What is a motif? You might already be familiar with the concept, even if you don’t know it. Every time you hear the orchestra swell with “The Force Theme” from Star Wars, you’re hearing a motif. The recurrence of a specific theme or symbol throughout a piece of entertainment helps reinforce its structure and hints at what the central work is trying to say.

But what about motifs in poetry and literature? What do those look like? Without a musical score to underpin the motif, how can we spot them? And when we do spot them, what do those motifs tell us about the author’s intent? Let’s dive deeper into one of the most critical concepts in creativity: the motif.

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What Is a Motif? A Basic Motif Definition

In poetry and literature, a motif is a recurring image or theme that appears throughout the work to reinforce a deeper central meaning.

The recurrence is what distinguishes a motif from other literary devices. If the author keeps referring to an image—no matter how insignificant it may seem to the plot—there’s a good chance you’re looking at a hidden meaning behind the author’s intent.

Consider Ernest Hemingway’s short story, Hills Like White Elephants. As two main characters wait for a train at a station, they talk about what seem to be innocuous topics. The weather. What they’ll drink. How the hills near their location in Spain look like white elephants.

But because Hemingway was concerned with planting the deeper meaning in his stories far below the surface—similar to how most of an iceberg is beneath the waterline—the reader has to look more closely. What do the symbols and motifs say about its central themes?

The two characters are, in fact, dancing around a subject. Repeatedly returning to the imagery of hills that look like white elephants lays a trail of breadcrumbs that suggests all sorts of things about Hemingway’s characters.

By titling his short story after one of these conversational diversions—the hills—Hemingway employs a motif that forces us to look deeper. What are these characters implying? What are they really saying?

Let’s look at some famous motif examples to help explain how this process works.

The Great Gatsby and the Green Light

In The Great Gatsby, narrator Nick Carraway sometimes notices Gatsby gazing longingly at a distant green light on a dock across the bay. The green light turns out to be the light at the end of the dock of Daisy Buchanan, Gatsby’s love interest. 

But there’s more here. At the end of the book, author F. Scott Fitzgerald returns to the motif:

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . 

Clearly, the “green light” is no longer just a green light. Its recurrence in Gatsby’s life suggests deeper symbolism. To Gatsby—and the audience—the green light was the bright hope of the roaring ’20s, his imagined future with a woman he couldn’t have, the false light of the life he couldn’t fake. 

But that’s just my interpretation. The beauty of the motif is that Fitzgerald ends on these brief lines about the green light, forcing the reader to reflect on the meaning of the entire story. 

The Cinderella Motif

Not every motif needs to be wholly original. Some stories play upon classic motifs—repeated themes that have occurred in art for centuries. This is similar to the idea of an archetype: a common theme or character playing out in literature.

One of the most famous of these motifs is the Cinderella motif. The idea is simple: Someone down on their fortunes is plucked from obscurity and given the chance to prove they belong at the heights of society.

It’s the central motif of Rocky, when Rocky Balboa wants to prove only that he can “go the distance” with the greatest fighter in the world. It’s the central theme in The Princess Diaries. Heck, even John Goodman in King Ralph lives out the classic Cinderella story.

Light and Darkness

Let’s zoom out even more. What if a recurring motif isn’t a story shape, but a common theme to which authors constantly return?

Symbolism like light and darkness has served as a motif throughout the centuries. To Romeo, for example, Juliet is “the sun”—a stellar object bringing warmth and light. The motif is clear. Or consider Leonardo Da Vinci’s painting of St. John the Baptist, a painting in which the saint is the sole source of light. This uses the medium of oil paint to visually represent St. John as the “voice crying out in the wilderness.”

The “journey” and how it changes us is another common motif. Take Gulliver’s Travels, for example, or the ancient story of Odysseus. Keep looking, and you’ll start to recognize motifs everywhere. And that’s not a bad thing.

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Examples of Motif in Poetry

The use of stylized language in poetry makes it the most musical version of writing. This makes poetry a natural place to express a motif. Let’s look at some classic examples:

The Wasteland by T.S. Eliot

April is the cruellest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain.

So begins T.S. Eliot’s famous poem The Wasteland. Note where the passage ends: on the image of spring rain. Water and rebirth are common motifs throughout the poem, as Eliot goes on to write:

Here is no water but only rock

Rock and no water and the sandy road

The road winding above among the mountains

Which are mountains of rock without water

Water, water, water—or its absence—is such a common poetic motif the reader is forced to wonder. What does it mean, and how does the changing use of water throughout the poem deepen Eliot’s meaning?

How Do I Love Thee? by Elizabeth Barret Browning

It may be the most famous romantic poem of all time:

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

I love thee to the depth and breadth and height

My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight

Browning paints love with religious fervor, using motifs like soul, faith, lost saints, and finally ending with: “If God choose, I shall but love thee better after death.” 

