Analysis of a Primary Literary Theme

by Horst Daemmrich (Author)
©2021 Monographs VIII, 194 Pages


The study of self-realization as a primary literary theme covers a wide range of literature. The journey to self-discovery can be represented in many different forms, from novels of development to social criticism and to historical plays. It can provide the core of a basic literary form, such as a fairytale and the decision on crossroads of life. The self as a primary literary element can be identified as an axis of symmetry, similar to a central section of a wheel, which connects to all related themes. The description of space, setting, time, historical moment, and heritage shape all documentation of self-orientation. Thematic developments highlight specific appropriate locations for the unfolding story. By comparing works from different periods and examining manifestations of the theme in American, French, English, and German literature, this study traces the theme of self-realization in the coming-of-age constellation, the acceptance and the criticism of existing social conditions, the attempts to comprehend the past and the current historical conditions, and in utopian visions of the future.
While literature has provided singular and unforgettable portraits of figures in works ranging from Bellow, Dickens, Fontane, Goethe, Moliere, Schiller, Grass, and Raabe to Tolstoy or Trollope, it is equally apparent that primary forms of self-realization show a high correlation of recurring patterns. Some features associated with primary thematic emphasis and resolution occur with high frequency. Figures can be conceived of as being capable of intellectual and spiritual growth. Alternately, in a moment of insight, they may persevere in their errors in judgment, the frailty of institutions, or a web of circumstances that impeded their optimal development. In such instances, the action is usually designed to convey a vision of human potential to the reader—and furthermore, raise serious questions about the apparent predetermination of existence.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Chapter One Introduction
  • Chapter Two Figures at Cross-Roads
  • Chapter Three Self-Realization: Coming-of-Age. Search for Orientation. Experience of Reality. Journey
  • Chapter Four Integration: Controlling Destiny by Accepting Existing Social Conditions
  • Chapter Five Isolation: The Shattered Self
  • Chapter Six Criticism of Society
  • Chapter Seven Figures Probing the Current Historical Situation: Understanding the Past. Blindness and Self-Insight
  • Chapter Eight Self-Realization and Vision of the Future
  • Chapter Nine Conclusion: Self As Axis
  • Bibliography
  • Author Index
  • Index of Examined Works
  • Series index

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Theory of Themes and Motifs: Function, Alignment, Self-Realization

Scholars have resorted to a broad application of the concept “theme” and also arrived at definitions that reflect specific aspects of its general use.1 A detailed analysis of the major theme of self-realization provides the basis for the present theoretical considerations. The study of a theme considers its substance and properties. Self-development is an abstract concept. It classifies individual occurrences in terms of common characteristics. The substance of self-development resides in qualitative (meaning) and quantitative (occurrence) properties. These properties represent qualities organized in various combinations that are relational (action, metaphors, motifs) and therefore dependent, or of an adjectival nature. A theme, then, must be substantive, capable of supporting itself and its dependents. Since we cannot perceive a theme’s substance apart from its properties, the activities linked to it, and the effects it generates, we tend to locate the theme in such subject-object relations as: coming-of-age, becoming, individual characteristics, formative influences, social interaction, possible ideals, personality, figure conception.

A theme is a fundamental literary form that expresses the ideational component of expressions and thought. It is usually captured in set patterns, as for ←1 | 2→instance through becoming, coming-of-age or development. These topics are aligned with and give substance to the theme of self-realization.2 The relationship between theme, plot and characters is complex. Not only does the theme mold other elements to achieve unity of structure, but it is also shaped by these literary components when protagonists move toward self-realization, when they confront situations that could support or inhibit growth, or when they encounter strong characters linked to other themes. As the plot progresses and characters develop, the central theme can shift, intensify, diminish, or even be supplanted by a new theme. Both by creating dramatic tension and by shaping setting, characters, and action, themes provide forceful stimuli for a reader’s initial perception of texts. They give readers the opportunity to re-examine their existence, their attitudes toward others, and their understanding of social or historical questions. Nevertheless, themes do not promise simple solutions. Since they reflect both recurring human concerns and intellectual shifts occasioned by changing historical conditions, themes project alternative relationships between the individual and the world, which may be ambiguous. Indeed, uncertainty plays an important role when readers attempt to relate solutions suggested by themes to their own personal, economic, and social circumstances.

Details, character development, individual traits, and narrative point of view may vary considerably. A figure may be identified consistently with a situation, or conversely, a situation may call for a suitable figure. But it is a figure’s reference to events, decisions, actions, and reactions, not the static location, that shapes thematic configurations. A figure trapped in a room is not the theme. But being lost and trying in vain to escape is aligned with encirclement in the characterization of figures who vainly struggle with self-realization in a world that seems to restrict all movement: Larrie in Jochen Beyse’s Larries Welt (1992), the family in Birgit Vanderbeke’s Das Muschelessen (1990), Maggie trying to escape a deadly environment in Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1895), an individual changed into a non-human form and pleading for acceptance in Franz Kafka’s, Metamorphosis (1916), or an author struggling at midnight with the difficult conception of a play in Thomas Mann’s “A Difficult Hour” (1898). Such settings together with the specific figure conception provide the necessary ideational substance for thematic development. Thomas Mann’s figure of Goethe in Lotte in Weimar (1939), awakening in the bedroom and continuously reflecting upon the creative interrelationship between the artist and the world, is an overwhelming example of the struggle with self-insight. Alfred Muschg’s novel Der rote Ritter (1993) locates the development of Pârzival, the central figure, in the Middle Ages, but he constantly provides distinct allusions to the present. Michelle Obama tells ←2 | 3→her personal story of growing up in Becoming (2018) as a “larger story” of her country of significance to all readers.

For Henderson, one of the most intriguing developmental figures created by Saul Bellow in Henderson the Rain King (1976), the secret of the universe lurks in these conflicting impulses. Listening to his inner voice insisting “I want, I want,” Henderson is propelled onto a journey that calls for a metamorphosis and ultimately to a breakthrough to a new plane of understanding. The successful author Nathan in Philip Roth’s Zuckerman Bound. A Trilogy and Epilogue (1979) finds that his entire life is disintegrating. He decides that the very foundation of his work has disappeared. He sits at his desk, encircled, asking “why” without finding a solution.

Günter Grass introduces multiple voices that report and reflect on Theo Wuttke’s self-realization under changing governments by steering a difficult course during the Nazi Regime, the East German Democratic Republic and finally in the united Germany. The detailed description of his life and that of his double-antagonist-partner, the collaborator and secret service agent Ludwig Hoftaller, serves as a foundation for an attempt to portray historical events in the lives of individuals. As a consequence, Ein weites Feld (1995) aligns coming-of-age, self, society and self-realization with understanding history.


VIII, 194
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2021 (September)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2021. VIII, 194 pp.

Biographical notes

Horst Daemmrich (Author)

Horst S. Daemmrich studied at the University of Chicago and taught at Chicago, Wayne State University, and University of Pennsylvania. He received the Board of Governors Distinguished Faculty Awards (1975, 1979) and the Abrams Memorial Award for distinguished research and teaching (1990). He is Professor Emeritus of the University of Pennsylvania. He is a life-time member of the Literary Academy of Scholars, the Modern Language Association of America, and Phi Beta Kappa. He is the author and co-author with Ingrid G. Daemmrich of numerous books on themes and motifs in literature and the author of books on E. T. A. Hoffmann, Wilhelm Raabe, Karl Krolow, comprehending the past, and literary theory. His most recent study is Vergangenheit. Perspektiven der deutschsprachigen Gegenwartsliteratur (2017).


Title: Self-Realization