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What Is a Motif?

By G. Wiesen
Updated May 23, 2024
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A motif is typically a particular image, symbol, phrase, or action that recurs throughout a written work in a way that holds together the entire work and provides greater meaning. This idea is rather closely aligned with themes present in a work and motifs often help support or establish those themes. Symbolism is also frequently used in the creation of motifs, especially those that may reference cultural ideas or concepts greater than the scope of the work itself. A motif can take just about any form and once recognized and understood by a reader often lends greater meaning to the work.

There are many different ways in which a writer can introduce and utilize a motif within a particular work, and the best method often depends on the purpose of such motifs. While not intrinsically connected, motifs in a piece of literature often strengthen or establish themes within that work. A story about the corrupting influence of greed, for example, may utilize a theme that money is ultimately a destructive force. To reinforce this theme, a writer might use a motif in which every time a character physically comes in contact with money, he or she experiences misfortune or becomes corrupted in some way.

A motif within a written work often coincides with symbolism, frequently through the use of established or new symbols. This symbolism is often cultural in nature, so a work written in America or the UK may utilize very different symbols with different meanings than one written in South Africa or Japan. In the US, for example, the serpent is often recognized as a symbol for seduction or loss of innocence due to the biblical story of the Garden of Eden. A writer can utilize this symbolism to create a motif within his or her story, by including a character who wears a ring shaped like a serpent, who then seduces and causes the downfall of other characters within a work.

The way in which a motif is used can vary quite a bit, depending on the purposes of a writer. In general, however, motifs should be used repeatedly throughout a work, so readers have an opportunity to recognize them and come to understand their meaning. The use of a motif only a single time may be more appropriately recognized as symbolism rather than an ongoing and recurring symbol. Such motifs should not be overused or made too obvious, however, or readers may feel that these obvious motifs lose all meaning or impact; skilled writers find a way to introduce motifs with both subtlety and purpose.

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