Have you ever been reading a story, only to be struck with déjà vu? Perhaps you noticed that roses had just been mentioned for the tenth time. Or daffodils. Or the colour purple.
Perhaps you found yourself wondering, ‘Why on earth is this author so obsessed with pineapples?’ But what is it you are really noticing? What are these recurring symbols and images?
It may seem like you’ve discovered a strange fetish of the writer, but what you have more likely stumbled upon are motifs.
Just like any other literary device, writers can use motifs to add depth, convey meaning, and/or shape the way a reader receives, responds to, or understands a text.
However, before using any literary techniques, you should first make sure you are familiar with how it works. So, here are the things you may need to know about ‘motif’, before using it in stories of your own.
What is a ‘Motif’?
In literature, a motif can be defined as any recurring image, object, idea, or element within a particular work. However, this definition is not entirely complete.
After all, a motif should never be meaningless. In fact, a motif should contribute some form of symbolic significance to the story.
For instance, a motif may be used to establish mood (here's a mood definition for literature) and atmosphere, or to reinforce/further explore the overriding themes of a story.
Motif vs. Symbol
As motifs are often symbolic in nature, they can often be mistakenly identified as mere symbols.
However, it is important to remember that these two literary devices are not one and the same.
So what is the difference between the two?
The key difference to note between motifs and symbols is the element of repetition.
As we’ve already established, a motif is an item that reoccurs throughout a text. In contrast, a symbol may only appear once.
Beyond this, a motif often contributes toward developing the themes of a text, whereas a symbol’s significance may be limited to the particular scene.
In this way, a motif may be a symbol, but a symbol is not necessarily a motif.
Motif vs. Theme
Another element ‘motif’ can often be mistaken for is ‘theme’.
This is no doubt due to the fact that motif and theme are so closely connected.
While a theme can be defined as a key or central idea explored throughout a text, a motif is more a means of embellishing, examining, or reinforcing these central ideas.
For instance, a text may examine themes of good versus evil through the repeated images, or ‘motifs’, of light and dark.
Examples of Motif from a Literary Master
The best way to understand any literary device is to study examples of them in action.
To better understand ‘motif’ and its relationship with ‘symbol’ and ‘theme’, let’s turn to a literary master, Mr. Edgar Allan Poe.
The Fall of the House of Usher is rich with examples of motif.
For example, the idea of certain things passing from one state to another is constantly repeated throughout the story.
The word “pass” or “passed”, for instance, can be found on no less than seven occasions. On top of this, the very name ‘Usher’ (as in Roderick Usher) is associated with someone who directs us from one place to another. In this way, we can see a motif emerging, relating to the idea of transition.
This motif is also contributing to an overlaying theme – a theme of crossing, or transcending boundaries (particularly those between life and death).
Madeline Usher, for example, is portrayed as crossing the boundary between life and death, when she emerges, alive, from her tomb.
This theme is further enforced by the motif of decay.
From the description of the partially “crumbling” house, and the “decayed trees”, to the description of Roderick Usher, possessing a “cadaverousness of complexion”, the notion of death and decay is clearly repeated throughout.
As the very process of decay is itself a transitional state – one from pristine to ruin, we can see how this motif works to symbolise and reinforce the overall theme of crossing the boundary between life and death.
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So now you know more about motif, try identifying some of your own. The next time you read a novel, take note of the images and elements that reoccur. See how they are used, and what they symbolise. Then get writing, and practice using motifs of your own.
Or, learn more about literary techniques here.