What is a Motif? How to Use Motifs in Literature

If you are asking yourself, “What is motif?” you are not aware of this literary device. Motif is very important in creating a literary piece (e.g. novel or a short story). First, it is important to remember that theme and motif are two different things. Theme sets the tone of the whole story, while motif leads the characters through the narrative. Motif makes the story deeper and, combined with other literary devices; helps the readers comprehend the central message better.

This article will provide information on motif, its meaning, examples of motif, and will explain how to use it in the process of writing.

What is a Motif?

Motif can be defined as a literary device that has an important meaning and significance for the narrative. Its main basis is some repeated element that is central for the story. It can be presented in a form of a repeated image or separate words or phrases expressed in language by the main characters. Moreover, motif can even be expressed by a color, smell or any other event or phenomenon.

The thing that is important to understand is that motif represents a repeated action or occurrence. This repetition is important as it helps convey the main ideas of the story, its themes or meanings.

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The examples of motif can be found in different literary works. One of them is “Romeo and Juliet” by Shakespeare, where light serves as a motif. It can be seen in different episodes through the story. However, as the story unfolds, the motif of light is replaced with motif of darkness.

The Reason for Using Motif

There are different reasons why authors use motif in their works. Here are some of them:

  • Motif helps the writers organize different elements (symbols, imagery, etc.) into one complex structure that makes emphasis on the theme of the story.
  • Motif helps to maintain the sense of continuity by creating elements that repeat throughout the story.
  • Motif helps to create connection between parts that seem unrelated.
  • Motif helps to remind the readers about specific elements of a story and create a memorable and vivid image.

Why Is Motif Important?

While the theme serves as a background of a story, motif works by presenting some repetitive elements and images that help the readers to understand what should be considered as the most important in the story.

Some elements of the story may not seem important for the readers at first. However, if repetitive images or elements occur, it means that they play a certain role in the narrative and they should be paid closer attention to. These elements may include some color that appears in different parts of the story, song, the feeling, etc. Motif makes the narrative more poetic. Moreover, it serves as a pattern to the theme, which focuses in its main symbols and elements.


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However, it is important to understand the difference between motif and a random repetitive element. It is clear that the writer can speak about flowers a few times in a book without giving them deeper meaning. One of the features of motif is that it is connected to the central ideas of the story. For example, repetitive image of flowers can symbolize grief that the main characters feel.

In order to track a motif in a story, it is important to find a trail of clues the author gives to the readers. In such way, motifs become traceable. If you are able to distinguish the clues, you will be able to find a motif and understand the idea of the writer behind those clues. It can help realize the main idea of the writer and comprehend the story at the higher level.

In order to understand the motif better, it is crucial to realize the difference between motif and theme. This information will be provided further in our article.

Looking for a Motif in a Story

It is unlikely that the writer will directly outlines the theme of his work in a text. No one will write anything like this in his story: “The main theme of this book is that helping people is very important”. On the contrary, the writers can hide the theme of their works under different symbols, plot of the story and different images presented in it. In such way, the readers are given opportunity to realize the theme of the story indirectly. They reach this goal by identifying different patterns that connect various parts of the plot. After this pattern is identified, it can be said that the reader has found a motif. Here is the example:

  • If the central focus of the story is on someone’s sudden death, its theme may be that nothing is eternal. The theme of mortality, in this case, can be supported by a motif that death can be caused by unexpected things or events. This motif may be presented through the belief of the main character that he can die of poisonous fish bite.

In such way, this combination of symbols, motif, and the main theme of the story helps to create a vivid narrative and deliver the message more effectively.

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Difference between Motifs and Themes

Considering that it may be difficult to distinguish between the theme and the motif that expresses it, it is important to learn about the main differences between these two terms. Here they are:

  • Motif is more specific. It consists of some images or symbols or both that can be traced in the story.
  • Specific motif/s can be found in one work in different places as a repetitive element. On the contrary, the same theme can be presented in different works using different motifs.

