Definition of Motif
A motif is a narrative element with symbolic meaning that repeats throughout a work of literature. Motifs may come in the form of reoccurring imagery, language, structure, or contrasts. In drama, motifs may also take the form of repeated music, visual components, or physical movements. The development of motifs in a work of literature often contributes to mood and/or theme.
The word “motif” comes from the French for “a dominant idea” or “theme.”
Difference Between Motif and Theme
The concepts of motif and theme are very similar as literary devices. The key difference, however, is that a theme is abstract while a motif is concrete. The theme of a work is an idea or central topic, and can often be summed up in one abstract word or a short phrase, such as “love” or “good versus evil.” The theme is also generally not explicitly stated in the text. The definition of motif, however, is such that it is more obvious to the reader, such as the repetition of certain words or images.
To see the difference, let us consider William Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth. One of the themes of the play is ambition, and its power to corrupt. We see Macbeth strive for power and kill people in his quest. One of the motifs, on the other hand, is water and the washing of hands. Lady Macbeth famously tries to wash the blood from her hands, crying, “Out, damned spot! Out, I say!” The inability of water to cleanse the sins of Macbeth and his wife show how irredeemable they are and to what extent they have lost their morals in pursuit of their ambitions.
Common Examples of Motif
Several famous orators have used motifs in their speeches to help connect disparate ideas and to make their points resonate in the minds of their listeners. Here are some examples:
And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
—Martin Luther King, Jr. “I Have a Dream” speech
In his most famous speech, Martin Luther King Jr. used the motif of “I have a dream” to tie together disparate ideas, such as the historic language of the United States of America’s “Declaration of Independence” with the more concrete images of people who once were at odds sitting down together.
The pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States; Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too: We worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we don’t like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States, and, yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the Red States. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq.
—Barack Obama, “2004 Democratic National Convention Keynote Address”
Barack Obama used a motif of contrasting the “Red States” and “Blue States,” but subverting their usual stereotypes to show that, in fact, the contrasts are nothing but noise.
Significance of Motif in Literature
Authors use motifs for many reasons in their literature, including to tie together moments that might otherwise not seem related. Motifs are also often important for establishing themes and moods in works of literature. Repetition helps either subtly or explicitly drive home certain points to the reader which the author considers vital to comprehending the work. Analyzing the motifs in a work of literature lead to a better understanding of the deeper symbolism and meaning of that work.
Examples of Motif in Literature
IAGO: Oh, beware, my lord, of jealousy!
It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock
The meat it feeds on.
(Othello by William Shakespeare)
There are many instances of the word “monster” in Shakespeare’s Othello, such as the motif example above. Othello also calls Desdemona’s apparent betrayal “monstrous, monstrous,” while he refers to Iago as “some monster in [his] thought.” There are many monsters in this play, chief of which is Iago himself, who is truly evil. Unfortunately, his monstrosity is not discovered until the end of the play, and beforehand monstrousness is attributed to other things—jealousy, betrayal, and even Othello’s very nature.
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”
Is there—is there balm in Gilead?—tell me—tell me, I implore!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore.”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”
(“The Raven” by Edgar Allen Poe)
The repeated words “Quote the Raven, ‘Nevermore’” are an example of motif in Edgar Allen Poe’s famous poem. The insistence with which the words are repeated start to drive the reader a bit mad, just as the narrator is driven mad.
ABIGAIL: I want to open myself! . . . I want the light of God, I want the sweet love of Jesus! I danced for the Devil; I saw him, I wrote in his book; I go back to Jesus; I kiss His hand. I saw Sarah Good with the Devil! I saw Goody Osburn with the Devil! I saw Bridget Bishop with the Devil!
(The Crucible by Arthur Miller)
One key motif in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible is that of accusations and confessions. In this excerpt, Abigail has just realized that her confession will protect her and so she both makes her own confession and accuses more women in the town of Salem. The increasing power of the confessions crescendos in the play until the character of John Proctor refuses to make the confession that he is being forced to make.
TOM: But the wonderfullest trick of all was the coffin trick. We nailed him into a coffin and he got out of the coffin without removing one nail. . . . There is a trick that would come in handy for me—get me out of this two-by-four situation! . . . You know it don’t take much intelligence to get yourself into a nailed-up coffin, Laura. But who in hell ever got himself out of one without removing one nail?
(The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams)
Abandonment is an important motif in Tennessee Williams’s play The Glass Menagerie. In this scene Tom tells his sister about a trick he’s just seen, which hints at his deeper desire—to abandon the burdens of family life and disappear forever.
“Who controls the past,” ran the Party slogan, “controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” And yet the past, though of its nature alterable, never had been altered. Whatever was true now was true from everlasting to everlasting. It was quite simple. All that was needed was an unending series of victories over your own memory. “Reality control,” they called it: in Newspeak, “doublethink.”
(1984 by George Orwell)
George Orwell coined the term “doublethink” in his novel 1984 and it resonated deeply with his reading audience. It is one of the most important examples of motif in the novel, and represents the necessity of the ruling party to believe completely in opposite ideas at the same time.
Test Your Knowledge of Motif
1. Choose the correct motif definition from the following statements:
A. An abstract idea that is developed in a work of literature.
B. A reoccurring element such as an image or structural component that creates symbolic meaning in a work of literature.
C. The motivation that a character gives for doing something.
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2. Which of the following could be a motif, rather than a theme?
B. Moral ambivalence
C. The color green
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3. Which of the following quotes from Tennessee Williams’s play The Glass Menagerie is an example of the motif of abandonment, as in Example #4 above?
TOM: There is a fifth character in the play who doesn’t appear except in this larger-than-life-size photograph over the mantel. This is our father who left us a long time ago. He was a telephone man who fell in love with long distances; he gave up his job with the telephone company and skipped the light fantastic out of town…
AMANDA: I know so well what becomes of unmarried woman who aren’t prepared to occupy a position. I’ve seen such pitiful cases in the South – barely tolerated spinsters living upon the grudging patronage of sister’s husband or brother’s wife! – stuck away in some little mousetrap of a room – encouraged by one in-law to visit another – little birdlike women without any nest – eating the crust of humility all their life!
TOM: Yes, I have tricks in my pocket, I have things u p my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.
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