Author: Sydney Bauer
This lesson discusses motifs.
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Introduction to Psychology

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A motif is a plot device, situation, setting, event, action, character/character type, image, description, detail, object, word, or phrase that appears repeatedly throughout a piece of writing or speech.

This could be a color, a person, place, or thing.

It could be a phrase spoken by several characters at different points in time.


Sometimes, the motif is so strong and occurs in several works that are similar, it kinda becomes officially associated with a genre, or type of story: the Cinderella motif in romance (mysterious girl leaves something behind, charming prince tracks her down); the setting in Gothic novels; the character types in action/adventure stories.


Motifs communicate abstract ideas through concrete things. Motifs unite separate settings, actions, or parts of a story by appearing throughout the whole work, creating a sense of consistency.



Like symbols, motifs are usually noticeable because they give out waves of suggestion; however, motifs are usually easier to spot because they require repetition, or a pattern of appearance. In order to qualify as a motif, the item needs to appear multiple times throughout the piece of writing.

  • Two quick reminders!
    • Symbols are situations, settings, events, actions, characters/character types, images, descriptions, details, objects, words, or phrases that suggest meaning beyond their literal/physical existence in the story. A symbol lives a double life: On one hand, it is the physical object, action, person, etc.; on the other hand, it suggests meaning beyond itself. (I hope the items on that list look familiar, because they’re the same items from the list that describes motif!)
    • The symbolic item only needs to appear once in a story to be symbolic. A motif requires repetition.


Like themes, a motif seeks to unify the piece of writing; it seeks to connect all the smaller pieces back to the whole.

Remember! Theme is the overall statement a piece of writing seems to make about its topic/subject. It is not a final, definitive, or closed statement, but an open, suggestive, and thought-provoking statement.

  • Topic/Subject: Family Dynamics
  • Theme might explore any of the following: how family dynamics are formed and affect personal development; loyalty and independence in family dynamics; community and family dynamics; etc.

Theme is expressed through a combination of characters’ thoughts, feelings, interactions, and behavior, the narrator/speaker’s point of view, motifs, symbols, descriptions, setting, actions, and events. Theme really brings it all together. Motif is simply putting a jacket and wrapping it around you; theme is zipping the coat up tight, and buttoning every last button. 



Let’s look at a couple examples!


Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

  • Possible Motif: the white rabbit
    • The white rabbit is a character that appears repeatedly throughout the work.
      • He is the reason Alice ventures into the rabbit hole
      • She follows him throughout the different locations within Wonderland
    • He suggests meaning beyond simply being a rabbit with a waistcoat and a pocket-watch
    • He is obvious/noticeable
    • He provides unity to the different parts (and locations) of the story


Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

  • Possible Motif: the color red
    • The color red is a narrative detail that appears in many forms at several different points in the story
      • The color of Mattie Silver’s cheeks, ribbon, and scarf
    • It suggests meaning beyond it just being a color
    • It provides unity for the novel as a whole by appearing at different points in the narrative
    • It is obvious/noticeable