It means that different authors can investigate the theme of equality in their work. Consequently, there are many books dedicated to this issue. However, it is unlikely that different authors will use the same motifs to uncover their ideas. Usually, each author makes up his own motif to present the theme in a specific manner.

Speaking about Romeo and Juliet, many people will find the theme of contradictory love close to them and will be able to relate themselves with the main characters and the theme of the book. However, considering the symbolic description of light and darkness, it is unlikely that many people will think about these motifs in their own context, as these symbols may not be applicable to their cases and life experiences.

Difference between Motif and Symbol

The relationship between motif and symbol can be considered from the two following perspectives:

  • On the one hand, motif can be considered as a symbol that appears and reappears many times throughout the story. The example of a raven in Edgar Poe’s The Raven can be taken to illustrate this point. The raven that comes over and over again to the main character can be considered as a motif by many readers.
  • On the other hand, some readers would consider the raven as a symbol that supports the bigger motif. In such case, they will not consider raven to be a motif but merely a symbol. So, even considering that the symbol performs functions of a motif (repeated element), it will not be considered as a motif but rather as a symbol.

In such interpretation, the raven would be considered as a symbol that supports motif of some sort of borders between the world of the dead and the living. At the same time, these two elements serve the purpose of covering the theme of death and twisted perception of reality.

Examples of Motifs

After the question “What is motif?” has been answered, it will be easier to track it in the literary works. Motif analysis reveals that it is a complex device that covers several symbolic concepts. Motif can be represented by words, phrases, colors, weather, etc. The main thing that connects these elements is their repeated nature. Moreover, motif presents some figurative information that makes it easier for the reader to realize the main idea of the work and identify its theme. Motif can be found in any type of literary work, for example, in poems, novels, fairy tales, etc.

Every literary work has its motifs. Here are some examples of popular books that include motifs:

  • In the book The Lord of Flies by William Golding, the motif is represented by the conch shell. It serves as a symbol of communication and order. When the shell is destroyed, the small community experiences chaos.
  • Once again, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet contains motifs of light and darkness, which represent love between the two main characters. In particular, Romeo compares his beloved one to the sun in one episode, while they discuss moonlight in the other part of the story, etc.
  • In The Wizard of Oz yellow brick road serves as a motif of journey and the desire of Dorothy to return home.
  • In Palahniuk’s Fight Club, the main character says that he knows things because his friend Tyler knows them. This phrase serves as a motif that is explained at the end of the book when it becomes clear that Tyler is an imaginary character created by the protagonist.
  • The motif of soft things in the Of Mice and Men by Steinbeck represents the fragile nature of all things in a harsh world. The motif is presented in the book by mice, dogs, rabbits, and hair.

Motif forms one of the most fundamental parts of the narrative. So, it is important to present it properly in a literary work. If it is used correctly, it will help to create a perfect structure and combine all parts of the story in a logical manner.

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Check our sample papers to understand how to motif can be placed within a literary work and identified easily.

The motif of a hat in The Garden Party by Katherine Mansfield

The Garden Party by Katherine Mansfield is a short but powerful story. The author engages in a number of motifs to alliterate her main theme. This paper will explore how the motif of a hat highlights the difference between the upper and the lower class. The hat symbolically indicates the class belonging of the protagonist. While it perfectly suits the atmosphere of the garden party, at the scene of death, in the house of a poor grief-stricken family, the beautiful expensive hat of Laura Sheridan is terribly out of place.

The story describes a delightful garden party given by a rich family of the Sheridans. The preparations to the party are broken by a terrible news of a lethal accident down the street. Laura, a sensitive and kind young girl, is shocked and demands to call of the party. Her relatives persuade her of the absurdness of the idea. The final argument is a beautiful hat presented to her by her mother. So the party continues. At the end of the day, when they discuss the accident, Laura’s mother sends her with a basket of the rests from the festive table to the family of the victim. She insists on Laura’s going in her party dress and the hat. The idea of the story is that the gap between the classes is so great that even in their minds, the rich cannot cross it and understand the lives and feelings of people on the other side.

