motif (narrative)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

A narrative motif can be any significant recurring element. (Mats Anda/Getty Images)


A motif is a recurring theme, verbal pattern, or narrative unit in a single text or a number of different texts. Adjective: motific.

Critic William Freedman emphasizes the symbolic nature of a motif, defining it as "a complex of separate parts subtly reiterating on one level what is taking place on another" ("The Literary Motif: A Definition and Evaluation").

See Examples and Observations below.

Also see:

From the Latin, "move"

Examples and Observations

  • "The theme of abandonment and the motif of dual or multiple parents pervade the Harry Potter books."
    (Lana A. Whited, The Ivory Tower and Harry Potter. University of Missouri Press, 2004)

  • The Motif in E.B. White's Stuart Little
    "Stuart's defeat, his frustrations in this attempt to seize perfect beauty and truth, gives meaning to his quest for Margalo, the motif on which the book ends."
    (Scott Elledge, E.B. White: A Biography. W.W. Norton, 1985)

  • What Is and Is Not a Motif
    "A mother as such is not a motif. A cruel mother becomes one because she is at least thought to be unusual. The ordinary processes of life are not motifs. To say that 'John dressed and walked to town' is not to give a single motif worth remembering; but to say that the hero put on his cap of invisibility, mounted his magic carpet, and went to the land east of the sun and west of the moon is to include at least four motifs--the cap, the carpet, the magic air journey, and the marvelous land."
    (Stith Thompson, Motif-Index of Folk Literature. Indiana University Press, 1972)
  • Characteristics of a Motif
    "[A motif] is generally symbolic--that is, it can be seen to carry a meaning beyond the literal one immediately apparent; it represents on the verbal level something characteristic of the structure of the work, the events, the characters, the emotional effects, or the moral or cognitive content. It is presented both as an object of description and, more often, as part of the narrator's imagery and descriptive vocabulary. And it indispensably requires a certain minimum frequency of recurrence and improbability in order both to make itself at least subconsciously felt and to indicate its purposiveness. Finally, the motif achieves its power by an appropriate regulation of that frequency and improbability, by its appearance in significant contexts, by the degree to which the individual instances work together toward a common end or ends and, when it is symbolic, by its appropriateness to the symbolic purpose or purposes it serves."
    (William Freedman, "The Literary Motif: A Definition and Evaluation," in Essentials of the Theory of Fiction, ed. by M. J. Hoffman and P. D. Murphy, Duke University Press, 1996)
  • Motifs in Nonfiction
    "Louise Rosenblatt presents two approaches to literature in The Reader, the Text, The Poem [1978]. Literature read for pleasure is 'aesthetic' literature while literature read for information is 'efferent' literature. Although one generally reads nonfiction for information, one must consider popular nonfiction to be aesthetic literature because both its form and content offer pleasure to the reader. In aesthetic literature, the term 'theme' refers to the author's main purpose for writing the story, and most aesthetic literature contains several themes. Thus the term 'motif' rather than theme best describes the different concepts that may swim below the surface of popular nonfiction."
    (Lynda G. Adamson, Thematic Guide to Popular Nonfiction. Greenwood, 2006)

  • Themes and Motifs
    - "A motif should not be confused with a theme, which constitutes a more abstract and more general semantic unit manifested by or reconstructed from a set of motifs: if glasses are a motif in Princess Brambilla, vision is a theme in that work. A motif should also be distinguished from a topos, which is a specific complex of motifs that frequently appears in (literary) texts (the wise fool, the aged child, the locus amoenus, etc.)."
    (Gerald Prince, A Dictionary of Narratology, rev. ed. University of Nebraska Press, 2003)

    - "The term motif is distinguishable in semiotics from the more common, interchangeable used word, theme. A general rule is that a theme is rather abstract or broad whereas a motif is concrete. A theme may include a statement, a point of view, or an idea, while a motif is a detail, a specific point, which is repeated for the symbolic meaning the text intends to generate."
    (Yoshiko Okuyama, Japanese Mythology in Film. Lexington Books, 2915)

  • Archetypes and Motifs
    "An archetype is a major element of our common human experience. A motif is a minor element, or smaller part, of our common experience. Both recur often in our lives and are also predictable, because they are the essence of the human experience."
    (Robert Atkinson, The Gift of Stories. Greenwood, 1995)

Pronunciation: mo-TEEF