I. What is a Motif?
A motif is a symbolic image or idea that appears frequently in a story. Motifs can be symbols, sounds, actions, ideas, or words. Motifs strengthen a story by adding images and ideas to the theme present throughout the narrative.
The word motif (pronounced moh-teef) is derived from the French phrase motif meaning “pattern.”
II. Examples of Motif
Throughout a novel, the main character considers buying a typewriter but decides against it, as they are too expensive or old-fashioned. Deep-down she wants one, as she has always dreamed of being a writer. The typewriter emphasizes the theme of avoidance and the protagonist’s temptation to pursue a different career.
Throughout a story, there is surprisingly bad weather—snow, freezing rain, and even a tornado. These weather conditions further emphasize the larger theme of nature’s power over humans.
Throughout a poem, a man wears a tuxedo for a variety of occasions: his wedding, his father’s funeral, and his own daughter’s wedding. The tuxedo becomes a symbol of his changing duties as a husband, son, and father as he ages.
As can be seen from these examples, motifs by definition are repetitive throughout a narrative, to emphasize larger themes and ideas.
III. The Importance of Motif
Motifs provide compositions with a traceable pattern: if a red dress or the idea of guilt or even a song continues appearing throughout a narrative, chances are, it means something. Motifs allow authors, writers, and directors to create a more poetic and structured narrative, cluing in readers and audiences to symbols of larger ideas. Motifs are partners to themes, as repetitive images and symbols emphasize the overarching themes of the work.
IV. Examples of Motifs in Literature
Motifs are used throughout literature in poetry and prose alike. To examine the usage of motif, consider Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale. This novel examines life under a totalitarian government as told by a woman who is living enslaved as a handmaid. Although numerous themes are used, the theme of freedom—what that means in a democracy versus dictatorship, for women versus men, for those free versus those enslaved—is one of the largest.
The discussion of freedom is a motif throughout the piece:
- “There is more than one kind of freedom,” said Aunt Lydia. “Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.”
- A rat in a maze is free to go anywhere, as long as it stays inside the maze.
- They seemed to be able to choose. We seemed to be able to choose, then. We were a society dying of too much choice.
- We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom.
Another motif which examines the theme of freedom in this novel is the idea of power and control.
Here are a few examples:
- But remember that forgiveness too is a power. To beg for it is a power, and to withhold or bestow it is a power, perhaps the greatest.
- Maybe none of this is about control. Maybe it isn’t really about who can own whom, who can do what to whom and get away with it, even as far as death. … Maybe it’s about who can do what to whom and be forgiven for it. Never tell me it amounts to the same thing.
- “If it’s a story I’m telling, then I have control over the ending…
But if it’s a story, even in my head, I must be telling it to someone.
You don’t tell a story only to yourself. There’s always someone else. Even when there is no one.
- When power is scarce, a little of it is tempting.
Power and control are discussed in terms of forgiveness, telling a story, and temptation as they are repeated throughout the narrative.
V. Examples of Motif in Pop Culture
Motifs are just as powerful in movies, advertisements, and songs as they are in poetry and prose.
In this quirky short film, the word “wonder” is a strong motif in various forms: the letter W, Wonder Bread, Wonder Woman, and Stevie Wonder all make appearances, to name a few. The repetition of “wonder” serves to emphasize larger themes, such as insecurity and the past’s ability to haunt us.
Movie trailers are a great source of motifs, as they flicker through numerous highlights of the film. Motifs in The Theory of Everything include the discussion of time, images of Steven Hawking’s shaking hands and struggling body, and sweeping images of space and the universe.
VI. Related Terms
When defining motif, other literary devices often come into play, such as symbols and themes. Here are a few devices similar and related to motif:
Symbols refer to any images or objects that symbolize a larger idea or theme. A rose can be a symbol of romance or the color green can be a symbol of jealousy. The difference between a symbol and motif is small and simple: motifs are symbols that recur throughout a work. Whereas a symbol can stand alone in one isolated scene or sentence, motifs by definition must repeat throughout a composition.
Just as symbols fit within the definition of motifs, motifs are a smaller aspect of theme. Themes are overarching, central ideas in stories. Motifs serve to emphasize themes with specific images and symbols throughout the story. Here is an example of how themes and motifs work together:
If a story’s main theme is greed, numerous motifs could highlight this. Imagine the story is about a greedy businesswoman who owns a restaurant.
The protagonist is frequently seen counting money. She lowers her staff’s pay numerous times. Lastly, she frequently purchases new, shiny, showy things.
These motifs emphasize greed with images of money, thrifty actions, and materialistic purchases.
VII. In Closing
Whereas themes hover above a story as ideas, motifs dive into prose and poetry with clear and repetitive images, ideas, and symbols throughout. In their repetition, motifs emphasize what is most important about a story.