What is Motif in English Literature

Updated on May 12, 2017
Motifs are one of many literary analysis terms that are important to understand, especially when studying literature.
Motifs are one of many literary analysis terms that are important to understand, especially when studying literature. | Source

Definition of Motif in Literature

Motif in English literature is simply a recurrent element that has a symbolic significance. This includes images, themes, ideas, or many other parts within an author's piece of work that are repeated throughout the story. The use of motifs in English literature help enhance the story, sometimes even connecting different parts of the story together that may have otherwise been separated by time and space. They also help bring the story together into one piece that promotes a certain moral or point that the author is trying to make for their readers.

When looking at the definition of a motif in English literature, It is important to understand that motif is not something that is a completely solid idea. In other words, there is no solid answer for why an author choose to use that particular image or what it even means. This is why they can make for very interesting topics when discussing a work of English literature.

How to Use Motif in Literature

There are three basic ways that a motif may be used in English literature:

  1. Abstract ideas
  2. Symbols
  3. Archetypes

As I already said, a motif is not always a solid idea. When motifs occur as an abstract idea, it is usually in the form of an emotion, power struggle, time, or any number of things that aren't physically solid. These elements help enhance the reader's understanding of the characters and the story without the author having to say what they mean straight out. It makes the story much more interesting and gives us all something to think about as well as discuss. This also means that sometimes interpretations can vary. Keep in mind, there may be many answers as to why an author chose that particular belief but there are wrong answers so remember not to stray too far from the story when analyzing it.

When a motif appears as symbols throughout an English literature novel, however, they are usually solid. Examples would include trees, water, fire, etc. The use of certain imagery helps convey the message according to what sorts of connotations are associated with them. Trees can be associated with wisdom or life, according to what type of tree it is, for example, while water is associated with cleansing and fire with destruction. In the end, symbols, like abstract ideas, help an author convey a deeper meaning without getting into detail about it.

Motifs are usually a lot easier to spot than abstract ideas and a lot easier to write about since it is simpler to find a bunch of pages with trees mentioned in them than it is to find a specific quote or part of the novel that is associated with an abstract idea.

Archetypes are aspects of a story that have been around for ages. These include hero types, damsels, and even the faithful sidekick, amidst others. The use of one or more archetypes in a piece of English literature is just as essential as the symbols and abstract ideas and help promote what the author is trying to say based on connotations associated with that archetype. It is also why it is essential that one who studies English literature learn about and read some of the classics. Might not be enjoyable for everyone but it comes in handy when looking at archetypes in literature.

How Motifs Develop the Theme

In the end, what a motif does is develop the theme of a novel. Theme is basically the mean idea of a piece of literature, sometimes referred to as the moral of the story. Each motif that occurs in the story helps to build up to the end when all the pieces come together and the purpose of the motif becomes obvious. For example, each of the characters the main hero or heroine encounter could help to reflect his/her story in their own ways and act out the same story-line of good overcoming evil, greed leading to one's demise, or whatever other moral the author was aiming for.

© 2012 Lisa


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    • profile image

      Beth Weir 

      2 years ago

      Can you give examples of certain novels or authors who are particularly good at expressing motif?

    • jimmythejock profile image

      Jimmy the jock 

      8 years ago from Scotland

      All I can say is, I did not know that, I learned something new today thanks to you.....jimmy

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Lisa, this is very interesting. I think as writers we all use motifs without actually calling it or thinking of them that way. They are part of our psych. Also, in classical music composers use motifs as well, and during Romanticism they were extremely important. A specific line of music would represent the composer's wife, while another line of music would represent their children,etc. The term was taken from literature since so many composers of the 19th century were inspired by the literature.

      You explained it very well. This is a great article.


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