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Hats belonging to other people are mentioned in the story before Laura’s new hat is mentioned. First, it is a straw hat of the worker; it is simple and corresponds to the position of the working man. Then, the hats of Laura’s father and brother underline their business-like attitude. Finally, Mrs. Sheridan asks Laura to tell her friend to wear “that sweet hat she had on last Sunday”. In that last case the real meaning of the hat for upper-class women comes clear. The hats are meant to decorate the ladies’ heads to make their owners sweet.

Laura’s new hat emerges for the first time in the middle of the story. At the news about the terrible death of a man who is, in fact, their neighbor, Laura wants to stop preparations to the party and call off the guests. She feels that the sounds of the band and entertainment will offend the feelings of the poor widow and the family of the victim. First her sister and then her mother try to reason her; finally, Mrs. Sheridan succeeds in distracting Laura’s attention by presenting her with a new hat. Apparently, she bought the hat for herself but found it “too young”. Laura leaves unsatisfied but as she catches a glimpse of herself in a mirror, she is stunned by a “charming girl in the mirror, in her black hat trimmed with gold daisies, and a long black velvet ribbon”. Her indignation at her mother and Jose’s tactlessness is blurred, she starts doubting her right. The author gives an idea that the hat bought Laura’s consent to the party, and Laura vaguely feels the same but suppresses the feeling.

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The hat serves its purpose – to make Laura sweet. She receives compliments from all sides. Laurie defines it as “an absolutely topping hat, the guests say that Laura looks well, or that the hat is “becoming,” or that she looks “quite Spanish” and more “striking” than ever. On the party, among rich, carefree and happy people, the hat serves Laura perfectly. She also feels airy, free and happy. She forgets about the death and the grieving family; she forgets that still in the morning she imagined herself a working girl and would “have workmen for her friends rather than silly boys she danced with”. Somehow, the new beautiful hat enforced that feeling of easiness, lightness, perfectness and belonging to her class.

When the party was over, the conversation about the accident is resumed. Out of the party atmosphere, Laura returns to her usual tactful and sensitive self. When her mother insists she should wear her party clothes and the hat for a visit to the family of the dead man, Laura feels it is completely wrong. However, she does not have the chance to protest. There, another purpose of the gorgeous hat and frock become clear: they must impress the lower class.

At first, Laura is still full with the impressions of the party. As she enters the working-class area, she suddenly feels extremely uncomfortable in her shiny frock and her gorgeous hat. “And the big hat with the velvet streamer – if only it was another hat!” she thinks desperately. Laura feels out of place, especially for the reason of her clothes, she thinks everybody is looking at her. The uneasy feeling makes Laura bend her head.

The hat underlines Laura’s belonging to the higher class. In the working suburb, women and men do not wear hats. Women are wrapped in shawls, and men have tweed caps on. The expensive hat and the spiffy dress she is wearing provide a striking contrast with the mean surrounding. The working area is dimly lit, smoky and dark, dirty, gray and brown, people standing at the door as a “dark knot”. Suddenly, Laura wants herself covered with a shawl not to look so awfully strange in the place.

At the dead man’s body, the hat does not convey the sense of beauty, richness and freedom anymore. The man is dead and Laura realizes how far he is from all parties, and frocks, and hats. The widow weeping her eyes out also fails to notice it and is not impressed by Laura’s attire. Facing death, grief and misery, the real purpose of the hat is revealed – pure vanity. Laura is ashamed for her clothes and for herself. She realizes the abyss between herself and the people around, between the Sheridan’s superficial care and deep genuine sorrow of these people. The girl realizes that people of her class permanently fail to understand working people’s thoughts and feelings. She is not one of them, and her hat screams about it. Finally, Laura says to the dead man, “Forgive my hat”.

The Garden Party is a socially-inspired story, it pictures the differences between the two classes, the rich and the poor. There are several motifs in the story but the recurrent motif of the hat serves to highlight that difference. The hat of the rich young lady identifies her social status serving decorative and impressive purposes. For the same reason it turns out to be a social marker that unmistakably defines Laura as a stranger to the working class, almost to the extent of having nothing in common.

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