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Motif In Literature | Definition, Types, Examples, How to Identify Motif, Importance

What Is A Motif in Literature — motif in literature is a recurrent idea, object or image that appears in a work of literature. Motif in music and art

What Is A Motif In Literature

Motif in literature

Is Motif A Literary Device? Motif in literature is one of the very literary devices that are inherent in literature but people are most likely not to notice it or consider it as important as it seems. Motif works with the central idea of a story. Aside that, it can be easily confused with symbolism due to its symbolic features in a work.

Aside the usage of the word, motif in literature, the word also has some repetitive significance outside the very realm of narrative works. For instance, motif in music is regarded as a short series of notes that repeats throughout  song or track. Whereas, motif in art is regarded as a pattern or design that is repeated in different parts of an artwork, or in different works made by the same artist.

Hence, to have some clarification as to the usage and significance of motif in literature, there's a  need to clearly differentiate it from the others.

In such respect, this article comprises comprehensive information on motif in literature, within each concise section. Each section of the article contains the following:

  • Definition Of Motif In Literature
  • Difference Between Motif In Literature and Symbolism
  • Is A Motif A Type Of Theme?
  • Types of Motif In Literature 
  • Motif Examples In Literature
  • Importance Of Motif In Literature
  • Common Motifs In Literature
  • The Similarities Between Motif in Literature and Motifs in Art, Music and Dance
  • Motif In Music
  • Types of Motif In Music 
  • Motif In Art

Motif Definition (Literature)

What is a motif in literature

What Is A Motif in Literature?— A motif in literature is a recurrent idea, object or image that appears in a work of literature. In other words, motif in literature is a symbolic idea, image or object that strengthens and contribute to the story due to its recurrence or emphasis.

Motifs have symbolic significance that contribute to the overall theme of the work, and this is done through its recurring features or repeated images and languages. In a work of literature, a motif can be a collection of symbols, sounds, actions, ideas or words that helps to develop the central themes of the book or play.

The word "motif" is derived from the French word, motif, which means pattern.

Difference Between Motif In Literature and Symbol

It is quite easy to confuse a motif with symbolism in a piece of work, however, there's clear difference between both.

Motif as stated earlier na recurring idea, image or object throughout a work in order to reinforce a more deeper central meaning. Hence, while reading through a work, we often encounter them and through their repetitive features, they help us to have a grasp or understand the central idea of the story.

Symbolism on the other hand, refers to an image, idea or word that is used to represent something else. For instance, heart is symbolic or used to represent love. Aside this distinct feature, unlike motif, symbol is not repetitive  It is usually seen just once or twice.

If you’re reading a book for the first time, you might not have a clear idea of the theme until halfway or later in the story. But if you notice and pay attention to motifs, they can serve as major hints to the story’s central message.

Is A Motif A Type Of Theme?

A motif is not a type of theme. Contrary to the supposition, motif merely reinforces the theme of the story. In such light, it can serve as a guide to identifying the theme of a story.

Thus, motifs can help the reader to discover, support or reinforce the theme, as well as evoking significant moments in the story in order to remind the readers of the connection between the scenes.

Types Of Motifs In Literature 

Motifs in literature are of different types and can take any form depending on the author's creativity. The following are the types of motifs in literature:

1. Symbolic Motifs: These are the type of motif that usually take the form of symbols that represent a larger idea or theme.

2. Conceptual Motifs: Unlike symbolic motifs, conceptual motifs are built around a particular concept or idea that recurs in the story.

3. Structural Motifs: These motifs are repeated patterns or structures in the story.

How To Identify Motifs

  1. Find repeated themes and symbols
  2. Understand and consider the purpose of the motif as used by the author 

Motif Examples In Literature

Below are some of the motif in literature examples that are found in a work of literature.

Some of the examples of motif in literature are The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Arthur Miller's play, Death of a Salesman where motif was created through the use of imagery, structural development and other element n literature such as language. For instance, in Death of a salesman, the flute was used to convey rural and idyllic notions.