To the speaker, love is not merely a grocery list for counting. The recurring motif suggests a passion that is soul-deep, as fervent as a believer’s faith in God.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Water, water, every where,

And all the boards did shrink;

Water, water, every where,

Nor any drop to drink.

Water is something every human being has to be familiar with if they want to survive. For Samuel Taylor Coleridge in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, water also takes on ironic significance. The main character is surrounded by water—but this time, it’s the salty water and its isolation that represent the threat. Other images, like those of “water-snakes,” help Coleridge’s motif of water as a poisoned thing.

Caged Bird by Maya Angelou

The caged bird sings   

with a fearful trill   

of things unknown   

but longed for still   

and his tune is heard   

on the distant hill   

for the caged bird   

sings of freedom.

This section of Caged Bird by Maya Angelou appears not once, but twice, with different verses in between. By contrasting the symbol of a caged bird against the image of a free bird in the verses, Angelou returns to a motif more familiar to humans than to birds: singing of freedom.

In doing so, Angelou uses both metaphor and motif to speak about the plight of oppression: of women, of minorities, of anyone who has been downtrodden or caged. From what we know, birds don’t sing of freedom, but we know of one species that understands freedom and yearns for it.

Examples of Motifs in Literature

Ducks in The Catcher in the Rye

J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye filters through the cynical voice of its protagonist, Holden Caulfield, forcing Salinger’s own meaning to come through in motifs. One of the most famous is the use of ducks.

Caulfield is an outsider, so it’s natural that he gravitates to the ducks of Central Park, even when he’s speaking to others. He’s fascinated by how ducks have to migrate during the winter, and what that says about surviving troubling circumstances. 

Alone, it might be more like symbolism than motif. But Caulfield’s enduring obsession with the ducks hints at a greater theme. You and I might not think ducks are so fascinating, yet Caulfield’s morbid fascination is a motif that expresses both character and theme.

The Congo River in Heart of Darkness

On the surface, Marlow’s travels up the Congo River in Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness is simply a plot device. Marlow is trying to get to Kurtz, and the only way to Kurtz is through the river. But Conrad also turns the river into a motif of exploration, of confronting the inner world. 

How do we know it’s a motif? Marlow’s changing relationship with the river hints at this deeper meaning. At first, the image of the river on a map fascinates Marlow. Later, when his boat sinks into the river and he has to spend time repairing it, the river frustrates him. It’s only when the fog on the river lifts—a symbol in itself—that Marlow finally discovers Kurtz. 

Motif vs. Theme: What’s the Difference?

The theme of a work of literature can also be an element that is repeated throughout the story. So what separates a theme from a motif? Think of the theme as the author’s intent, while the motif is the literal technique through which the author expresses this deeper meaning.

For example, Heart of Darkness has a clear theme of the exploration of the dark, inner parts of the soul. Yet the motif of the river serves as a symbolic technique for expressing Marlow’s changing perception of his journey of self-discovery.

In some cases, you can use motif and theme interchangeably. You’ll find modern movie scores are full of motifs that composers call themes, and vice versa. We recognize the famous scores from Indiana Jones or Back to the Future and instantly recall images of thrilling adventure. When Yoda shows up in The Empire Strikes Back, a new motif called “Yoda’s Theme” begins to play.

This goes back to the concept of leitmotif in opera: A small musical theme typically accompanying a symbol or specific character. It’s a practice still alive and well in music scores. As such, in the non-academic world, you probably won’t be punished for confusing motifs with themes.

Motif vs. Symbol: How to Tell the Two Apart

Let’s say you write some symbolism into your story. You give your main character, a child, a doll that symbolizes her youthful innocence. How does this symbol transform from a mere one-time technique to a motif?

It’s simple: repetition. If your character sometimes returns to that doll and views it in different ways, it can represent a motif that reflects your character’s changing personality. Maybe by the end of the story, your character has grown up and sells the doll she once cherished. The doll is a symbol, sure, but now you’ve constructed a full motif throughout the story.

Like the river in Heart of Darkness, a motif can change with your character. In fact, you can use a motif to hint at these changes. While the Congo River first fascinated Marlow, he’s later frustrated with it. Consider the symbols you use in your own work. Are they static? Then they’re probably just symbols. But if they ebb and flow and return as a theme, there’s a chance you’ve got a full-blown motif on your hands. It’s the repeating of this symbol, or theme, that weaves the motif into your story.

Add Depth to Your Story with Literary Motifs or Poetic Motif

Constructing your motif can be some of the most important work you do as a writer. It’s the motif that will guide your reader through the hidden depths of your work. Once they circle through your plot, they have to ask themselves about your deeper intended meanings. Without a motif, they’re left with little to go on.

Drop in a hint, however, and that will change. It’s these hidden depths that make your work more interesting—like putting together pieces in a puzzle.

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Written by:

Dan Kenitz