Today, I will be taking a closer look at what is Motif in a literary setting, and what its purpose. This term came up on several occasions while I was doing further research for my novels Theme, so I decided to see what it was about.
A recurring symbol.
The literary device known as Motif refers to a recurring object or idea, which takes on a figurative meaning. A narrative Motifs’ presence becomes noticeable through their constant repetition and placement, taking on an important role in the nature of a story. It can be created with the use of imagery, spoken or written phrases, structural or stylistic devices, and other narrative elements.
The purpose of Motifs is to contribute to the story by establishing a certain mood, portray a symbolic meaning or draw attention to a specific concept. They can be images, objects, people or events that help explain the central idea of a story. This helps the audience to better comprehend the author's underlying messages, by reinforcing the literary works thematic statement.
The terms Theme and Motif are linked in their purpose, but while they may appear similar, their applications are different. To help distinguish between the two, a general rule to remember is that a Theme is abstract and a Motif is concrete. A Theme can be better defined as a central idea, statement or message which will be hinted at or alluded to during a story. Whereas a Motif is something from the physical world, like an object, person or image, which is in plain sight, taking center stage on several occasions throughout the story. Here are a few simple examples.
Theme: Death Theme: Peace Theme: Pride
Motif: Crow Motif: Dove Motif: Rooster
The concept of Motif is typically pretty clear in a narrative, as we are trained to understand them from a young age. A good example of this would be through the use of fairy tales, where the writer wants you to recognize the Motifs they are using. We have all seen the use of symbolic images such as the “handsome prince”, the “big bad wolf”, the “damsel in distress”, the “wicked witch” or the “fairy godmother”. Narratives may include multiple Motifs of varying types, establishing a pattern and all pointing towards the same conceptual idea.
Popular Examples of Motif in Literature:
Snow White and the seven dwarves.
A major part of the tale of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves revolves around physical appearance, or more specifically, not to judge someone by their appearance. The Dwarves Motif help support this theory by being ugly little men, but despite their strange appearance, were the ones to truly helped Snow White. Whereas the Queen, who was beautiful on the outside, was ugly on the inside, as her heart was filled with envy and hatred.
Wizard of Oz
The Wizard of Oz has many themes, one of which is that of personal and/or emotional growth; or in simpler terms, a journey. This Theme is supported by various Motifs throughout the story, such as four main characters traveling together to to reach a common goal, Dorothy constantly repeating her desired destination (there’s no place like home!), or the most obvious visual cue, a yellow brick road.
The Tortoise and the Hare
“Slow and steady wins the race”. This story is about arrogance, teaching it’s audience to be mindful of their talents and not to underestimate your opponents. The theme is underlined by the choice of characters for this story: the Hare, who represents incredible speed, which in turn makes him careless and arrogant. The Tortoise, though he may represent slow speed, in turn is methodical and has unwavering determination (or some could say, he has a hard shell to show he has a hard head).
This lesson has taught me the value of having a Motif present in ones story. I will definitely be considering adding one to my own novel as I keep working on the details. Once I have nailed down a theme, this will come in handy for helping me accentuate it.
I hope this lesson was useful to you. Until next time!
**edited August 10th, 2016**
**edited August 10th, 2016**