Are "subject" and "theme" in literature the same or different elements?

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In essence, the subject of a piece of literature (play, poem, novel) encompasses the topic that will be covered. For instance, the subject may be the American Civil War. However, this is not the theme. A theme is an idea—what I refer to as a "life-truth"—that the author is trying to share with the reader. Technically...

...the term means a message or moral implicit in any work of art.

The subject of a poem or novel is generally what that piece of literature focuses on. In Shakespeare's play, Macbeth, the main subject deals with a man who kills his king to become king himself. "Subject" can be very general, and may encompass other more specific topics. In this play Shakespeare addresses Macbeth's relationships with the people around him, the presence of supernatural creatures (witches), etc.

However, the theme is not about Scotland or Macbeth: it is about the human experience, and Macbeth is the vehicle the author uses to share truths about life in general. The theme is the lesson we learn as we read about Macbeth: it is the truth that the author hopes to share with his audience. In Macbeth, one major theme (and there can be more than just one theme) is found in a quote from the beginning of the play. In Act One, the witches introduce this theme:

Fair is foul, and foul is fair. (I.i.11)

This paradoxical statement seems confusing at first, however, as the story progresses, it is supported with numerous incidents to prove its validity. It means that what seems to be bad ("foul") can sometimes really be good ("fair"), and vice versa: what appears to be fair can sometimes be foul. How is this supported? Macbeth seems to be Duncan's dedicated warrior, cousin, subject, friend, and even host. In truth, Macbeth turns out to be Duncan's nemesis, killing him while he stays at Macbeth's castle. 

Another example shows how appearances can be deceiving (a different way to interpret the same quote). When Duncan's son Malcolm flees after his father's murder, it might appear as if he had something to do with Duncan's death. In truth, Malcolm figures that if someone other than the guards (who are wrongfully blamed) killed Duncan, Malcolm may be next—especially because his father has just named him heir to the throne of Scotland.

Another theme is that "human ambition" can create evil. Macbeth admits to himself that the only thing that drives him to kill the man he loves and admires is his "vaulting ambition."


I have no spur

To prick the sides of my intent, but only

Vaulting ambition… (I.vii.25–27)

It is an ambition that drives out reason: that causes him to commit a mortal sin (regicide); that pushes him to kill his close friend Banquo so that his plans are not discovered; and, because he is not stopped, his ambition (in the blood lust and madness that ensues) demands that he murder Macduff and his entire family—simply because he suspects the man of supporting Duncan's heir. As Macbeth becomes more ambitious, he becomes more evil: completely losing touch with his moral compass.

In Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, one theme is...

...prejudice vs. tolerance: how people feel about and respond to differences in others. 

A theme from Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist is: never lose sight of your dreams.

In all literature, the subject is a topic; the theme is an idea about life, shared through the topic.

("Subject" may be used by some to mean "theme.")

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