I am trying to expand the depth of my writing beyond simple storytelling. Although my previous novel was an action/adventure, I realized it has a deeper point than entertainment. Dean Koontz offers this definition of a theme:
“Theme is a statement, or series of related observations, about some aspect of the human condition, interpreted from the unique viewpoint of the author.”
I have read others suggesting that themes covey a message about the story's plot.
When we refer to the theme of a book, we are talking about a universal idea, lesson, or message that stretches through the entire story https://www.thoughtco.com/common-book-themes-1857647
But I agree with Mark Baker of SE:
Theme is not necessarily a message. It is more the thing that you are exploring. If the theme is love, for instance, you don't have to take a position on love, you don't have to have a covert message, like "love hurts" or "love sucks". The theme is love simply because the story is about love, is an exploration of what love it like. Does a story necessarily need a theme?
This was touched upon by a recent post from SE:
In the Tales of Huckleberry Finn, did you know that what's-his-face didn't care whether the man he'd come to tell his master set him free was freed? Think about it for a second. A boy is told that a runaway slave is set free, and doesn't have to run any more. And instead of telling him, he pretends to help him run further and further away, coming up with ever-increasingly elaborate plans to keep him safe, making himself the hero. But it's never stated. In fact, most people don't ever realize that's what happened (be honest, can you tell me the name of the boy in question here?). So the theme of physical slavery turns into a theme of mental slavery (he thinks he's still a slave, and continues running from it), showing the the very concept of slavery is all in your mind. How do I include a powerful theme in my story without making it blatantly obvious?
Nicely stated and it touches upon my question. Can the theme be so hidden that it is easily overlooked by even the casual reader. I think of the 2001: A Space Odyssey “Star Gate” light show in the final segment of the film where even Kubrick left the 'meaning' open to the viewer. https://movies.stackexchange.com/questions/69424/meaning-of-the-final-room-in-2001-a-space-odyssey/69438
I want the attentive reader to recognize the irony of my story without being told. So my question is: Do the characters or even the narrator have to understand that there is an underlying theme of the story?