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Understanding the Meaning of Motif

A motif is a very effective literary device that helps reinforce the theme of a narrative. Using it in your writing can enhance your storytelling technique and make the message more memorable. But understanding exactly what a motif is and differentiating it from other related literary devices can be difficult. So, in this article, we explore the meaning of a motif, distinguishing it from its counterparts and examining some examples from notable works of fiction.

What is a Motif?

A motif is a literary technique where a repeated element has symbolic significance in a fictional narrative. A motif can be an image, a word or phrase, a topic expressed in language, or a situation or action. It can also be a sound or smell, a temperature, even a color. As long as you repeat the component throughout the narrative, and it helps to reinforce the theme, it is a motif.

Difference between motif and other related literary elements

1. Motifs and themes: The concepts of motif and theme may appear similar, and people often use them interchangeably. But they have significant differences worthy of identifying. Themes are the message or meaning you intend to pass across to your readers with every scene and action in your work. While motifs are recurring elements in your narrative that reinforce these themes. For example, your story may repeat the appearance of roses in various scenes: a bouquet of roses, a field of roses, a picture of roses, a rose tattoo, and a character named Roseline. And a theme of this story can be "the beauty of love." The theme is often open for debate and depends on how a reader interprets it. But the pattern of a motif is indisputable. 

2. Motifs and symbols: Motifs may include symbols, but symbols aren't always motifs. Symbols represent something else; a red rose can represent romance, a sword may represent courage, a lion represents bravery, and a sheep may depict gentleness. A motif can be symbolic, just as we see in the example of a rose recurring in a story. The repeated elements can symbolize something, which further points to the deeper meaning of your narrative. But a symbol that occurs once in a work of fiction is not a motif. In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Yorick’s skull — as Hamlet discusses aloud — symbolizes the inevitability of death. But the skull is not a motif because it appears only once in Hamlet.

Examples of motifs in notable literary works

To get more conversant with the nature of motifs, here are two motif examples from notable works of fiction:

Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre (1847). This story uses fire as a motif, which the language, imagery, and vital plot incidents contain. Here, fire describes the characters, appears in setting elements, and causes two destructive events. This fire motif symbolizes powerful emotion; feelings Jane needs for a fulfilled life, but they also have the potential for causing damage. And Jane’s pursuit of finding a balance for these powerful emotions is a crucial arc of her story.

Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859). This epic novel employs duality as a motif. Different settings, characters, and images have replicas or pairs. The story takes place across two cities, and Charles Darnay shares a physical resemblance to Sydney Carton. While Lucie and Madame Defarge are opposites of one another. Even the story begins thus: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness..."

Written by Readers’ Favorite Reviewer Frank Stephen