Ciao, SEers. Last time, we talked about the first of the literary elements—theme. If you missed that post or would like to review it, you can find it here.
Today, we’re going to discuss the second element, subject, and how it relates to theme.
In literary terms, subject is the vehicle through which the theme of a story is delivered.
While theme is the most general literary element, that means there are fewer themes than subjects in fiction. The following example will show how one subject—home—can be used for different themes. And in different ways.
Let’s use The Wizard of Oz as an example again. Many people might be inclined to think the theme is there’s no place like home. It is, after all, one of the most often quoted lines of the movie. But the core message (theme) of the story can be generalized further. As we discussed last time, the theme of the story is that you should always chase your heart’s desire.
On the other hand, the subject of the story is there’s no place like home.
Let’s summarize a few so you can compare.
The Wizard of Oz
Theme: always chase your heart’s desire
Subject: home (more specifically, there’s no place like home)
Now, let’s look at a story with the same subject (sort of) but a different theme.
Gone with the Wind
Theme: survive at all costs
Subject: home (more specifically, the permanence of land)
Okay. I know you’re saying those two subjects are different. But they’re not. The subject, or the vehicle through which the theme is delivered, is home. If you want, think of it like a literal vehicle. One is Chevrolet Silverado and one is a Dodge Ram. Both are vehicles—both are trucks—but they’re not the same.
The first two examples used home as a location, one in an emotional way and one in a more tangible way. Let’s look at a different use of home as a subject, where it’s not the location at all.
Theme: those with the most power are not necessarily the best suited to rule
Subject: home (in this case, home is where the heart is)
When Thor first meets Hela, he recognizes two things: she is more powerful than he is and she will be an evil despot not a benevolent ruler. It’s not until he embraces the subject of the story (that home is where the heart is) that the message is delivered. Remember what Odin taught his sons—Asgard is a not a place; it’s a people. Once he came to terms with that, he was able to end Hela’s rule by putting an end to his home.
So, we’ve learned that theme is the general, core message of the story and the subject is the vehicle through which that message is delivered. There’s only one element left to discuss—symbolism, and we’ll do that next time.
Until then, why don’t you share any themes and subjects in your work? Or what about favorites from other authors’ works? Leave a comment below.