Leitmotif in Literature: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

We've all seen them time and again, but you might not know what they're called or what they really do. Never fear! In this lesson, you'll learn all about leitmotifs and get to see them employed in some famous literary examples.

Literary Déjà vu: Leitmotif Defined

Have you ever seen the movie The Sixth Sense? If you have, maybe you remember seeing the color red pop up again and again. You might've thought 'Isn't there a lot of 'red' in this movie?' or, perhaps more importantly, 'Why do I keep seeing it?'

In reality, M. Night Shyamalan included the color intentionally through the film to indicate that characters in the scene are actually dead; even though they might appear perfectly healthy. In literature, such recurring images, actions, words, or other often metaphorical elements that contribute to the narrative are known as leitmotifs.

Originally, the German leitmotiv ('leading motive') was used to describe repeated thematic melodies in larger musical pieces - particularly the imaginative symphonies of Wagner. German author Thomas Mann, however, adopted the term to refer to individual elements of a story that authors used repeatedly to contribute to the overall telling of the tale.

Thomas Mann (1875-1955) may have adopted this musical term because he noticed so many recurring elements in his own literary works.
Photo of Thomas Mann

Leitmotifs are often associated with a narrative's theme. While literary leitmotifs (like their musical cousins) do frequently help convey a story's underlying message through repeated metaphorical representation, they can develop other aspects of the narrative, as well. In addition to themes, these literary devices can be used to build on elements of plot, character, and even setting, so keep reading to see some leitmotifs in action in each of these examples.

Examples of Leitmotifs

Darkness in Heart of Darkness

If you couldn't tell from the title, darkness is a prevalent theme in this novella by Joseph Conrad. Over the course of the story, Conrad regularly employs the leitmotif of physical darkness to illustrate this theme. It's seen everywhere: from the gloomy weather of England and France, to the impenetrable canopy of the Congo. By continuously repeating the appearance of physical darkness, Conrad can use this as metaphor for the prevalence of the darkness he finds in the imperialistic practices represented in his work.

'Tiger' in Death in Venice

The author who adapted the term's use for literature was himself a prolific user of leitmotifs. In his Death in Venice, Thomas Mann uses several examples of leitmotif to flesh-out his narrative - some of them quite subtle. For instance, the recurrence of the word 'tiger' appears only three times in the novella; however, these three appearances are at crucial points in the plot's development. The first and second occur when the protagonist Aschenbach imagines vacationing in an exotic locale (India) but settles on closer foreign coasts (Italy). The word is last seen when Aschenbach realizes that he did not have to 'go to the tiger,' but it instead came to him in the form of a virulent strain of cholera imported from India.

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