What is a Motif?

In books and movies and television, have you ever noticed something that keeps showing up in the story? Perhaps it’s a word or phrase that gets repeated over and over in a book, or an image or some other visual indicator that you keep seeing in a television show or movie. Either way, you’ve probably picked up on this intentional clue from the storyteller about the message they are trying to send you. You’ve discovered a motif.

Definitions of a Motif

The term motif can be defined in a few different ways, but in general, motifs are recurring elements that typically support the overall theme of a work.

  • In art, a motif is a particular decoration or design pattern that appears throughout the work. For instance, think of Georgia O’Keefe’s unique flower designs, and understand that motif within her work. In this case, the audience gets drawn to think about the meaning behind the motif of the artist. Other examples are simple patterns that show up in art that are usually meant to make the audience think or feel a certain way emotionally about the work.
  • In music, a motif is described as a sequence of notes played together that form a basis for larger melodic structures throughout the music. Think about how overtures in musical productions showcase many of the major motifs and themes of the work. In music, motifs are repeated patterns of notes that do not have to be important to the central message of the music. Themes, on the other hand, are central to the importance of the piece of music. It’s easy to confuse the two terms in music, but in general motifs are usually supportive of a theme.
  • In the visual medium like film and television shows, a motif is a recurring visual element that supports the theme of the show or movie. It can be a prop, a line of dialogue, a color prevalent in a scene or associated with a character, or any other element that recurs throughout the work that is significant to the overall themes. It’s worth noting that when certain music or other sound is played that is associated with a specific character, that’s called a leitmotif, something that is also prevalent in musical productions.
  • In literature, motifs are recurring elements seen throughout the text that have symbolic significance to the author’s intention. That means it could be a recurring image, character, phrase, topic, word, color, feeling, emotion or any other kind of literary element that repeats throughout the chapter, book, series, etc.

Purpose and Examples of Motifs

As mentioned above, motifs are used to evoke moods, establish patterns, highlight themes and to create symbolic connections between certain people, things, etc. Below are some motifs and how they are used.

  • In the book Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut uses the phrase “So it goes” over and over after someone in the book dies. Vonnegut uses this as a way of equalizing all deaths of all people as part of the major themes in his book.
  • In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare refers to light and dark often as motifs in the prose of the play. This plays into his over-all theme of life and death, the duality of love and hate in the work.
  • In Harry Potter, Harry’s scar is a constant reminder of the loss of his parents and the ever-looming existence of the villain of the series.
  • In The Wizard of Oz, the yellow brick road serves as a motif for the journey of life and for the story itself.
  • In Breaking Bad, Walter’s car serves as a motif that stands for his soul. Every time a major event happens that brings Walt down a darker stretch of the road, his car sustains some kind of damage. Even in the end, his car plays a huge role.

Difference Between Motifs and Themes

Motifs and themes are often mistaken for one another when discussing critical analysis of a story. The easiest way to tell them apart is that motifs are typically tangible things, things that have form – be it an object, color, sound, description, phrase, etc., whereas a theme is an abstract concept that often come through in the motifs present in the story.

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