Motif in Literature: Definition and Examples

Motif in Literature

Any subject or concept, no matter how common or taken for granted, can be considered a motif when it appears in some notable way in literature. A motif in literature is often symbolic and helps to develop an overall theme within the work of literature. It may also appear throughout the story on different levels, thus tying together separate aspects of the literary piece. Some examples include iron in “Hedda Gabler,” water in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” rainbows in “The Lord of the Rings,” and light in “Young Goodman Brown.” When analyzing a literary work, identifying its central motif is key to understanding both the text itself and the author’s intended message(s).

What is a Motif in Literature?

A motif is an object, character, or idea which appears multiple times within a piece of literature. Motifs are often simple objects that symbolize major themes in the work they appear in, and recurring motifs help connect different parts of a story together. Some common motifs include repetition of colors, repetition of elements like water or fire, overused phrases used by particular characters, alliteration, food metaphors, contrasts between rich and poor characters, and more.

What is a Motif in Romeo and Juliet?

One of the most significant motifs in Romeo and Juliet is light vs. dark. This motif is explored in many different ways, including the setting (Verona is very sunny, while Mantua is dark and dreary), the characters’ appearances (Juliet is often described as fair, while Romeo is swarthy), their thoughts and feelings (Romeo is often tormented by the idea of being consumed by darkness, while Juliet feels safe in the light), and more.

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What is a Motif in Harry Potter?

One of the most prominent motifs in the Harry Potter series is that of choice. This is embodied in many different ways, including the choices made by the characters themselves, the choices made by those in power, and the choices available to those who are powerless. Another common motif in Harry Potter is that of light vs. dark, which is similar to the Romeo and Juliet example given earlier. In this case, light often represents good while dark represents evil.

What is a Motif in The Catcher in the Rye?

One of the most significant motifs in The Catcher in the Rye is that of innocence. Holden Caulfield is obsessed with preserving innocence both in himself and in others, and this theme is explored throughout the book. Another important motif within The Catcher in the Rye is that of death, which is generally seen as representing innocence lost.

How to Identify a Motif in Literature?

These are a few tips for identifying motifs in literature:

• Look for recurring images, symbols, colors, objects, etc.

• Pay attention to how the motif is used and what it might represent.

• See if the motif appears in different contexts or levels within the text.

• Consider why the author might have chosen to use this particular motif.

• Note any themes or messages that the motif might be associated with.

What are the Examples of Motifs?

Below are a few examples of motifs from various pieces of literature:

1. Light vs. Dark in “Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne – This motif is most prevalent in the opening scene when Goodman Brown leaves his wife to go on his errand. He is fearful of leaving her in the dark, but he is also afraid of the evil that may lurk in the light.

2. Water in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge – The water throughout the poem often represents cleansing and life-giving properties, but it can also be seen as a force of destruction.

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3. Birds in “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee – In this novel, birds are used as symbols of innocence and purity. The characters Scout and Jem learn about the ugly truths of the world from watching how people treat the birds.

4. Mirrors in “Hedda Gabler” by Henrik Ibsen – Mirrors are often associated with Hedda’s reflections on herself and her life. They also serve as a way for her to spy on others and manipulate them.

5. Rainbows in “The Lord of the Rings” by J.R.R. Tolkien – In this epic, rainbows often symbolize hope and new beginnings. They are most prominently featured at the end of the story when Frodo completes his quest and returns home.

6. Iron in “Hedda Gabler” by Henrik Ibsen – Iron is often associated with strength and masculinity in this play. It appears prominently in Hedda’s weapons collection and is used as a tool to control others.

7. Music in “The Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger – Music is used throughout the novel as a way for Holden to connect with the world around him. It represents beauty and emotion, and it helps Holden to make sense of the complicated events that take place in his life.

8. Colors in “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” by Lewis Carroll – The bright colors throughout the text are intended to represent the wonder and whimsy of Alice’s dream world.

9. Monsters in “Beauty and the Beast” by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve – Beauty is often menaced by various monsters, but she finds protection in the Beast’s castle. The monsters are usually defeated, and this is represented as Beauty’s victory over her own fears.

10. Gold in “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho – This story uses gold as a way to symbolize greed and materialism. It appears throughout the text as a temptation for both Santiago and the alchemist.

11. Waves in “Deliverance” by James Dickey – In this novel, waves often symbolize unpredictable and uncontrollable danger. They represent a threat to the men on their journey and can even be seen as a representation of death throughout the text.

12. Shadows in “Macbeth” by William Shakespeare – The shadows in this play are representative of Macbeth’s dark desires and destructive plans. They appear in unique forms throughout the text, most notably when they take on humanoid shapes when he is plotting his final murders.

13. Blood in “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe – In this story, blood is used as a sign of guilt or innocence. The narrator reacts violently to the sound of the beating heart and sees blood on his hand after he disposes of the body.

14. Flowers in “The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins – Flowers appear throughout this story as a sign of beauty and life. They represent what is growing underneath the surface of Panem, but they also serve as a motif for Katniss’s own blossoming feelings for Peeta and Gale.

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15. Snow White in “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” by Jacob Grimm – In this story, Snow White often represents innocence and purity. The dwarves’ dwarfish forms can be seen as a representation of their true selves or souls which are hidden from society’s judgment gaze while Snow White herself remains uncorrupted.

16. Glass in “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald – Glass is often associated with the fragile nature of relationships and memories in this novel. It appears prominently in the scene where Gatsby and Daisy first reunite, and it serves as a reminder that their past is no longer accessible to them.

17. Eyes in “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee – Eyes are frequently used as symbols of knowledge and understanding in this novel. Scout comes to understand the world around her through watching others, and she gains a deep understanding of Boo Radley through the eyes of her father.

18. The Moon in “Wuthering Heights” by Emily Bronte – The moon is often used as a symbol of the ethereal and inaccessible in this novel. It appears frequently in the sky, and it represents the unbridled passion of Cathy and Heathcliff.

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When examining a literary work, it is important to look for any recurring images, symbols, colors, objects, etc. that might serve as a motif. Once these motifs are identified, it is then necessary to explore what they might represent and how they are used within the text. Additionally, it is helpful to consider why the author might have chosen to use this particular motif. By understanding these things, readers can come to a deeper understanding of both the text and the author’s intentions.

Final Thoughts

When examining a literary work, it is important to look for any recurring images, symbols, colors, objects, etc. that might serve as a motif. Once these motifs are identified, it is then necessary to explore what they might represent and how they are used within the text. Additionally, it is helpful to consider why the author might have chosen to use this particular motif. By understanding these things, readers can come to a deeper understanding of both the text and the author’s intentions.

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