Theme, simple – A story’s theme is its emotional point, around which the narrative action revolves cataphatically. The theme is verboten, meaning it can’t be said: In good writing, the theme is never stated within the story. This is because the theme is the emotional effect on the reader produced by the story. A microwave does not use electromagnets to cook electromagnets; it uses electromagnets to cook food. In literature, a story is a microwave; a theme is food.

Theme: the Big Important Meaning of the book – What is the big takeaway for the reader regarding this character and her time and place? To use a silly example: 1990s LA. The Big Lebowski, former rodey and current pothead, goes on a parodic neo-noir adventure. He ends up learning that all the funny postmodern tensions of his time lead inexorably to grabs for cash, and that grabs for cash are silly. Everyone’s playing some kind of game, putting on a farcical persona. He’s one of the only true originals—well, he and crazy fucking Walt and poor dead Donnie. The lesson is that LA and more generally America in the 90s was full of itself, all about money, and fake. That’s harsh, and that’s a generalization (Julianne Moore’s character serves as counterpoint, among the rich), but it’s also not entirely wrong or uninteresting.

Theme answers the big question: So what? What’s the takeaway for me? You don’t have to tell us in bald terms, but you have to know for yourself?

Now, the theme doesn’t  need be “clear” in the way I’ve just laid out re The Big Lebowski.  It just needs to be clear emotionally that Something Has Changed, and we the reader need to understand How We All Feel About That Change.

Kafka’s The Trial offers a great example of this: Jozef K. is charged with a crime. He is not told what crime. He is put on trial. He is not given details about the case. He is frequently remonstrated for not taking the case more seriously, but no one offers clear help with even so much as finding the right courtroom, much less collecting evidence. Finally, Jozef is killed in a field by two bored gendarmes. He has been found guilty. His death is somehow meaningful, ominous, deeply moving. But we can’t say exactly what it “means.”

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