Tackling Themes

I’ve been getting quite a few questions recently about how to tackle theme questions. There seems to be this overwhelming need to know if you’re doing it RIGHT, to which I say, patronisingly perhaps, there is no single RIGHT way to approach a question.You’ve got to make decisions both before you write and as you are writing, all the while remembering to focus on the question that has been asked.


However, that being said, a few sensible suggestions spring to mind. For me, it’s all about asking simple questions but offering complex replies. Let’s say for example you’re examining the theme of love. It doesn’t really matter what texts you’re studying, you can still ask simple questions which will provide you with an outline structure to follow. Here are some of the questions I’d ask:

  1. How is the theme introduced? Is our first impression as viewers/readers positive or negative and why? Do the central characters embrace love or reject it? Why?

  2. How is this theme developed? Do the characters need love? Do they fight for it? Do they have any control over who they fall in love with? Does love bring happiness or despair or a bit of both?

  3. What obstacles do the characters encounter? Do they achieve lasting love – do they fail or succeed? Why? Is this theme in any way symbolic? (for example, do people withhold love to punish each other? Does finding love correspond to finding happiness or is love associated with destructive emotions in this text? Is a certain type of love (familial, romantic, parent/child) presented as more important than another? Do different types of love (familial / romantic) clash and is a character forced to choose one over the other?).

  4. How does the text end and what final impression of this theme are we left with? Does love conquer everything? Do other forces conspire to destroy love?

There are plenty of other ways of tackling the theme of love, or any theme for that matter. You could structure your essay like this instead:

  1. Romantic love / love triangles

  2. Symbolism & love

  3. Familial love

  4. Final impression

I would argue, however, that you MUST finish your essay by discussing how each text ends. It’s just logical from a sequencing point of view that you end with the end, if that makes sense!

Once you’ve decided what questions you want to ask and more or less what structure your essay will follow, BEWARE! You cannot just do a checklist of questions and tick off each one as you write each sentence. Remember, I said simple questions but complex replies. You also need to have good flow in your answer and ticking off a list of questions you feel you must answer would interrupt this flow. It’s better to keep a general sense of what you want to discuss in mind but allow the ideas to glide onto the page.

WARNING: the examples below are for the 30/40 mark split questions ONLY. In these questions you can discuss a theme in ONE text, then separately discuss the same theme in two others. So I’m assuming you’re discussing ONE on it’s own for 30 marks. If you were doing the 70 mark question you’d need to be moving back and forth between the texts not discussing each text in isolation.

Have a look at this paragraph, which offers simple replies but no depth, no flow, no sophistication!

The theme of love is first introduced in Casablanca when Rick rejects Yvonne. She wants to know if she’ll see him that night but he brushes her off and sends her home. He’s not really interested in her but he must have slept with her recently because she’s behaving as if they are in a relationship. It’s clear that she’s interested in him but he’s not interested in her. Rick seems like a lone wolf, he’s always going on about how he ‘sticks his neck out for nobody’ so we’re not expecting love to play a major part in this film but we change our mind once Ilsa walks in. Then when Sam plays the song we realise that Rick has had his heart broken by her and we start to realise that being unlucky in love is what has made Rick so cold and stand-offish. So I think love is introduced in a very clever way in this film. The idea that love can hurt you made me want to watch the rest of the film to see if Rick would ever find love again”

So what’s wrong with this paragraph? Let me count the ways:

  1. Bland factual opening sentence – I’m bored already.

  2. Lack of quotes (quotes add depth because they are specific. Vague = bad, specific = good)

  3. Overusing words instead of varying my vocabulary – eg. ‘interested’ 3 times in 2 sentences!

  4. Slang – “he’s always going on about” makes me cringe. Use formal language.

  5. Lack of flow – the writer doesn’t use any connectives. This means that as readers we have the sensation of jumping from sentence to sentence without the ideas being in any way connected. The overall impact is a lack of coherence and an unpleasant jerkiness for the reader, kind of like being in a car with someone who’s learning to drive.

  6. Stating the obvious – “it’s clear she’s interested in him but he’s not interested in her

  7. Vagueness / lack of key moments – “Ilsa walks in” “Rick [is] cold and stand-offish”. These statements aren’t wrong, but they don’t create a vivid picture in our minds either! Describe Ilsa’s entrance. Don’t write “when Sam plays the song” – WHAT song? Name it!

Now have a look at the example below. A good answer contains sophisticated vocabulary, a flow of ideas, relevant quotes and key moments to support the points being made, and perhaps most importantly of all, depth.

The opening scenes of “Casablanca” are dominated by fear, corruption and violence, rather than love. Rick, the central protagonist, sits alone playing chess and appears indifferent to those around him. The first hint of a love interest appears in the form of Yvonne, a beautiful French woman in a slinky satin dress but when she asks Rick “will I see you tonight?” he replies “I never plan that far ahead”. His cold hard exterior, exemplified by his oft repeated motto “I stick my neck out for nobody” creates the impression of a man incapable of love and his isolation seems very much self-inflicted. However, this assumption is quickly challenged in the key moment when Ilsa Lunde appears. The film highlights her significance through soft lighting, a dramatic musical score and lingering close-ups. The song “As Time Goes By” reveals much about Ilsa and Rick’s past, both in the lyrics (“the world will always welcome lovers”) and in Sam’s reluctance to play it. Rick’s anger (“I thought I told you never to play…”) trails off into shock when he sees Ilsa and he then breaks every rule he has made for himself of not sitting with customers and never paying a tab. As he recounts in minute detail the last time they met (“I remember every detail. The Germans wore grey. You wore blue”) we realise that here is a man whose heart has been so badly broken that he is no longer willing to risk the joy of falling in love for fear of the pain which may follow. As a viewer, I was seduced by their chemistry and overwhelmed with curiosity to see whether they could rekindle their love or at the very least forgive each other for the pain and bitterness their failed love affair has caused.

How do you achieve this depth in your answer? Think of the theme as a very real human experience, whether it’s love or friendship or isolation or violence or fate. Think of the character as a real person. Art imitates life. We study themes so that we can understand life on a deeper level; we don’t study them because we have to sit an exam (ok, some people do, but I think they’re kind of missing the point, which is that literature offers us wisdom by holding up a mirror to life and asking us to examine it in order to understand our experiences on a deeper level). As you are writing ask yourself all the time what you are learning as you read/watch/respond. That’s the key really – you must respond! Emotionally and intellectually you must engage with these characters as if they were real people. As a teacher I see this response all the time in my classroom, when students laugh or cry or cringe or are shocked but many students struggle to remember and relive the emotions they felt at the time when they’re writing about it later, sometimes months later. Try to climb back into the experience of reading / watching your text. This is why re-reading, re-watching is so so very important. As an aside, I did Wuthering Heights as my leaving cert novel (this was in the era before the comparative) and I read it three times over the two years of my senior cycle. Yes, I know that makes me a hopeless nerd but it also helped get me my A1. And honestly, I re-read the book because I loved it so much, not because I had to write about it in an exam.

Finally, please remember that blocks of writing on ONE text are only acceptable for the 30 / 40 mark split where you are asked to discuss one text on its own. Otherwise, have a look here and here for how to structure the 70 mark question. 

Hope this helps!


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