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Subject Matter and Theme in Short Stories


In this article, it is explained that every short story is unique in the sense that the elements contained by every work vary from one to another. However, since a short story is a narrative fiction that involves a limited number of characters engaged in a single event taking place in a limited setting, all short stories share similar types of elements. To get a comprehensive understanding of a short story, we need to analyze its elements, including subject matter, theme, characters, actions, setting, and the language employed as the medium. This article focuses on subject matter and theme.

Before discussing the concepts related to subject matter and theme, read the following flash fiction. It will be used as a reference to clarify the concepts. 

The Boulder on the Road

In ancient times, a King had a boulder placed on a roadway. He then hid himself and watched to see if anyone would move the boulder out of the way. Some of the king’s wealthiest merchants and courtiers came by and simply walked around it.

Many people loudly blamed the King for not keeping the roads clear, but none of them did anything about getting the stone out of the way.

A peasant then came along carrying a load of vegetables. Upon approaching the boulder, the peasant laid down his burden and tried to push the stone out of the road. After much pushing and straining, he finally succeeded.

After the peasant went back to pick up his vegetables, he noticed a purse lying in the road where the boulder had been. The purse contained many gold coins and a note from the King explaining that the gold was for the person who removed the boulder from the roadway. ***

If we were asked, "What is The Boulder on the Road about?" we might have two possible answers. First, the story is about a boulder placed on a roadway. Second, it is about the idea that one’ initiative to do good things is never wasted.

Both can answer the question satisfactorily. The first is acceptable because The Boulder on the Road essentially tells about the boulder. All of the characters (the King, merchants, courtiers, and peasant) and actions are connected with the boulder.  In short, the story centers on the boulder, thus it is about the large rock.

The second answer is also acceptable because the author does not use the story only to tell what happens to the boulder. It is told that the King puts the boulder on the road on purpose. He wants to know whether people passing the road who find their way blocked will move it out or not. The wealthy merchants and courtiers just walk around it. Many other people even blame the King for not making the road clear. But the peasant voluntarily pushes the boulder. Instead of cursing the big stone or blaming the King, he generously exerts all his strength to clear the way. After moving the boulder. he happens to find a purse containing many gold coins and a note from the King. Through the story, the author means to convey the idea that every initiative to do good is never wasted.

The subject matter of a story concerns with the first answer above. Subject matter is the main thing a story refers to. It is usually a concrete thing most frequently mentioned or referred to. Thus, to determine the topic of a short story, ask yourself, “What main thing does the story tell about? Answer the question with a phrase, because a subject matter is usually stated in a phrase.

Theme is the central idea or meaning of a story. Since short stories are related to human life, themes can be defined as “The general vision of life or the more explicit proposition about human experience that literature conveys” (Alternbend & Lewis (1966, p. 78). Thus to determine the theme of a story, just ask yourself, “What does the story say about life?
Should the truth of a theme be accepted by all people? Note that it is an idea, a vision of life seen from the author's perspective. Thus, it is subjective, not an absolute truth. People of different cultures and religions, for instance, may have a different view of some issues. For Americans, democracy is the best system of government, but people in China think socialism is more appropriate. Therefore, you may find that you disagree with the truth of a story’s theme. That’s natural. What is matters is that you can identify and get the theme based on your reading of the story.  

Unlike a subject matter which is always a concrete thing, a theme is an idea. Thus it is abstract and is often expressed in a sentence. Look that the subject matter of The Boulder on the Road is “the boulder”. It is stated in a phrase. The theme of the story is “every initiative to do good things is never wasted”. It is stated in a sentence. 

Now, to check your understanding about the concepts of subject matter and theme, read the following folklore and write what its subject matter and theme on the reply section below.

Malin Kundang

Once upon a time, in a small village near the beach in West Sumatera lived a poor woman and his son called Malin Kundang. His father eventually died, and his mother lived alone as a poverty-stricken old woman.

Malin grew up as a skillful young boy. He always helped his mother to earn some money. One day, he thought, "if I stay here, I won't have a better life.” Then he decided to go overseas to look for a good job so that he and his mother could live better.

His mother was sad to hear Malin’s plan. But she knew he was right. She said, “God bless you, son,” and let him go. Malin went away by a large ship. 

Since his departure, his mother went to the beach every day. She hoped Malin would return soon. At night she would pray for his safety. She kept asking all captains she met whether they ever met Malin or not. But she got no news about Malin.

Overseas, Malin tried his best to succeed. His poor life motivated him to be a good employee. He worked diligently and his career increased fast. After years he became rich. The merchant of a big ship liked him so much that he wanted him to marry his beautiful daughter.

Meanwhile, a captain of a ship told Malin's mother who is now very old, that he met Malin some months earlier. “Malin's married a beautiful girl, the daughter of a wealthy merchant," the captain said.

“Thank God,” she replied happily.

Soon after they got married, Malin’s wife asked him to take her to his motherland. So, they went to prepare their ship to go to Malin’s village.

When Malin’s big beautiful ship docked, Malin’s mother came over. She cried joyfully, "Malin, my son. You are finally at home!"

She hugged Malin who was wearing luxurious clothes. But Malin acted as if he did not know his mother. He was ashamed of his wife because he used to say he came from a rich family.

“I am your mother, Malin. You don’t remember me, do you?” cried his mother again.

"Go away! I don’t know you. My mother does not look like you!” shouted Malin as he pushed her to release her hug.

The old woman fell on the ground and cried sadly. Then she prayed, “God, if he is not my son, forgive me that I have mistaken him for my son, but if he is my son, you are the fairest King”.

Suddenly, the sky became dark, and the thunderstorm rumbled, and Malin and his ship turned to a coral reef. ***



Alternbend, L. and Lewis, L.L. (1966). A handbook for the study of fiction. London: Collier Macmillan Ltd.


  1. According to me, the SM of Malin Kundang is "A rebellious son", and the theme is "One's rebellion towards his parents can make him cursed.
    Am I correct?

  2. Thank you for this brief but useful guidelines. It helps me understand the difference between subject matter and theme of a short story.

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  5. Good guide, very helpful. But all my stories lately revolve around one single topic - divorce. When I filed for divorce 9 months ago things got more complicated. Now I can handle everything on my own, but how much happier I feel. Words cannot describe this feeling. Sometimes the best things for us come only after the hardest decisions.

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