What is a Motif? Definition and 10 Concrete Examples from Literature
Let’s just admit it: “What is a motif and how do you use it?” is a much less sexy question to ask than, “What’s your book about?”
But it’s just as necessary. If the theme of a book is its heartbeat, then motifs in literatureare the vessels that keep the blood coursing through the narrative. Among other things, motifs add depth to your writing and steer readers toward your book’s central message (assisted by other strong literary devices).
In this post, we’ll look at what a motif is (and what it is not), examine motif examples in action, and explore how you can incorporate motifs into your own writing.
What is a motif?
A motif is a recurring narrative element with symbolic significance. If you spot a symbol, concept, or plot structure that surfaces repeatedly in the text, you’re probably dealing with a motif. Motifs must be related to the central idea of the work and they always end up reinforcing the author’s overall message.
But how can you tell which ones are motifs? Remember that you must be able to connect a motif to the “big ideas” in a book. Just because the narrator mentions a particular pair of shoes a few times, doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a motif — unless the author makes a point of tying it to a bigger question of, let’s say, escape and freedom. (Don’t worry — we’ll provide more concrete motif examples in a bit!)
Since they’re repeated throughout a text, motifs are also very traceable. As you’re trying to figure out the motifs of a given work, it might be useful to think of them as having a trail of purposeful clues. The author plants these breadcrumbs so that the reader can better work out the ideas behind the work — and its overarching point.
That brings up our next question: how do motifs relate to themes? Luckily, we’ve got the answer for you right here!
Motifs support a book’s theme
The theme of a book is generally considered to be the core meaning behind a story — the “soul” behind the text, in other words. Themes are almost always universal and they usually illuminate something about society, human nature, and the world.
In contrast, a motif reinforces the theme through the repetition of a certain narrative element. As you may have already guessed, themes and motifs in literature are devoted partners in crime.
To give you an easily digestible example, let’s take Shakespeare’s Sonnet 24. The theme of this sonnet is arguably that “love is skin-deep.” And one of its main motifs is sight, which is made clear through the recurring imagery of eyes. It’s not a coincidence that the motif and the theme of a text are closely related: the former props up and strengthens the other, as you can see in this sonnet.
Million-dollar question: what’s the difference between a motif and a theme? Find out here!
Symbols represent motifs
A symbol in a book is just like a symbol on a street sign: something recognizable that represents something abstract. In the US, for instance, eagles are a symbol of freedom. In The Hunger Games, the mockingjay is a symbol of revolution.
That said, when you see a symbol surface over and over again, chances are that it signifies a motif.
Let’s cut to The Great Gatsby, a classic vessel of symbolism, to illustrate this. F. Scott Fitzgerald uses the Valley of Ashes — a barren wasteland between East and West Egg — as a symbol to represent the waste and moral decay of the elite. This is a part of the book’s bigger motif of wealth and finance, which recurs through a number of ideas — among them, Gatsby’s parties, the extravagance of the both West and East Eggs, and Daisy’s voice that is described as “full of money.” That, in turn, reinforces one of the book’s major themes about the corruption of the American Dream.
To sum it up, here’s a quick chart for you:
Now that you have a better sense of what is a motif (and what it’s not), let’s see some more of them in action!