Universal Themes: Common Concepts in Literature and Life

, Staff Writer
Updated January 7, 2021
universal theme of overcoming impossible odds
    universal theme of overcoming impossible odds
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    Used under Getty Images license

Theme refers to the central meaning or message in a work of literature. Sometimes it is overtly stated within the book, but often it is conveyed more indirectly with the author expecting readers to take away lessons or insights related to the theme from reading the work. Many works have universal themes, which are ones that are relevant to everyone. There are many universal themes in literature as well as life. After all, art imitates life — or is it the other way around?

What Is a Universal Theme?

A universal theme is one that focuses on an element of the human condition and deals with concepts or concerns of interest to members of the human race, regardless of where they live, their background, personality type, or other unique factors.

In other words, universal themes appeal to or have meaning to people regardless of individual or cultural differences. Universal themes focus on common aspects of existence that, in some way, impact all people. The fact that they can be relevant to everyone is what makes them universal ideas.


List of Universal Themes About Change

Change is a common universal theme in literature and life.

  • change resistance
  • circle of life
  • coming of age
  • evolving traditions
  • fading beauty
  • fear of failure
  • growing to maturity
  • growing up
  • how the past impacts the present
  • how the past impacts the future
  • inevitability of change
  • loss of innocence
  • mortality
  • overcoming impossible odds
  • progress
  • rebirth
  • rebellion against expectations
  • some things never change
  • struggle

List of Universal Themes About Power

Universal themes related to power are common in literature and real life.

  • abuse of power
  • control of information
  • control over people
  • control over resources
  • corruption
  • dictatorship
  • enslavement
  • governmental control
  • order vs. chaos
  • political power
  • power dynamic
  • power motivation/need for power
  • power structure
  • quest for power
  • resistance/rising up against power
  • self-interest
  • tribalism
  • tyranny
  • us vs. them
  • water
  • what power does to people
  • what people do to get power

List of Universal Themes About Romantic Love

The universal theme of love is at the heart of human relationships as well as many literary works.

  • being swept off your feet
  • everlasting love
  • fated to be together
  • feeling completed by a partner
  • finding your soulmate
  • fidelity vs. infidelity
  • first love
  • forbidden love
  • heartbreak
  • lost love
  • loving someone from afar
  • opposites attract
  • overcoming the odds to be together
  • real love
  • the one who got away
  • unrequited love
  • there's someone for everyone
  • true love conquers all

List of Universal Themes About Friendship and Family

Friendship and family are central to the human experience, so it's a common universal theme in literature and life.

  • belonging and acceptance
  • bonds of friendship
  • brotherhood
  • companionship
  • fatherhood
  • family traditions
  • importance of communication
  • lifelong friendships
  • motherhood
  • reunion
  • sisterhood
  • ties that bind
  • trust among friends
  • unbreakable bonds
  • unconditional love
  • who you can rely on

List of Universal Themes About Money

Money is a common universal theme in life and literature.

  • being judged based on socioeconomic status
  • building a nest egg
  • capitalism's impact on people and society
  • greed and corruption
  • greed leading to someone's downfall
  • living paycheck to paycheck
  • old money vs. new money
  • other people's money (debt)
  • overcoming poverty
  • privilege of wealth
  • rags to riches
  • risk vs. reward
  • saving for the future
  • striving for financial security
  • struggles of the working class
  • vicious cycle of poverty
  • what people will do in the pursuit of money

List of Universal Themes About Knowledge and Education

Knowledge is a common universal theme in life and literature.

  • critical thinking
  • dangers of ignorance
  • education opens the door to many possibilities
  • expertise matters
  • facts vs. opinions
  • forming and testing hypotheses
  • importance of education
  • information is power
  • intelligence matters
  • knowledge is power
  • multiple intelligences
  • overcoming ignorance through education
  • role of education in civilized society
  • success in life begins with education
  • testing assumptions
  • the value of scientific study

List of Universal Themes About Politics/Freedom

There are many universal themes related to politics and society.

  • communism
  • democracy
  • discrimination
  • free and fair elections
  • governmental oppression
  • governmental intervention
  • justice vs. injustice
  • laws and regulations
  • racism
  • national pride
  • nationalism
  • oppression
  • patriotism
  • socialism
  • social programs
  • voting rights

List of Universal Themes About Technology

Technology is one of the most common universal themes. It's featured in science fiction and other literary genres, as well as virtually every aspect of daily life.

  • advances in medicine
  • access to information
  • artificial intelligence
  • big brother is watching
  • communication advancements
  • helplessness of humanity vs. technology
  • increased leisure time for humans
  • jobs lost to technology
  • man losing control of technology
  • man versus machines
  • privacy violations
  • rise of the machines
  • simplifying manual tasks
  • social stratification
  • the future of work
  • unlimited energy
  • technology taking on a life of its own

Theme and Motif in Literature

Even though this is a long list of universal themes and ideas, it's not all-inclusive. Many universal concepts pervade the human experience and find their way into literature. Of course, when you're focused on literature, theme isn't all that matters. It's also important to consider motif, which is often confused with theme. Explore theme vs. motif to help make sure you understand the difference.