Motif, symbol, and theme: Do you know the difference between these three literary terms? Because of the interdependence of these devices, people often use them interchangeably—and incorrectly. It’s usually easy to understand what a symbol is: an image that represents a larger, more abstract idea, the way a flag represents a country or a dove represents peace. Theme isn’t terribly difficult to understand, either; the theme is “big idea” of the story or the life experience the author is trying to convey to the reader. Friendship, love, loss, revenge, and mercy are just a few of a long list of possible literary themes.
So, how does motif fit in? Here’s where students (and adults) become confused. A motif is a meaningful pattern of symbols, character types, actions, or events that reinforce the theme. A motif is not the theme, but it paints a picture of the theme for the reader to discover. A symbol by itself is not a motif—however, if the symbol repeats throughout the work, it may be a motif.
Still confused? Consider this: a symbol is an image representing a larger idea, and can become a motif if repeated throughout a work. A motif includes anything that is repeated in a novel to reinforce the main idea of the piece, and a theme is the life lesson or the point of the story.
Motif can be a challenging concept. But with a little study, the differences between motif, symbol, and theme become more clear. Here are five common examples of motif in literature.
If audiences see a new character wearing black clothes, enter the scene from the shadows, or travel under the cover of night, chances are there’s trouble brewing. Color is one of the strongest motifs in literature, and colors often represent the same emotions or themes across genres. Even the youngest audiences recognize that white represents purity or goodness, black is evil or deceit, red is passion or anger, and so forth. Although there are certainly exceptions, color remains a consistent motif and curriculum writers would do well to point students to these recurring motifs.
In literature, nothing good ever happens on a “dark and stormy night.” Weather is a strong motif in literature in part because it has real-world applications; rather than people assigning an abstract meaning to natural events, we can observe the real changes weather creates and we connect these changes to corresponding events in literature. For example, in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, thunder and lightning accompany the witches, rain and storms serve as the backdrop for murders, and fog rolls over Scotland as Macbeth begins his quest for the throne. In The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gatsby and Daisy have an uncomfortable, gloomy reunion in the pouring rain, Gatsby and Tom have an angry confrontation on the hottest day of the year, and Gatsby dies on the first day of fall. Curriculum writers can develop activities for students to study the different weather motifs in literature and maybe even come up with their own examples of weather motifs in works from outside the classroom.
What’s behind that locked door or gate—a secret garden, an insane wife, a three-headed dog? Keys as motif pop up in many well-known works of literature. They can represent protection, secrets, or growth, but what other else can a key do? Curriculum writers can use key motifs to encourage students to think about how new information can change a character for better or worse.
A quest is more than a bit of travel; it’s a journey to find or save something, filled with difficult and dangerous adventures along the way. When an author frequently mentions the many challenges the protagonist must overcome, the reader is experiencing a lesson on personal growth, redemption, or other themes the author wishes to explore. Dorothy comes back from Oz with a greater love for Kansas and understanding of her own capabilities, Bilbo Baggins returns to the Shire a wealthy and wise hobbit, and Jesse learns to overcome tragedy as he travels to and from Terabithia. Travel and journeys almost always point to the growth of a character, but curriculum writers can encourage students to dig deeper into the literature to discover nuanced ways authors show how the characters have changed during their travels.
So many heroes and villains alike are deeply influenced by being abandoned at some point in their stories, often as babies or children. Being left alone forces a character to make choices without the encouragement or support of anyone else, and when characters experience abandonment repeatedly in a story, the author may be building a commentary on loyalty, self-worth, or resilience. Recurring abandonment by men in Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie—first by the family patriarch, then by the “gentleman caller” Jim, and finally by the narrator, Tom—causes both women to retreat further from reality. Abandonment is often unpleasant, of course, and curriculum writers should exercise sensitivity, as abandonment could be an issue students are struggling with in their own lives. Solid curriculum writing addresses the ways characters, and thus students, can grow capable and compassionate in these circumstances.
These are just a few common examples of motif in literature. What are some other common—and unique—examples?
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