What is the difference between theme and subject?

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The subject of a book or story is what it is about. In a fictional work, the subject is called the plot. It is what happens: Miss Marple finds a dead body in the parlor, then the police come, then Mr. Brown is arrested, and so on. In a nonfiction work, the subject again is what the book is about in a factual way. It is the sequence of events that unfold: a man goes with his family to Berlin to be ambassador in 1933 and meets Adolph Hitler, etc. The subject of a book answers the what question: what happened first, second, third, etc.

The theme is the message or meaning the work is trying to communicate. It is the why question. Why did the writer write it? What is the underlying point the author is trying to make? For example, a fiction writer of a murder mystery may be trying to send the message that appearances are deceiving and that we should think carefully and explore more deeply before we jump to the conclusion someone is a murderer. The non-fiction writer of the history of the ambassador to Berlin in an extraordinary period of history might be trying to communicate the sense of psychological stress and unease that even privileged people experienced living in a regime based on surveillance and terror. That would be the message or theme that would stick with you long after specific facts faded.

Even books that seem to have no theme almost always communicate a message. A book about how a chicken lays an egg and how it hatches may seem simply an informational work for a young child, but it fact it communicates deeper themes or messages, such as that the world is a safe and orderly place in which natural events proceed in a knowable way.

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The subject of a book, short story, or poem is what it is about, but the theme is the moral or lesson.  For example, Great Expectations is about a young boy who is given a fortune from a secret benefactor so that he can become a benefactor.  That is the plot.  The theme is that you should care more about people and love than money.  While focusing on money, the young protagonist Pip becomes an awful person.  He realizes after some tumultuous events that people are more important than money.

Books have more than one theme usually, depending on their length and complexity.  You can determine the theme by the message the author is trying to convey to the reader.  The topic of the book, story, or poem will be related to the theme because authors use a story to convey the theme.

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