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.
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.
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
Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton