What Is the Definition of Universal Theme?

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Universal themes in literature are common ideas that appear in plays, poems and stories – even though they were written decades or even centuries apart. Plays written thousands of years ago by the Greek playwrights Aeschylus and Sophocles have themes that are virtually identical to themes that appear in literature from modern times, and just about every literary work includes some of these timeless ideas.

One of the most common universal themes is the unavoidability of death. The fact that all people are mortal has always been an important idea. It appears in one of the very first works of literature, the epic poem “Gilgamesh,” which comes from ancient Mesopotamia, but also in the late 20th century film “Death Becomes Her.”

Marriage and love represent another universal theme, and the struggle that each person faces to find a place in society is also a common universal theme. The idea of the hero’s quest is just as crucial in Homer’s “Odyssey” as it is in the Coen Brothers’ film “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and the question of morality is important in works spanning from Sophocles’ “Antigone” to Donna Tartt’s debut novel, “The Secret History.” Because all of these ideas are important to humanity, they continue to appear in works of literature.