19th century prose

Themes of the 19th century novel

Themes of the 19th century novel

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Themes of the 19th century novel

​​In a nutshell

Themes in novels can be very personal, but they also reflect the society of the author, and, as such, it is possible to see common themes in certain literary movements. In this summary, you'll learn how you can identify themes in these novels and how the author presented them.

How to identify themes

Some common themes in 19th century novels are morality, religion, science and gender, that is, women's place in society. Take a look at the following novels and their main themes:

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson​​



Morality (good and evil)
Dr Jekyll want to separate his own evil side from his good side.
Everything is not what it seems in the Victorian London that serves as setting for this Gothic novella.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley



Dr Frankenstein's pursuit of knowledge ends horribly wrong.
Nature versus nurture
Shelley wants us to realise that the monster may have been good, if only he had been treated (nurtured) correctly by his father figure.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë 



Jane, the protagonist, is outspoken, independent and determined, going against what was expected of her gender.
Jane shows integrity by remaining honest and true to herself, which is rewarded in the novel by love.


A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens



The true meaning of Christmas is the message of Christianity.
Social class
The monstrous children serve as a warning of what could happen if poverty isn’t eradicated.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen



Marriage is seen as necessary for women in this day and age.
Social class
Elizabeth, our protagonist, breaks through the rigid social class system that is in place.

How themes are presented

To identify themes in a novel, it is very useful to know how themes are presented. For this, you should consider events in the novel, the ideas the narrator and the characters discuss, the characters themselves, the recurring motifs and even the settings.


Events that happen in the novel may be used by the author to present certain themes. For example, the creation of the monster in Frankenstein presents the theme of science and how it may be used to “play God”.

What is being discussed

Sometimes themes are very easy to spot because either the narrator or the characters will discuss them directly. In Pride and Prejudice, the first lines discuss marriage, and how it is expected of women. In the same novel, Elizabeth discusses money, social class and love.


When it comes to presenting themes, authors use not only what the characters say, but also the characters themselves. This way, a particular character may embody a particular theme. In The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Edward Hyde is used to personify evil itself. 


A motif is an idea, image or situation that happens more than once in the novel. Because it happens more than once, it can suggest a theme. In Frankenstein, characters find comfort in natural beauty, which can be a way of presenting nature as a theme in the story.


Even settings can suggest themes! In the same way a lovely meadow can symbolise natural beauty, the dark and cold London of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde presents the theme of the dark side of the main character.

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