What is a Motif? Definition, Examples of Motifs in Literature

Motif definition: A motif is an idea, object, or concept that repeats itself throughout a text.

What Does Motif Mean?

What are motifs? A motif is a literary term that is an idea, object, or concept that repeats itself throughout a text. A motif gives clues to theme or reinforces ideas an author wants to emphasize.

A motif generally reinforces the theme of the text.

A motif must be repeated throughout a text to be considered a motif. However, the motif may appear in various forms.

Motif Examples:

examples of motifs definitionFor example, “death” could be a motif in a literary work. An author would not necessarily have to use the word “death” to express the motif. He might write “funeral,” “grave,” “dead,” and so on. Furthermore, he could depict death-like images to add to the motif.

All of the language and imagery would contribute to the motif. The motif itself would contribute to the author’s theme.

Motif vs. Symbol: What’s the Difference?

definition motif literary termA motif is a recurring idea or concept throughout a text.

A symbol is an object that represents something it is not. A common example is that a heart is a symbol for love.

A writer may use a symbol to reinforce motif.

Let’s look at an example continuing with the “death” motif from above.

A writer may place a coffin in a scene of the text. The coffin itself is a symbol for death. It is an object that represents death. The symbol of the coffin would add to the “death” motif.

Symbols may contribute to a motif. The motif reinforces theme.

Motif vs. Theme: What’s the Difference?

A motif recurs throughout a text and is the foundation for developing the author’s theme.

A theme is a message the author intends to communicate with his text. A reader will use clues throughout the text to gather this message. A motif can be one of those clues.

Theme is a message that the audience must infer after reading. A motif uses objects and ideas throughout the text to contribute to that message, the theme.

The Function of a Motif

literary motif exampleA motif offers subtle or overt clues to the author’s message.

An author will lace a motif throughout his work in order to reinforce his theme.

Not all literary works contain motifs. However, an author may choose to include a motif in order to create a particular mood that clues the audience to the theme.

Examples of Motif in Literature

define motif in literatureWhat is a motif in literature? William Shakespeare frequently uses motifs in his plays to express and reinforce theme.

Example of Motif in Literature:

A motif in Romeo and Juliet is “light and dark.” Some examples include:

  • Throughout the play, Romeo refers to Juliet as a powerful light source.
  • The night (moon) is no match for Juliet’s beauty.
  • Juliet, too, says Romeo lights her.
  • The lovers are “stars” that light the dark sky.
  • Their love is discussed as a flash of lightning.

The ideas and concepts regarding light and dark repeated above contribute to the motif throughout the play.

The motif of “light and dark” itself contributes to the theme of the play.

Shakespeare exposes dichotomies, such as light and dark, in the play in order to emphasize that Romeo and Juliet’s love was doomed from the beginning. The contrast of light and dark only furthers the idea that they, together, cannon sustain, as light and dark cannot coexist—one always cancels out the other.

Summary: What is Motif?

Define motif: the definition of motif an idea, object, or concept that is repeated throughout a story. Here are a few key elements to motif in literature,

  • recurring idea or concept in a literary work
  • source of insight for the author’s theme
  • a tool that may use symbols or create mood