What Is the Role of Motif in Literature?

Alan Rankin

Motif in literature is an object, concept, or element that deliberately reappears numerous times throughout a work or series of works. It is related to similar concepts, also named motif, in art, music, and design. The role of motif in literature is to suggest a mood, theme, or even a moral. While some motifs may be obvious to the audience, others may be subtler or even suggested by members of the audience itself. Common motifs include weather, often used to symbolize emotional states, and mirrors or reflections, which can suggest a dual personality or inner conflict.

Motifs can strengthen a story's overall themes.
Motifs can strengthen a story's overall themes.

Motif is a French word meaning pattern or design. Like some other French literary terms, such as avant garde, it was transferred to English with its spelling and meaning mostly intact. In art and graphic design, it refers to a repeating image, such as a floral design on wallpaper. In music, it is a passage that recurs several times in the same musical composition. Motif in literature metaphorically borrows its meaning from these other artistic uses.

Death can be a recurring motif in certain forms of literature.
Death can be a recurring motif in certain forms of literature.

Motifs may occur in a wide range of works by diverse authors in a particular genre of literature. For example, the mentor who provides a hero with the knowledge or weapons needed to complete a quest is a common motif in literature, particularly adventure stories. A single work may also contain a motif that appears multiple times. In Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, to name one example, characters are constantly being taken captive and finding means of escape. What Twain intended by the use of this motif is a subject for critical discussion; a comment on slavery and freedom is one possible interpretation.

Passion is a common motif in romance literature.
Passion is a common motif in romance literature.

Much literary criticism and academic writing, in fact, is concerned with the role of motif in literature and film. Authors of university dissertations and other scholarly papers will examine novels or movies in minute detail, searching for evidence of hidden motifs. Sometimes these supposed motifs come as a surprise to the artists themselves. Other creators, however, take great pains to incorporate motifs into their work. The director Stanley Kubrick placed mirrors in strategic locations throughout his 1980 horror classic The Shining, a subtle motif that is not apparent on the first viewing of the film.

Authors of scholarly papers will often examine novels in minute detail, searching for evidence of hidden motifs.
Authors of scholarly papers will often examine novels in minute detail, searching for evidence of hidden motifs.

There are numerous other examples of the motif in literature and other narrative arts such as film. The motif of the orphaned hero has appeared in popular literature throughout history, from Cinderella to Superman to Harry Potter. Insanity, or the appearance of it, is a recurring motif in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The writer Harlan Ellison has many motifs that appear throughout his stories, such as sinister godlike beings and morally difficult choices. The film Back to the Future employs the motif of time, as characters are always running late or looking at clocks or calendars.

"Hamlet" employs the motif of insanity, or at least the appearance of insanity.
"Hamlet" employs the motif of insanity, or at least the appearance of insanity.
Several motifs may be intertwined within a single novel.
Several motifs may be intertwined within a single novel.

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