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Main Idea

The main idea of a literary text is the central message that the writer wants to convey.

It is unique to each piece of literature, therefore setting it apart from the theme (most of which are far from unique). The main idea also diverges from the theme through the fact that it evolves throughout the text. It might change and transform as the characters learn more about their situation or time progresses. It is what the reader has learned and explored when they get to the end of a novel, short story, poem, essay, etc. It is the most important part/thought/message of the text. 

Main Idea pronunciation: mayne i-dee-uh

Main Idea definition and examples


Definition of Main Idea

Due to the wide-ranging possible main ideas a literary text might have, it’s important to define the term as broadly as possible. It is the central message of a work of literature that the reader receives by the time they reach the end of the story, poem, book, etc. It is not the same as a theme, which can sometimes be summed up with one or a few words. Sometimes, the main idea of a work of literature is harder to understand than other times. For example, depending on the writer, time period, and content, readers might walk away from a novel without a concept of what the main idea really was. This might be an effect of the writer’s style and, therefore, their intentions, or it might be related to the writer’s skill. Perhaps the main idea was not delivered clearly enough, or it obscured on purpose. 


Examples of Main Ideas in Literature 

If- by Rudyard Kipling 

If-‘ is a famously inspirational poem in which a father addresses his son and the life that he might have if he does a few things. He takes the young listener through what it’s going to take to be successful and live morally. Here a few lines that sum up the main idea: 

    If all men count with you, but none too much;

If you can fill the unforgiving minute

With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,

And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

Read more of Rudyard Kipling’s poetry. 


1984 by George Orwell

1984 is certainly Orwell’s most famous literary accomplishment. The book follows the life of Winston Smith, a resident of Oceania and of a world that’s completely controlled by a totalitarian government, known as a Party. They watch their citizens ’ every move and are ruthless when it comes to controlling them. Here are a few lines in which the Party’s goal is set out: 

Now I will tell you the answer to my question. It is this. The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power, pure power. What pure power means you will understand presently. We are different from the oligarchies of the past in that we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites.

When readers get to the end of 1984, they should have received Orwell’s main idea, that totalitarianism poses a serious threat and that if it remains unchecked, a world like Winston Smith’s is not impossible. 


Othello by William Shakespeare 

Shakespeare’s famous tragedy Othello is a dark and emotional play that explores senseless cruelty and deceit. By the time the reader gets to the conclusion, they should have received the main idea that one should trust in the faithfulness of the partners and never let unproven allegations and jealousy fuel one’s action. Here are a few lines from the play: 

O, beware, my lord, of jealousy;

It is the green-ey’d monster, which doth mock

The meat it feeds on

Othello is manipulated and eventually convinced that his wife, Desdemona, is cheating on him by Iago. The latter destroys Othello’s life for no clear reason. 

Explore William Shakespeare’s poetry.


Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut 

In this 1969 novel, Vonnegut explores the life of Billy Pilgrim. He focuses on Billy’s time in WWII (many events of which mirror Vonnegut’s own life) and the strange events that cause Billy to reassess his understanding of time and death. Here is a famous quote from Slaughterhouse-Five in which Billy is conversing with the Tralfamadorians: 

“Why me?”

“That is a very Earthling question to ask, Mr. Pilgrim. Why you? Why us for that matter? Why anything? Because this moment simply is. Have you ever seen bugs trapped in amber?”


“Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why.”

By the end of the novel, readers are left to contemplate the novels’ main idea— that war is senseless and there is no way to stop it. Vonnegut also explores the way that war affects those who are caught up in it. Additionally, the way that life and death can be redefined depending on one’s perception of them. For Billy, this means that he subscribes to the alien theory of non-linear time. 


Why Do Writers Use Main Ideas? 

Without the main idea at the heart of a literary work, whether that be a poem, play, novel, or short story, the narrative would be structureless and (almost in all cases) pointless. The main idea is what the poem/story is all about. Even in those stories and poems that feel rudderless, there is usually a central meaning to what’s occurring. This might even be an experimentation with what constitutes main ideas altogether. Writers choose their main ideas depending on what they’re interested in. Someone might be inspired to explore main ideas related to the ocean, space travel, relationships, food, and more. They are so specific that there are endless to choose from. 


Related Literary Terms 

  • Conflict: a plot device used by writers when two opposing sides come up against each other.
  • Climax: the point at which the main character is forced to contend with the central conflict of the story.
  • Foreshadowing: refers to the hints a writer gives a reader about what’s going to happen next. It’s a common literary device that’s used every day.
  • Cliffhanger:  a narrative device that’s used to end a story abruptly before an action or segment of the plot is concluded.
  • Flashback: a plot device in a book, film, story, or poem in which the readers learn about the past.


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