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What Are Literary Motifs? - Definition & Examples

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  • 0:06 What Is a Theme?
  • 1:29 Subject and Theme
  • 3:24 What Is a Motif?
  • 5:39 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Maria Howard

Maria is a teacher and a learning specialist and has master's degrees in literature and education.

In this lesson, you will learn about how writers use themes in works of literature as a way to explore universal ideas like love and war. You will also explore motifs, or repeating objects and ideas, which can contribute to theme.

What Is a Theme?

Powerful and lasting works of art elevate simple, universal subjects - family, romantic relationships, growing up - into something much more nuanced and meaningful. Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet takes the very broad subject of love and focuses on two young lovers kept apart by family feuds and miscommunication. It's a love story, but the deeper, universal ideas explored are loyalty, family obligations and passion.

Theme is an underlying message in a piece of literature. It is the central idea of a story, sometimes easily summed up in a single word, such as 'love' or 'death.' That doesn't mean that what a literary work has to say about the theme is simple.

Often, a larger, universal theme, like love or war, is explored in-depth in a piece of literature, giving way to smaller, minor themes. For example, we all know the major theme of Romeo and Juliet is romantic love, but within that theme you have the smaller themes of passion, loyalty and family bonds. These themes, both minor and major, are explored through characters (the young lovers Romeo and Juliet, the feuding Capulet and Montague families), through plot (Romeo and Juliet meeting at a party, Juliet's cousin killing Romeo's friend) and through other literary elements.

Subject and Theme

It is important to differentiate between a text's subject and its themes. While several works of literature explore war or love or family as their primary subject, authors often treat the same subject differently. This is where themes come into play, with authors using themes to focus their message. Romeo and Juliet and Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility both tackle romantic love as their subject, but through plot, characters and other literary conventions, we are given very different messages about love through their themes.

A thematic statement is what the author is trying to say about their subject through their choice of major and minor themes and how writers use those themes to deliver a message. Think about the treatment of the subject of wealth in the novel The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, which differs from the treatment of wealth in Charles Dickens' Great Expectations and the children's book Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse.

For some characters in The Great Gatsby, wealth is a way for the newly rich, like Jay Gatsby, to enter into society. For others, wealth protects them; think of the old-moneyed Daisy and Tom Buchanan. Wealth is something the narrator, Nick Carraway, stands outside of, as distant and detached to the opulence surrounding him throughout the novel as he is to the unfolding events.

While wealth is a primary subject of The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald uses the themes of class, decadence and societal norms to shape his thematic statement. Each character in the story, from Jay Gatsby to Nick Carraway, plays their part in revealing what Fitzgerald wants to say about wealth's influence on society. His choice of setting, a wealthy enclave outside of New York City during the Roaring 20s, gives us access to the lavish spending and extravagant lifestyles Fitzgerald looks to critique.

What Is a Motif?

A motif is an object or idea which reoccurs throughout a work of literature. Through their repetition and placement, motifs can contribute to an author's thematic statement. For example, in The Great Gatsby the green light at the end of the Buchanans' dock is mentioned in both Chapter 1 and Chapter 9. Both uses of the green light - an external reminder of Gatsby's longing for Daisy and, later, representative of Nick's uncertain future - contribute to the themes explored in the novel.

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