TOEFL : Theme

Study concepts, example questions & explanations for TOEFL

varsity tutors app store varsity tutors android store

Example Questions

Example Question #1 : Theme

There are no fixtures in nature. The universe is fluid and volatile. Permanence is but a word of degrees. Our globe seen by God is a transparent law, not a mass of facts. The law dissolves the fact and holds it fluid. Our culture is the predominance of an idea which draws after it this train of cities and institutions. Let us rise into another idea: they will disappear. The Greek sculpture is all melted away, as if it had been statues of ice; here and there a solitary figure or fragment remaining, as we see flecks and scraps of snow left in cold dells and mountain clefts, in June and July. For the genius that created it creates now somewhat else. The Greek letters last a little longer, but are already passing under the same sentence, and tumbling into the inevitable pit which the creation of new thought opens for all that is old. The new continents are built out of the ruins of an old planet; the new races fed out of the decomposition of the foregoing. New arts destroy the old. See the investment of capital in aqueducts made useless by hydraulics; fortifications, by gunpowder; roads and canals, by railways; sails, by steam; steam by electricity. 

You admire this tower of granite, weathering the hurts of so many ages. Yet a little waving hand built this huge wall, and that which builds is better than that which is built. The hand that built can topple it down much faster. Better than the hand, and nimbler, was the invisible thought which wrought through it; and thus ever, behind the coarse effect, is a fine cause, which, being narrowly seen, is itself the effect of a finer cause. Every thing looks permanent until its secret is known. A rich estate appears to women a firm and lasting fact; to a merchant, one easily created out of any materials, and easily lost. An orchard, good tillage, good grounds, seem a fixture, like a gold mine, or a river, to a citizen; but to a large farmer, not much more fixed than the state of the crop. Nature looks provokingly stable and secular, but it has a cause like all the rest; and when once I comprehend that, will these fields stretch so immovably wide, these leaves hang so individually considerable? Permanence is a word of degrees. Every thing is medial. Moons are no more bounds to spiritual power than bat-balls. 

The key to every man is his thought. Sturdy and defying though he look, he has a helm which he obeys, which is the idea after which all his facts are classified. He can only be reformed by showing him a new idea which commands his own. The life of man is a self-evolving circle, which, from a ring imperceptibly small, rushes on all sides outwards to new and larger circles, and that without end. The extent to which this generation of circles, wheel without wheel, will go, depends on the force or truth of the individual soul. For it is the inert effort of each thought, having formed itself into a circular wave of circumstance, ó as, for instance, an empire, rules of an art, a local usage, a religious rite, ó to heap itself on that ridge, and to solidify and hem in the life. But if the soul is quick and strong, it bursts over that boundary on all sides, and expands another orbit on the great deep, which also runs up into a high wave, with attempt again to stop and to bind. But the heart refuses to be imprisoned; in its first and narrowest pulses, it already tends outward with a vast force, and to immense and innumerable expansions.

Passage adapted from Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essay X: Circles (1841)

What is the main idea of the first two paragraphs in the excerpt above?

Possible Answers:

Everything changes and is in flux

We know knowing about reality as such

Mankind alone is permanent

Our heart is stronger than our mind

We should not strive to be remembered since most likely we will be forgotten in time anyways

Correct answer:

Everything changes and is in flux


The correct answer is "Everything changes and is in flux." Emerson himself says "Every thing is medial."

"Mankind alone is permanent" INCORRECT: man, who built the large, granite towers passed sooner than his work.

"We should not strive to be remembered since most likely we will be forgotten in time anyways." INCORRECT: Emerson is not writing about what should happen, but only what actually is happening.

"Our heart is stronger than our mind." INCORRECT: Emerson does not discuss the heart until the third paragraph; this answer is both incorrect and out of scope.

"We know knowing about reality as such." INCORRECT: This is the second-best answer and is tempting since the "old gives way to the new." However, Emerson's larger point is that everything changes, and not that our knowledge of the world is tainted because of that. 

Example Question #2 : Theme

Adapted from Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818)

No human being could have passed a happier childhood than myself. My parents were possessed by the very spirit of kindness and indulgence. We felt that they were not the tyrants to rule our lot according to their caprice, but the agents and creators of all the many delights which we enjoyed. When I mingled with other families I distinctly discerned how peculiarly fortunate my lot was, and gratitude assisted the development of filial love.

