Teaching Theme in Fiction: Begin with These Short Stories for Teaching Theme

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Teaching Theme in Fiction the Hard Way

“OK class, Let’s talk about theme,” I bellowed from the front of the room.

Johnny raised his hand. “I’d rather not.” He said. “What does it matter whether or not you begin teaching theme in fiction today?”

“Well,” I replied. “It says here in the school district guidelines that I have to begin teaching theme in fiction by the end of the week.”

Johnny raised his hand again, middle finger extended. “Maybe teaching theme in fiction should be done by reading great short stories instead of listening to you.”

I picked up a CD rom from my desk, threw it at him, and sliced off his hand at the wrist. I then took his advice. Here are some excellent short stories for teaching theme.

Great Short Stories for Teaching Theme

The theme of a literary work is the insight it communicates about life. The following short stories communicate universal themes.

  1. “The Necklace” by Guy de Maupassant - Madame. Loisel learns the danger of pretending to be someone you’re not.
    • I realize that nobody acts like Madame Loisel today. I can hardly think of anyone who buys things they can’t afford to impress their neighbors, who bought too big a house and can’t make the payments. Explain to students that in the past, people often pretended to be wealthier than they were in order to gain social status. As a prewriting assignment, have students write about a time they pretended to be someone they weren’t and what the results were.

    • For example, I bragged about my daring feats on a diving board, so my friend took me cliff diving on the Colorado River. Luckily, nobody noticed I peed my pants on the way down. They did, however, notice I was crying as I floated in the fetal position on the water.

  2. “The Blue Hotel” by Stephen Crane - A stranger accuses another of cheating at poker and pays a steep price for the accusation.
    • False accusations can ruin a man, but what if the accusation is true? Instruct students to write about a time they accused someone falsely or they were accused falsely.
    • For example, when my wife was three months pregnant and suffering from morning sickness, I decided to sautee onions and garlic for the evening meal. She accused me of purposely trying to make her sick. In reality, I was just stupid.
  3. “Chee’s Daughter” by Juanita Platero and Siyowin Miller - A Navajo father honors tribal traditions with a great sacrifice. Can Chee honor the tribe and get back his daughter?
    • “Chee’s Daughter explores the conflict between tradition and modern life. Instruct students to write about a time they faced an inner conflict with tradition, what they did, and what were the results.

    • For example, it was a tradition in my family to watch football every Sunday. As I got older, I found better things to do on Sunday and no longer participated in the tradition. Because I’m a Cleveland Browns fan, I’ve really missed nothing.

  4. “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” by Ernest Hemingway: Francis was a coward. His wife was ashamed of him and treated him rudely. All that was about to change.
    • Hemingway explores what it means to be a man in this short classic. Instruct students to write about something they did that took courage and nerve and what the results were.
    • For example, after humiliating myself on the Colorado River cliffs, I returned to the top, did a flip, and completed one of the grandest back smacks in the history of cliff diving. Although I’m still unable to put a shirt on, or walk, or sleep at night due to the ringing in my head, I proved to everyone there that I AM A MAN!


  • Author’s Experience

This post is part of the series: Short Story Suggestions for Teaching The Elements of Literature

A good short story unit begins with good short stories.

  1. Teaching Conflict in Literature: Short Stories for Teaching Conflict
  2. Short Stories for Teaching Point of View in Literature
  3. Irony Lesson Plans: Short Stories for Teaching Irony in Literature
  4. Teaching The Setting of a Story: Short Stories for Teaching Setting
  5. Great Short Stories for Teaching Theme in Fiction