Do you ever notice that some ideas or images keep popping up as you read a book? Most likely, that’s more than just coincidence.
If an image or idea is recurrent throughout a work of literature, it might be a motif trying to tip you off to the bigger picture behind the story.
Definition of Motif
A motif is a recurring idea, object, or image in a literary work. Motifs carry symbolic significance and contribute to the overall theme of the work, often conveyed through repeated imagery or language.
Motif vs. Symbol
It’s easy to confuse motifs with symbols, but they’re not quite the same.
A symbol is an image, idea, or word that represents something else. It helps us to better understand another or thing (for example, hearts are symbolic for love). In literature, a symbol is usually seen just once or twice.
Motifs are in fact quite similar to symbols, but they are recurrent throughout a work. We encounter them time and time again, and they help us to understand the story’s central idea, or theme.
If you’re reading a book for the first time, you might not have a clear idea of the theme until halfway or later in the story. But if you notice and pay attention to motifs, they can serve as major hints to the story’s central message.
Examples of Motif in Literature
Below are several examples of motifs that play significant roles in literary classics.
1. Wealth and Excess in The Great Gatsby
Throughout F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, images of great wealth and excess are prominent. From Gatsby’s lavish parties, to Daisy’s sprawling mansion, and Gatsby’s Rolls Royce, there’s no absence of flash and pizzazz.
However, these images aren’t just here to entertain us or fill us with envy—they contribute to the story’s bigger theme, which is the power of wealth to corrupt.
Tom and Daisy’s thirst for wealth ultimately led them to empty lives. Gatsby, however, was not corrupted by his wealth, because he sought it only to prove his worth (and love) to Daisy.
2. Light and Darkness in Romeo and Juliet
Shakespeare repeatedly uses images of light and darkness throughout Romeo and Juliet to illustrate two things that cannot coexist (much like our doomed lovers).
Romeo claims that Juliet is “the sun” who can “kill the envious moon,” and that she can teach “the torches to burn bright.”
Images of polar opposites—light and darkness—reflect the overall theme, which focuses on their doomed love and the hate between their families that destroyed them.
3. Journeys and Change in Pride and Prejudice
Journeys, however short, lead to important changes in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
For example, Elizabeth’s first journey to visit Charlotte and Mr. Collins leads her to Mr. Darcy. Her second, to Derby and Pemberley, is where she realizes her growing feelings for Darcy. The third and final journey comes when Darcy tracks down Wickham and Lydia, saving the Bennet family’s honor and proving his devotion to Elizabeth.
4. Darkness in Heart of Darkness
So this one might seem a bit too obvious, but darkness is in fact an important motif in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
Throughout the novel, Africa, Brussels, and England are all described as having gloomy and dark atmospheres, even if the sun is shining.
We can conclude, then, that this dark imagery can be interpreted metaphorically and not literally. Darkness renders us incapable of seeing one another, which prevents us from understanding each other as well. This is a fitting motif, since the book raises questions about racism and imperialism.
Motif and Theme
Stories wouldn’t be nearly as fun or interesting to read if the author simply spelled out their intended message for us.
Motifs offer writers a creative way to reveal a story’s theme—or central message—without stating it outright. You might think of motifs as little hints that readers can follow to figure out the greater meaning of a work, and to determine what a story means to them.
The next time you read a new book, look for these recurring images or ideas and see if you can unlock some new insight to the story.
What are some common motifs that you’ve noticed in your reading? Share your thoughts in the comments below!