Motif in Literature: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:01 What Is a Motif?
  • 1:44 Popular Examples
  • 3:55 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ann Casano

Ann has taught university level Film classes and has a Master's Degree in Cinema Studies.

Why does the author keep bringing up the color red, and why is it always raining? In this lesson, we will learn about the literary device of the motif, which is a recurring symbol that conveys a symbolic meaning.

What is a Motif?

A motif is a recurring symbol which takes on a figurative meaning. We see them in books, films, and poems. In fact, almost every text commonly uses the literary device of the motif. A motif can be almost anything: an idea, an object, a concept, a character archetype, the weather, a color, or even a statement. Motifs are used to establish a theme or a certain mood; they have a symbolic meaning.

It's typically pretty clear when a writer is using a motif. They're not usually associated with hidden meanings because the writer wants you to recognize them. They play a role in defining the makeup of a narrative. Think about the fairy tale and its almost endless list of motifs: happily ever after, the handsome prince, the damsel in distress, the fairy godmother, the wicked witch, the evil stepmother, talking animals, magic fairies, and ogres.

Consider the popular fairy tale 'Snow White' and how it uses a mirror as a prominent motif throughout the story. Snow White's wicked stepmother, the queen, is constantly checking herself out in the mirror, even asking it: 'Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?' The trouble begins when Snow White turns seven and the mirror informs the queen that she is no longer the prettiest because Snow White has taken over that title. The queen's face goes green to indicate her jealousy and envy.

Mirrors are all about letting a person know how others see you. They, in essence, represent the honest truth, plain and clear. When the queen's mirror informs her that she is just second best, she finally gets a real glimpse of herself and it enrages her to no end.

Popular Examples of Motifs in Literature

Here are a few classic examples of motifs from three 20th-century books.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum (1900)

Think about the trials and tribulations of Dorothy in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and the concept of the journey as motif. Dorothy gets swept up in a cyclone and lands in the strangest of lands, far, far away from Kansas. During her journey, she has to grow as a person and learn how to trust herself so she can survive and hopefully get back home. In fact, everyone she meets on the yellow brick road - the Cowardly Lion, the Scarecrow, and the Tin Woodsman - are all on a journey. The Lion seeks courage, the Scarecrow wants a brain, the Tin Woodman desires a heart, and Dorothy just wants to go home.

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