A motif is something repeats in a work of literature. This could be an action, image, idea, or sensory perception, such as a sound or feeling. Whatever the motif is, it has to have symbolic or thematic importance. A motif is more than just a repeating feature. It is a repeating feature that furthers the meaning of the work of literature through its repetition. It is used to help explain the central idea of the story, book, or poem.
Motif or Symbol?
While these two literary devices might seem similar at first, they do different things. A symbol represents something else. It has a deeper, metaphorical meaning that has to be uncovered and it occurs only once, or maybe twice. A motif, on the other hand, is used numerous times and is more obvious. Symbols can often be missed or misunderstood.
Motif or Theme?
Just like with symbols, motifs are similar but not the same thing as themes. They are both parts of a story but a motif is always something tangible. A theme can be anything from God’s power to revolution. They are usually more abstract. That being said, motifs, themes, and symbols usually work together to create the atmosphere of a piece of literature.
Common Motifs in Literature and Film
- Natural images: Birds, plants, flowers, clouds, darkness, light, etc.
- Types of people: deceitful friends, brave family members, dying relatives, returning soldiers, etc.
- States of being: Oppression, depression, loss, fear, sadness, separation/loneliness, isolation.
Examples of Motifs in Literature
Example #1 A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
There are numerous examples of motifs in A Tale of Two Cities. The novel tells the story of two men who fall in love with one woman in the midst of the French Revolution. The motifs at work within the book ar tangible, real things that help the reader uncover the Dickens’ intended meaning. The motifs include imprisonment, doubling, and darkness. These motifs come together in support of the major themes of the work. The characters often move through the repeated motif of darkness and there are several, such as Dr. Manette and Darnay who spend time in prison. The “two” cities are one of the features of doubling that’s seen in the novel. this is part of an investigation into the duality of one’s double nature or the two-sided nature of life itself.
Example #2 Hamlet by William Shakespeare
Certainly, one of Shakespeare’s best-known plays, Hamlet tells the story of a young man, Hamlet the Prince of Denmark who tries to uncover his father’s murderer. This leads him to what seems like madness and eventually to the death of almost everyone in the play. There are several interesting motifs in Hamlet. These include hatred of women, incest, and death/dying. The first is seen through Hamlet’s strong feelings about Gertrude and Ophelia and the latter through the numerous deaths that occur in the story and the strange relationships between brothers and sisters.
Example #3 The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
The motifs in this novel help the reader learn the main themes of the narrative. The central ideas of the story are cleared up and emphasized. Some of these motifs are childhood, lies, and superstition. The first is quite obviously depicted through Huck’s youth and through the changes that he undergoes. He’s able to accept new information and transform himself. Superstition also plays an important role in the story. Jim often brings up bits of information from tales and folklore. The story goes back and forth between these beliefs seeming foolish and wise.