My temper was sometimes violent, and my passions vehement; but by some law in my temperature they were turned not towards childish pursuits but to an eager desire to learn, and not to learn all things indiscriminately. I confess that neither the structure of languages, nor the code of governments, nor the politics of various states possessed attractions for me. It was the secrets of heaven and earth that I desired to learn; and whether it was the outward substance of things or the inner spirit of nature and the mysterious soul of man that occupied me, still my inquiries were directed to the metaphysical, or in it highest sense, the physical secrets of the world. . .

. . .I feel exquisite pleasure in dwelling on the recollections of childhood, before misfortune had tainted my mind and changed its bright visions of extensive usefulness into gloomy and narrow reflections upon self. Besides, in drawing the picture of my early days, I also record those events which led, by insensible steps, to my after tale of misery, for when I would account to myself for the birth of that passion which afterwards ruled my destiny, I find it arise, like a mountain river, from ignoble and almost forgotten sources; but, swelling as it proceeded, it became the torrent which, in its course, has swept away all my hopes and joys. 

The bolded passage above is an example of ______________.

Possible Answers:

A symbol of the narrator's idyllic childhood

A metaphor for the narrator's painful life experiences occurring in adulthood

A theme representing the harmony between man and nature

A metaphor relating the narrator's memory to a flowing mountain river

A simile for the narrator's desire to investigate the mysteries of the natural world

Correct answer:

A simile for the narrator's desire to investigate the mysteries of the natural world


In this passage, the narrator compares the forming of his passion for discovering "secrets of heaven and earth" to the flow of a mountain river. Because the comparison uses "like," it is considered a simile. 

Example Question #3 : Theme

To convey an adequate idea of a book of such various merits as that which the author of Typee and Omoo has here placed before the reading public, is impossible in the scope of a review. High philosophy, liberal feeling, abstruse metaphysics popularly phrased, soaring speculation, a style as many-coloured as the theme, yet always good, and often admirable; fertile fancy, ingenious construction, playful learning, and an unusual power of enchaining the interest, and rising to the verge of the sublime, without overpassing that narrow boundary which plunges the ambitious penman into the ridiculous; all these are possessed by Herman Melville, and exemplified in these volumes.

Excerpt from the London Morning Advertiser, October 24 1851

We can infer that the reviewer form the London Morning Advertiser views Herman Melville's book as

Possible Answers:

Decent, but nothing special.

A masterpiece of fiction

Well intentioned, but not executed very well.

Philosophical, but not very interesting.

Interesting, but not very philosophical.

Correct answer:

A masterpiece of fiction


The reviewer sees Moby Dick as having a style that is "always good," and it combines this with philosophical musings.

Example Question #4 : Theme

The narrative is constructed in Herman Melville's best manner. It combines the various features which form the chief attractions of his style, and is commendably free from the faults which we have before had occasion to specify in this powerful writer. The intensity of the plot is happily relieved by minute descriptions of the most homely processes of the whale fishery. We have occasional touches of the subtle mysticism, which is carried to such an inconvenient excess in Mardi, but it is here mixed up with so many tangible and odorous realities, that we always safely alight from the excursion through mid-air upon the solid deck of the whaler....
... We part with the adventurous philosophical Ishmael, truly thankful that the whale did not get his head, for which we are indebted for this wildly imaginative and truly thrilling story. We think it the best production which has yet come from that seething brain, and in spite of its lawless flights, which put all regular criticism at defiance, it gives us a higher opinion of the author's originality and power than even the favorite and fragrant first-fruits of his genius, the never-to-be-forgotten Typee. 

--Horace Greeley, quoted in New York Tribune, November 22 1851

What does Horace Greeley mean by odorous?

Possible Answers:

Having a bad smell

Factual and data-driven

Well-meaning but not particularly interesting

Deeply mystical

Worthy of adulation

Correct answer:

Having a bad smell


The tangible realities are those that belong to the whale industry. The whale industry's realities are those that are negative. The only answer that fits is that which smells bad. Incidentally, this is the primary meaning of odorous.

Learning Tools by Varsity Tutors