Motifs are one of the great unsung heroes in a writer’s cache of literary devices. Why? Because when used correctly, motifs are invisible—they work on a reader’s subconscious to enhance your story’s theme and create a sense of unity throughout the narrative.
But what is a motif, exactly? If you’re confused about the difference between motif in literature and terms like symbol or theme, you’re not alone. To illustrate more about this advanced literary technique, we’ll show you a simple definition along with some examples of motifs from famous works of literature, explore the differences motif and other literary concepts, and give you some hints on how to begin using motifs effectively in your own writing.
What is a motif in literature?
A motif is a recurring image or larger idea that occurs throughout a literary work. This isn’t quite the same as a symbol (we’ll look at the differences in definition a little more below), but a motif does have symbolic significance.
The word “motif” comes from the French and means “pattern,” and so motifs will always be recurring elements that give a pattern effect to the story. This recurring element might be something like an object, a piece of music, a texture, a color, particular images, or even repeated words; the possibilities are endless!
Why do we use motifs in writing?
The best motifs work in subtle ways to enhance your story’s theme, tone, and sometimes even characters. Motifs underline an idea in your particular story in a way that readers understand on a subconscious level. This creates depth and emotional resonance without the need to state your theme too overtly.
For instance, if your story is a psychological thriller about a decaying mental state, you might decide to use glass as a repeated motif to illustrate the fragility of the mind. Your story might include a precious carved glass figurine, wine glasses, a greenhouse, a balcony with a glass roof, a pool with a glass bottom, or any other iterations of glass to convey the protagonist’s mental health to the reader.
Then, when you show the reader an image of shattered glass at the climactic moment of the story, the reader will understand on a deeper level how the image is connected to the character. You can even take that image—and your motif—further and show a piece of glass held together with tape to represent hope and healing, depending on the direction you want your story to go.
By using a repeated pattern of ideas, the motif reinforces the overall story and character arcs of your short story or novel.
What’s the difference between motif and symbol?
In a literary work, symbols are objects, places, people, or ideas that represent something greater than their concrete meaning. Unlike a motif, however, symbols aren’t recurring—they appear only once.
A good literature example is the yellow brick road in The Wizard of Oz. This golden road can symbolise many things, including hope, aspiration, the journey through life, etc. However, there is only one yellow brick road in the story; even though it appears in several instances, it’s always the same road. This makes it a symbol, rather than a motif.
If the writer had decided to explore the color yellow as a motif throughout the narrative, they may have included other symbols such as yellow flowers to show the characters that they’re going the right way, wise people wearing yellow clothes, and so forth. Then the color yellow would be a motif, and the yellow brick road would be one symbol within that larger motif.
We’ll look at more motif examples below.
What’s the difference between motif and theme?
Theme is the overarching central idea or concept in a narrative work, such as a novel, poem, play, or film. All stories have themes; the writer’s connection with those central ideas and need to express them are why the story exists in the first place.
A story’s theme might be something like death, love, avarice, creativity, and so on. Then in our writing we’ll use our vast array of literary devices, including motifs, to support this major theme.
For example, if you’re using your story to explore death, you might include symbols or ideas like bones, crows, or mourning colors. This creates a larger motif that represents death. If your story centers around avarice (for example, The Great Gatsby), you might include several motifs like the color green, money, and flashy possessions.
This is the beauty of a motif in literary works: motifs always support a story’s theme and make it more accessible and powerful for the reader.
Examples of motif in literature
Now let’s look at a few motif examples from beloved stories.
Animals in Dracula, by Bram Stoker
Predatory animals, particularly wolves and bats, appear several times throughout the tale. When intrepid hero Jonathan Harker arrives at Dracula’s castle, his carriage is followed by a pack of hungry wolves. More wolves appear later as servants of the Count, and bats are seen outside windows of several unsuspecting victims.
Bram Stoker uses the strong motif of animals to enhance the horrific tone of the story, to hint at the true underlying danger the antagonist represents, and to illustrate Dracula’s control over the natural world. In contrast to the other clean, well-off central characters, this heightens the sense of “other” and makes Dracula seem even more terrifying.
Alcohol in Farewell, My Lovely, by Raymond Chandler
Drinking is not uncommon in the classic, hard-boiled private detective story, and Raymond Chandler’s hero Philip Marlowe is often seen with a drink in his hand. As one of the story’s main motifs it serves both an overt purpose for the character and an underlying purpose for the reader.
Sharing drinks creates a sense of camaraderie, and Marlowe often uses this to extract information. We see how alcohol often creates connection and helps loosen tongues to bring our favorite detective closer to the truth. However, it also shows how Marlowe goes outside the grain of society, displaying his rakish independence.
As an anti-hero, Marlowe drinks even when it goes against conventional social etiquette. This motif shows the reader how walks his own path and does things in his own way to get results.