Another work of literature where motif was used are Shakespeare's Macbeth, where the repetitive of the words, "fair is foul and foul is fair" is used to narrate the mixed concept of good and evil. Others are Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

Importance Of Motif In Literature

  • They help writers organize symbols, plot developments, and imagery into broader patterns that emphasize the main themes of the work.
  • They give a work a sense of structure and continuity by creating patterns that recur throughout the work.
  • They can help writers weave together different and seemingly unrelated parts of a narrative.
  • They enable writers to subtly restate or remind the reader of certain ideas throughout a text using vivid and often memorable imagery.
  • They create depth and cohesion.

Common Motifs In Literature

There are some common motifs in literature. In this section, we will be sharing some examples of motifs in books. They are:

1. Lord of the Flies by William Golding: The conch shell is a motif that represents order and communication between the boys on the island. 

2. Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk: The line ''I know this because Tyler knows this'' is a repeating motif throughout the novel. Its meaning becomes clear near the end of the book: it represented the figment of the narrator's imagination.

3. The Yellow Brick Road is a literary motif in The Wizard of Oz

Is A Motif In Literature Different To Other Motifs?

Motif in literature share some similarities with other motifs. Basically, we have motifs in literature, dance, music and art. 

The similar characteristics of the different form of motifs is the repetition and recurrence.

Motif In Music

Motif in music

Motif in music is a small collection of notes that captures the essence or main idea of a piece. It can also be defined as the short musical idea that often occurs in a piece of music, however shorter than a phrase.

Motif in music can also be referred to as a piece of melody.

Furthermore, motif in music is the significant part of a song that ties the piece together and allows to create or build emphasis in parts of the song. Just like motif in literature, motif in music also adopts the feature of repetition that gradually embeds itself into the mind of the listener as the song continues.

It can, however, be slower, faster, or an entirely different key, and the motif returns. Thus, the motif in music can be altered through the changing of the rhythms, their order or melody, or the change of all of them.

The purpose of the motif in music is to build emphasis or establish a key theme in the song.

Lastly, motif in music can be composed, like in an opera or a symphony, or they can be improvised.


Types of Motif in Music 

1. Harmonic Motif: This is a series of chords in the abstract. However, this is without reference to melody or rhythm.

2. Melodic Motif: This is a music motif that is established without reference to intervals.

3. Rhythmic Motif: This is a music motif designating a characteristic rhythmic formula, an abstraction drawn from the rhythmic values of a melody.

4. Leitmotif: This is a situation whereby the motif is thematically linked with a person, place or idea.

5. Head-Motif: This is a type of music motif with a musical idea at the opening of a set of movements which serves to unite those movements.

Technically, any motif can be used to construct complete melodies, themes and pieces.

Motif Definition In Art

Motif in art

Motif in art is the integration of visual elements like colour, light, and shadow. However, it goes beyond the elements alone, as motif in art should also encapsulate the focal point that captivates the artist and ignites enthusiasm for its portrayal.

In other words, a motif in art can also refer to the subject of the artwork. Thus, the phrase ‘to paint from the motif’ arose in the context of impressionism, meaning to paint on the spot.

An example of a motif in art is the Victor Pasmore Square Motif, Blue and Gold: The Eclipse (1950)


Motifs in literature, as earlier mentioned, share major characteristics with other motifs in art, music, and dance. They all place emphasis on themes through the use of repetition and recurrence. 

The article will definitely provide you with the relevant information you need to know about motif in general, along with examples.





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Pawners Paper: Motif In Literature | Definition, Types, Examples, How to Identify Motif, Importance
Motif In Literature | Definition, Types, Examples, How to Identify Motif, Importance
What Is A Motif in Literature — motif in literature is a recurrent idea, object or image that appears in a work of literature. Motif in music and art
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