What is a Motif? Definition & Examples

Learn more about motifs in literature

Literature, in its nuanced tapestry of words, often conceals deeper meanings and connections through the subtle repetition of symbols, themes, and characters – elements known as motifs. In this article, we’ll explore the significance of motifs in literature, unraveling the complex aspects they can add to a storyline.

Motifs serve as the unsung heroes, elevating the depth and meaning of literary works and guiding readers through a journey beyond the surface narrative. Understanding the essence of motifs enriches our appreciation for writers’ artistry and ability to convey profound messages.

Motif Definition

At its core, a motif in literature is a recurring element that holds symbolic significance, contributing to the overall thematic fabric of a work. These elements may manifest in various forms, such as symbols, themes, or characters, and play a pivotal role in shaping the narrative’s meaning.

Motifs are the silent architects of storytelling, influencing the plot’s direction and infusing layers of meaning into the text. By examining the recurrence of specific motifs, readers can unlock hidden messages and gain a deeper understanding of the author’s intended themes.

3 Types of Motifs in Literature

Recurring Symbolic Motifs

Symbols, when strategically repeated, transcend mere representation, becoming motifs that weave a narrative thread throughout a literary work. A symbol’s recurrence is not accidental; instead, it acts as a guiding light, steering readers toward crucial aspects of the story.

Our Editor’s Take

I was first introduced to motifs in my 12th grade AP Literature class. We were reading Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, and the symbol of flight throughout the book is representative of the main character making decisions that lead to freedom, be in from oppression or relationships. – R. R. Noall

Thematic Motifs

Themes serve as the backbone of a story, and when they manifest as motifs, they become the heartbeat that resonates throughout the narrative. Thematic motifs revolve around specific ideas or concepts, reinforcing the story’s central message.

Character Motifs

Characters, as vessels of the author’s imagination, often carry their own motifs. These motifs may manifest in repeated actions, personality traits, or significant events associated with a character. Exploring character motifs provides insights into the character’s evolution and the author’s intentional choices.

Learn More: Character Development Tips

Motif Examples

Symbolic Motifs in “The Great Gatsby”

Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, “The Great Gatsby,” employs many symbolic motifs to convey the decadence and disillusionment of the Jazz Age. The green light, the Valley of Ashes, and the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg recur throughout the novel, each carrying its own symbolic weight. These motifs collectively contribute to exploring the American Dream’s corruption and the ephemeral nature of success.

Our Editor’s Take

Since high school, I have loved the motifs in the Great Gatsby. I love them so much that I have a tattoo of the “green light.” From a literary perspective, I especially love the East Egg vs West Egg dynamic, how the East area represents old money, and the West area new wealth. – R. R. Noall

Thematic Motifs in “To Kill a Mockingbird”

In Harper Lee’s classic, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the thematic motif of justice reverberates through the narrative. The unjust trial of Tom Robinson, Atticus Finch’s unwavering commitment to morality, and the innocence of Boo Radley all contribute to the overarching theme of justice. This motif invites readers to reflect on societal norms and question the fairness of the legal system.

Character Motifs in “Lord of the Rings” Series

Tolkien’s epic fantasy unfolds with rich character motifs, one of the most notable being Frodo Baggins’ resilience and determination. From the Shire to the fiery depths of Mount Doom, Frodo’s unwavering spirit becomes a guiding motif, symbolizing the indomitable human spirit in the face of overwhelming challenges.

How to Identify Motifs When Reading

Recognizing motifs requires a keen eye for patterns and repetitions. Paying attention to recurring symbols, themes, and character traits provides a roadmap to understanding the deeper layers of a literary work. Analyzing the significance of these repetitions unveils the author’s intent and allows readers to engage with the text on a more profound level.

Motif FAQs

Are motifs the same as themes?

While motifs and themes are related, they differ in scope. Themes encompass broader concepts that convey the overarching message of a work, while motifs are specific elements, such as symbols or characters, that repeat throughout the narrative, contributing to the development of those themes.

Can motifs change in meaning throughout a story?

Yes, the meaning of motifs can evolve as the narrative unfolds. A motif introduced early in a story may take on different connotations or significance as the plot develops, offering readers a dynamic and evolving experience.

How are motifs different from symbols?

Motifs and symbols share a close relationship, but motifs are broader in scope. A motif encompasses any recurring element, including symbols, themes, and characters, while symbols specifically represent abstract ideas within the narrative.

What is a motif in music?

Just as literature employs motifs to convey meaning, music harnesses this concept to create emotional and thematic resonance. In music, a motif is a recurring rhythmic, melodic, or harmonic element that carries significant meaning. Like literary motifs, musical motifs contribute to the composition’s overall structure and convey deeper emotions or themes.


In the vast literature landscape, motifs serve as invisible architects, constructing narratives with layers of meaning and depth. From symbolic motifs guiding us through the decadence of the Jazz Age to character motifs embodying the spirit of heroism in fantastical realms, understanding and appreciating motifs enriches our literary experience.

As readers, let us journey through the complex web of motifs, exploring the hidden messages and nuanced storytelling techniques that authors employ.

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