I have a confession to make. In my English (and French) classes in high school, the second my teachers started talking about themes in novels, I rolled my eyes. I didn't care about deeper meanings or the way that an author had set up character interactions and used symbolism to make a point. All I cared about was the story, the plot, the narrative. I read voraciously, but I read shallowly. It explains why I have never been a rabid fan of classic literature, and why I didn't think too much into what I wrote. I think I have finally grown enough to appreciate the importance of theme and symbolism.
I think, on some unconscious level, I began to absorb the idea of themes being important in university. Mostly, I have to thank Dracula. Once my prof pushed us to think about the interaction of technology and superstition, about the symbolism of blood, I got so excited that any paper I have written on the book have received stellar grades, because I was invested. But, my professor didn't explain it quite as a "theme" in the sense that literature normally talks about it; Instead, it was approached from a multiplicity of ways, from philosophy to history and ethics. We got context.
Some other professors managed to pull that off in literature classes. Not all of them. I still distinctly dislike a lot of French lit I've encountered. If you say Honoré de Balzac, I say blech. If you say Madame Bovary, I tell you that I wanted to slap the titular character silly. If I was forced to analyze themes devoid of some other context, I hated it. I needed the psychology, the history, the philosophy, the cultural context. Because if it doesn't resonate with me, I don't care. If I don't know anything about the time period the writer is referring to, or is writing in, or the major issues the author would have encountered, I didn't care.
I think, something changed with the first novel I attempted for NaNoWriMo. Because even though I was primarily concerned with plot and characters and narrative, I also wanted it to make the novel about choice. Making choices when options are constrained, having no choices. It was also about having choice taken away from you. It's asking a question. It's...dark. The context was essentially modern, although fantastical. I don't know where to begin in describing how many things I dislike about the novel, but if I do ever go back to it, I know I will continue to emphasize the theme of choice.
For The Brightest Night, I don't have anything that clear-cut. It wrestles with religion, with destiny, with inevitability, with making the best of the situation, and with love. I won't call it cheerful. But it has hope. I'm not writing/editing with a theme in mind, but I know that they are there, lurking, waiting to be teased out.
Because a good novel has great character, an amazing plot, tight dialogue, and intriguing conflict. A great novel has all of the above, and something more. It wrestles with itself, with the time it has been written in, and with all the great philosophical, ethical, moral, social, economic, psychological questions out there. A great novel tells us something about ourselves and the world we live in. A great novel teaches us.