What Is a Motif in English Literature?

A motif is an image or action that repeats throughout a work of literature and illustrates the larger themes of that work. While motifs are frequently confused with symbols, they are a distinct part of literature -- symbols are representative of something other than themselves, while motifs are concrete illustrations of a work's themes.

What Is a Motif?

A motif occurs repeatedly over the course of a work of literature. It may be a specific phrase, a visual image or a repeated event. Motifs serve to emphasize the themes and goals of the work in which they appear.

For instance, in Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet," the image of light is a repeating motif. Romeo compares Juliet to torches and to the sun, and Juliet repeatedly describes love as being like light or lightning. However, as the play's action unfolds, images of light are replaced by images of darkness, contrasting the power of young love with the tragic circumstances that surround it.

Motif and Theme

Motifs are sometimes confused with themes. A theme is a larger concept or idea that is explored by a work of literature. While the recurring images and language of a motif serve to illustrate and reinforce the theme, they are not the theme themselves. In other words, motifs are tools by which themes are illustrated.

Take Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird." One of the major themes that the novel explores is how good and evil can live side by side. To do this, there are frequent motifs of childlike exploration and small-town innocence contrasted with darkness and danger. For instance, toward the end of the story, two children in Halloween costumes are attacked by a violent criminal, showing how evil and danger can intrude even on cheerful childhood rituals.

Motif and Genre

Some motifs occur not just in a specific work of literature, but across an entire genre, or style of writing. These motifs often illustrate the themes that a genre tends to use or explore.

For instance, gothic literature was a style popular in the late 18th and 19th centuries, including such well-known works as "Frankenstein," "Dracula" and the stories of Edgar Allan Poe. Gothic literature often explores themes of horror, madness and uncertainty. Because of this, many works across the genre use similar motifs to bring these themes to life.

Characters often find themselves in alien, disorienting or inhuman landscapes, and modern society and technology often find themselves coming into contact with older, supernatural forces that leave characters confused and horrified.

Motif vs. Symbol

Symbolism in literature is distinct from the use of motifs. Motifs are specific images that illustrate the general themes of a work. Symbols, on the other hand, are images that represent a specific idea or force outside themselves.

Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" illustrates this difference. One repeating motif in the story is Scrooge looking in on scenes from the outside, an image that reinforces his sense of isolation and loneliness.

On the other hand, a symbol within "A Christmas Carol" is the chain dragged by the Ghost of Jacob Marley, which is made up of items related to Scrooge and Marley's business. This chain is a symbol of how Scrooge's business concerns weigh him down and enslave him.