Shared food in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, by C. S. Lewis
C. S. Lewis uses the motif of shared food to cleverly mirror the arc of the story. One of the most famous examples comes when the White Witch shares candies with Edmund, seducing him into betraying his family. A similar situation happens when Lucy visits the faun Mr. Tumnus and shares lunch with him. However, he then reveals the meal was a ruse to capture her for the Witch.
Later, however, the children share a meal with the Beaver family as they get ready to begin their journey. This shows how the story arc is turning towards something more positive. At the end of the novel, Aslan treats everyone to a grand shared feast, symbolizing a happy ending and prosperity for the land.
By using shared meals as a recurring element, the writer establishes a motif and is able to enhance the tone of the story and illustrate its world to the reader.
How to identify motifs in literature
With these examples in mind, how do you find motifs in other stories?
First, we need to ask ourselves again: what is a motif? It’s not necessarily the same as a symbol (although it can be). Motif, as we saw above, means “pattern.” Therefore, when you’re examining your favorite books, you’ll want to be keeping an eye out for repeating patterns.
Let’s examine one symbolism-rich example: Macbeth, by William Shakespeare.
Motifs in Shakespeare’s Macbeth
Macbeth uses several motifs to contribute to the central themes and ideas of the story. Not all of these motifs work in the same way or communicate the same thing, but they do have one thing in common: they form a pattern over the course of the story.
Blood is one of the clearest and most concrete motifs in the Scottish play. It’s a tangible thing that we can see and touch. Blood appears at the very beginning of the play when a wounded soldier arrives to bring news to the king of Macbeth’s bloody war. Blood appears again in several scenes during Macbeth’s murderous descent, and famously on Lady Macbeth’s hands as she wrestles with her guilt.
Macbeth is filled with prophecies and predictions. Because these aren’t concrete things, it can be a little harder to identify them as a motif. The play opens with the infamous three witches speaking the prophecy that will set the events of the story in motion: Macbeth will become Thane and then King. Throughout the play they offer other dubiously helpful advice, such as a rival’s son becoming king instead of Macbeth’s own, and his fate at the hands of someone “not born of woman.” This motif creates a coherent thread of that links the story together.
3. Stormy weather
“It was a dark and stormy night” is often touted as being one of the most trite and uninspiring opening lines in literature, but weather is one of the most powerful and easily overlooked motifs. In Macbeth, the three witches are always accompanied by storms, and storms play out in many of the play’s pivotal moments. After winning a violent battle, Macbeth comments, “So foul and fair a day I have not seen.” He means that his proud and bright victory is at odds with the dark and stormy weather, foreshadowing more hardship to come.
When searching for motifs in literature, try to examine the commonalities between different parts of the story and ask yourself if those common elements might have a deeper, more symbolic meaning.
How to use motifs in your novel or short story
With all that in mind, let’s explore a few ways to incorporate motifs into your own writing.
Explore naturally occurring symbols and motifs
Writers have pretty good instincts for motifs. Sometimes, the best way to use motifs in your writing is to go back through the editing process and see where they’re beginning to come through naturally and how they might be enhanced.
For example, if your story opens with a character picking strawberries for breakfast, you could find other places to work in strawberry symbols or flavors throughout the plot, or the color red. This will give the story a sense of unity and make the opening feel more powerful because your readers will perceive a deeper meaning.
Another example might be if a character sits on a park bench and sees a pigeon settling nearby, you might look at ways to include birds in other moments of your story and think about what aspects they might represent for the reader.
There’s a good chance your story has the beginning of a motif already; your job is to turn it into a pattern with intention and precision, so that it enhances the mood of the story.
Play with juxtaposition
Motifs and symbols can completely change the mood of a scene, and a great way to do this is by looking at juxtaposition. This means using a motif that’s the opposite of what’s expected.
For example, you could use a dark, sinister motif at a happy event like a wedding or graduation to foreshadow the direction of the story. Or you could set a scene in a closed institution like a boarding school or factory, and incorporate motifs or repeated words that symbolize freedom and creativity.
In The Wind and the Willows, the author uses a recurring motif of automobiles juxtaposed against the slow, pastoral landscape of the riverside. This gives a creative new dimension to the story and draws the reader’s attention to the motif.
Consider your central theme
The main goal of motifs in literary work is to enhance the themes in your story. Therefore, consider what guiding concept or idea you want your story to center around, and look for ways to enhance it with patterns of symbolism.
For example, if one of your themes has to do with freedom or exploring everything the world has to offer, you might incorporate a motif of globes, maps, and travel brochures. If your theme is the erosion of ethics and morality, some examples of motifs might be things like clothes that become more and more tattered, or a garden that slowly falls into ruin. You can use physical objects as a motif or a more abstract idea, like “decay.”
By incorporating motifs that support and elevate the themes in your story, you’ll create an immersive world that readers will want to return to again and again.