stay in the rear, at the peaceful zones enjoying themselves with women, food, drink and parties while the junior officers are sent to the war fronts to fight and die. The children of the poor are sent to the war fronts to die while the children of the rich are sent abroad to study. The army officers who do not fight in the war are recognised as heroes while nobody is concerned with those who die in the battlefield. The latter should actually be the heroes.
Subject matter concerns two aspects of prose fiction that seem to be the same yet they are different. The subject matter is how the idea is explicated to form the story. If for instance, the theme of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is colonialism, the subject matterbecomes the story of Okonkwo and the disintegration of a once harmonious society as a result of Colonialism. You can see that to an extent, the tile reflects that disintegration, hence the falling apart of the society of Umuofia. This is why we say that there is a close relationship between the subject matter and the title because many titles echo their subject matters The author is more concerned about the subject matter which is informed by the theme. On the other hand, the critical reader is concerned about the theme, the underlying idea in the novel..
We have discussed two important aspects of prose fiction which though each is distinct, are related. The theme is explicated in the subject matter while the title reveals the subject matter in many instances.