The study of thematology is a recent entrant in the field of comparative literature.  It is an important branch of comparative literature.  The term was coined by the American comparatist, Harry Levin.  Thematology involves the “study of themes”, “motifs”, “stoff”. “types”, etc.

The ‘theme’ is a recurrent element which is pervasive and suggestive in a work of art.  It is expressed indirectly in a work of art, through the repetition of events, images and symbols.  “Themes” and “motifs” are basically different but they are used as interchangeable terms.  A ‘motif’ is also a recurring element in a work of art, which may indicate certain attitude.  It may be an incident or a device or a formula.  In folklores, we have a common motif of an ugly woman becoming a charming princess, etc.

‘Stoff’ is the base of any work of art.  It is the raw material on the subject matter.  The raw material which forms the ‘plot’ or the ‘jist’ of that literary piece.  With the help of the author’s imagination the raw material becomes a thing of beauty.  Types’ recurrent in literature.  Don Quixote is an example of a ‘type’.

The ‘theme’ is related to the subject matter both in form and content.  It is always the subject of a work of art, but the subject cannot become a theme.  The theme should not be confused with the subject matter.  Theme is the thread which connects all the aspects in a work of art.  For example, in Macbeth vaulting ambition is the theme of the play.

Frenzel’s book “Themes in World Literature” is a major contribution in the field of Comparative Literature.  The chief contributors to the study of thematology are Raymond Trousson, Harry Levin and Ulrich Weisstein of the U.S.A. etc.

“Remythification” takes a prominent place in the process of the study of thematology.  A myth can govern the theme.  When the artist borrows a myth, he has the liberty to convert the message of the myth to suit his theme.  This process is labelled as ‘Remythification’.  The original meaning of the myth is twisted according to the convenience of the author.  The best example of “Remythification” is Bharathiyar’s “Panjali Chabatham”.  The Tamil poet has borrowed the myth of Panjali, which conveys the theme of ‘loyalty’.  He has converted this original mythical theme to suit his theme of ‘patriotism’ in his poem “Panjali Chabatham”.

Harry Levins’s views on thematology:

The keyword in ‘Thematology’ is ‘theme’ which comes from the Roman word “thema”.  Thematology has acquired many dimensions.  It involves the study of characters, situations, types, motifs and themes.  Harry Levin is interested with the domain of literary characters in the study of thematology.  The characters Donjuon, Faustus, Iago, Shylock, etc are some of the examples that have undergone transformations and had developed into themes.  Well established themes such as Donjuon’s malignity, Shylock’s spiteful revenge have been dealt with by different writers in different languages.  Harry Levin asserts that themes are related to characters and the plot is related to motifs and situations.  He is of the view that in contemporary literature, characters bear the mane of classical hero’s but project different themes.  For example, Ulysses, Tennyson’s poem projects the theme of passion for knowledge.  But the Ulysses of James Joyce’s fiction ‘Ulysses’ projects the theme of fragmented nature of modernity.  Thus the characters assume multiplicity of themes because they acquire multiple meanings in the hands of a variety of authors.

Weisstein’s views on thematology:

Weisstein on the other hand gives more importance to the study of stoff, topos and themes rather than motifs and situations.  He stresses the point that themes are universal and archetypal whereas motifs and situations are temporal and geographical.  The theme of jealousy in Iago, eccentricity in Donjuon is meaningful and appropriate in any national contexts.  So characters with universal human traits form universal themes which have an universal appeal characters like Hitler make a limited appeal because of their limited historicity.

Weisstein asserts that the comparatists have enough scope for situational themes concentrated on the central character.  The Mahabharatha and the Ramayana are best examples.  In situational themes, the situations are sub-oriented to the heroic figure at different time and place.  The same character displays different or even opposite characteristic traits.  The several versions of the Ramayana yields to a variety of treatment given to the main character Rama.  One more excellent example for such a kind of thematic study is the comparison of Kambar’s Kambaramayana and Pulavar Kuzhendhai’s Ravana Kaviyam.  Ravana is portrayed as a villain in the former and in the latter he is the protagonist.  Weisstein also explains a few important terms connected with thematology like ‘leit, motif, topas’, etc.  Thus thematology offers a vast scope for any comparatist to study themes, subject matter, motifs, situations, etc.

S.S. Prawer’s views on thematology:

S.S. Prawer discusses five kinds of thematic investigation.  They are

  • The literary representation of natural phenomena and man’s reaction to them. For example, mountains, rivers, oceans, etc.  The external facts of human existence.  Eg: Dreams, prophecies, etc.  The perennial conflict between illusion and reality, the power of fate, etc.
  • Recurring motifs in literature and folklore such as the three witches, three tasks, three gifts and so on.
  • Recurring situations and their treatment by different writers – the eternal triangle, the conflict between the father and the son, etc. Recurring historical events like the battle of Waterloo, the French Revolution, etc.
  • The literary representation of types – professional groupings, social classes like the Jews, etc.
  • The literary representation of personages from mythology, legends, history like Prometheus, Gandhi, Hamlet, etc. The thematic investigation however overlaps in the work of art.