What Is the Definition of Motif in Literature? 3 Examples

Great writers use a combination of literary techniques like motif to enhance the reader's experience. Find out the definition of motif in literature.

Writing is 50/50 creativity and understanding what works for others authors. Of course, you can write your next masterpiece without ever knowing any literary terms or the definition of motif in literature, but certain narrative elements have stood the test of time for a reason. They work and enhance the reader's enjoyment of the characters, themes, and world that make up your next best-selling novel. 

In this piece, I'll discuss a recurring motif, how authors use it, and how you can take your own work to the next level by learning how to use this clever writing tool.

What Is the Definition of Motif in Literature?

What is the definition of motif in literature

A literary motif is a recurring theme beneath the main theme that has some symbolic significance. It could be a repeated phrase, action, sound, imagery, character naming function, or idea expressed in words for which the sum is greater than its parts. The whole picture of what this recurring element means may only become clear by the end of the work. 

Like many professional writers, I use both subtle or strong motifs to:

  • Evoke certain feelings from the reader toward a character, theme, or the whole work
  • Cast light on, or expound upon, the dominant idea within a work
  • Add depth to the reading experience, as the astute reader will pick up on motifs that run through a short story, novel, or even non-fiction
  • Establish a pattern for character- or world-development
  • Generate a running theme between works that becomes a bit of a branded style for me as a writer. 

An example of a running motif, I'll turn to one of my favorite short story authors, Ray Bradbury, who has a running motif, which I would say is best described as, “When we become over-dependant on technology, we lose our humanity.” He demonstrates this cross-story motif through a variety of images, scenarios, and character comments in his stories.

3 Popular Examples of Motifs

To see how authors use motifs, let's revisit some classics you may be familiar with from school or your own love for a great motif.

1. Jane Eyre

In Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë uses motifs to evoke emotion. She has recurring images of flames, which generate diverging emotions depending on the type of flame she mentions. 

The hearth fire creates a feeling of warmth, safety, and relaxation in readers. Yet the many times she refers to candles, she discusses how enlivening and energizing the flame is.  In the book's theme, fire is shown as having a dual nature, keeping the night at bay (protection, safety) and burning things up (destroying), so the motif eloquently supports the theme.

She continues this motif by using fire-related terms to describe characters, like saying one character is “like Vulcan”, a Roman god associated with fire. Or she uses ice-related terms to describe an “uncaring” person.  

2. A Tale of Two Cities

Examples of definition of motif in literature
Charles Dickens' A Tale Of Two Cities book

Duality can also be seen in Charles Dickens' epic. Each character in the book has a counterpart, one in London and the other in France. Dickens describes the characters Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton using similar traits, while the primary females, Lucie and Madame Defarge are described as opposites.  

The novel uses the motif of counterparts and opposites to promote the main themes that justice is fragile and people can do better.

3. To Kill a Mockingbird

In Harper's Lee's novel, she creates a motif of people in small-town America helping each other and having small-town values through a series of events where people work together. But something sinister (hate and prejudice) is brewing under the surface, as she alludes to when Atticus kills a rabid dog and the children are attacked on the way home from a party. 

These concurrently running motifs contrast with one another to give a more complex and tragic picture of humanity.

Motif Vs. Theme

To further explore the definition of motif in literature, I'd like to explore a couple of comparisons to other concepts with you. There is certainly some overlap between a motif and theme, so anyone who tries to draw a hard line is overcomplicating things. But here are some subtle distinguishing factors.

Themes are the main ideas. They're clearly defined, and if someone were to ask you what the story is about, you would share the theme easily. The motif, on the other hand, would be hard for you to put into words. You'd be aware of it but may struggle to describe it unless you really put some thought into it. 

Motifs are more subtle arrows pointing a reader in a certain direction without telling them to “go over there” or “believe this”. You could say that the motif gives the theme meaning without saying something outright. It implies and causes the reader to question what they're reading rather than taking everything at face value. 

Example of a Motif Supporting the Theme

Consider William Shakespeare's Hamlet. The theme of Hamlet is two-fold, “Systems of hierarchy are corrupt” and “Death comes for us all”.

I'm certain you haven't forgotten that in the play, Hamlet holds Yorick's skull and speaks of the tragedy of his death. This has a clear symbolic meaning. In other mentions of death and hierarchy, he comments that both kings and beggars suffer the same fate in the end, decomposition. And later, he compares human mating rituals to maggots on a dead dog. Ewww!

This very vivid and somewhat disturbing imagery points an arrow at the central idea.

Motif Vs. Symbolism

Motifs often use symbols, but a symbol is not always a motif. It's only one if the symbolism is recurring, although it doesn't have to be the same symbol.

A symbol could only appear once while a motif repeats itself several times and may do through with several symbols. 

Examples of Symbolic Motifs

In Nathanial Hawthorne's story “Young Goodman Brown”, a pink ribbon is a recurring symbol in the work of literature, and therefore a motif.  It symbolizes a loss of faith in the goodness of humankind.

The pink ribbon that the main character's “pious” wife wears at the beginning of the story is a foreshadowing of her becoming “corrupted” by keeping the wrong company later in the story.

If the pink ribbon appeared once, it would be a symbol. But if pink ribbons or other mentions of pink occur in the same work, that would make it a motif.

Similarly, in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, you have the green light appearing time and again, symbolizing what Gatsby desires but can never quite touch. If the green light only appeared once as a symbol, its significance would likely be lost on the readers, but the fact that it's recurring makes it a motif with obvious meaning for the astute reader.

Final Word on Definition of Motif in Literature

Should you use literary motifs to enhance your own writing? I absolutely recommend it. Readers love it, and it's fun for you too.

Coming up with motifs becomes like a game that can energize your passion for writing. But this is only one such literary device, so I encourage you to learn about others I share on this site.

Storytelling Resources

A Storytelling Guide: Step-By-Step, With Examples

First vs Third Person Point of View: What Makes Sense for Your Story?

How to Write a Story Outline that Works: 9 Steps

The Hero’s Journey: Explained In 12 Steps

The Inciting Incident: 7 Tips For Starting Your Story With A Bang

Synopsis Example: How To Write A Winning Summary Of Your Story

Allegory vs Parable: What Are the Differences?

7 Types of Conflict in Literature Worth Exploring

12 Character Archetypes To Drive Your Writing

FAQs About the Definition of Motif in Literature

Are motifs only found in literature?

Absolutely not. You can find motifs in any expressive form, from product advertising to non-fiction self-help books to paintings. Any form of expression that uses some recurring symbolism could be said to have a motif. Yes, you can have visual motifs too!

How do I identify motifs in the work of others?

An expertly crafted motif can communicate with your subconscious, influencing your thoughts and perceptions without you knowing it's there. With that said, once you start seeing them, they're hard to miss. Whether you're watching the Godfather movies, streaming a YouTube video, enjoying theater, or reading a modern novel, you'll find motifs. Just look for the symbols and consider what the author is communicating indirectly. 

How do I use literary motifs to enhance my own literary work?

To get started:
Take some time to think about your central theme away from the computer. I do this while going for a long walk because it gives my mind room to think.
Write down themes and sub-themes you want to communicate when you get back to the computer.
Brainstorm and write down symbols that represent those themes
Now, incorporate those symbols into your description as you write to create a richer reading experience.
Ask someone else to read it to see if they pick up on your motif. 

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