Online College Courses for Credit



Author: Sydney Bauer

This lesson discusses motifs.

See More
Fast, Free College Credit

Developing Effective Teams

Let's Ride
*No strings attached. This college course is 100% free and is worth 1 semester credit.

37 Sophia partners guarantee credit transfer.

299 Institutions have accepted or given pre-approval for credit transfer.

* The American Council on Education's College Credit Recommendation Service (ACE Credit®) has evaluated and recommended college credit for 33 of Sophia’s online courses. Many different colleges and universities consider ACE CREDIT recommendations in determining the applicability to their course and degree programs.




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