Symbols and Motifs in Literature

What's the Difference?

A boat on rough seas on a dark and stormy night
"It was a dark and stormy night," so what does that mean?.

 D. Sim/The Image Bank/Getty Images

When you read a book, you might notice recurring themes within the text, which usually influence the storyline and provide clues into the plot or conflict occurring. In order to build and explain the theme, the author will use symbols and motifs. Many readers fully understand what a symbol is, but not everyone is as familiar with motifs. While they are similar and both serve to help us understand the material at hand, these two types of language aren't the same. Both are crucial parts of creating a strong storyline that will draw in the reader and hold his attention.

What is a symbol?

A symbol is an object that represents something else, and in fact, are a part of your daily life, not just a piece of literature. You may not realize it, but you encounter millions of symbols in your everyday life, such as:

  • Traffic lights: Red light means stop, green means go, and yellow means caution
  • The arrow means "this way"
  • A cross represents religion, or more specifically, Christianity
  • Light bulb means "new idea"
  • Numerals 1 and 0, put together, mean ten
  • A heart means love
  • Logos represent brands, like the Nike swoosh or Mac's Apple
  • Even our names are symbols that represent us as individual humans

Symbols can hold unexpected meaning, but upon further investigation, can make a lot of sense. For example, if you read a scene that involves a skunk lurking in the background, you might wonder what that animal could signify. But, if there's something that foul in the works of your story, like a breakup or a bit of bad luck, the skunk begins to bring up imagery of something that is less than pleasant to experience. Thus, the symbolism. 

To better understand symbolism, you might ask yourself to consider what a variety of everyday objects might stand for if they were used in a piece of literation. For example, think about emotions or thoughts that come to mind when you see the following:

  • Flowers (represent nature, birth, growth, femininity, beauty)
  • Lightening bolt (represents speed, strength, power, electricity) 
  • Spider web (represents entanglement, entrapment, mystery)

What is a motif?

While a symbol might occur once in literature to signify an idea or an emotion, a motif can be an element or idea that repeats throughout that piece of literature. It is closely related to a theme but is more of a supporting role to the theme than a theme itself. It is within the pattern of repetition that the power and impact of a motif are found. A motif could, in fact, be expressed by a collection of related symbols.

How do symbols and motifs work together?

Since multiple symbols can be used to explain a motif, let's break down a few examples. Let's say we have a story about a family struggling to stay together, parents considering divorce. We might encounter a motif of fragmentation that could come from several symbols that appear in a book:

  • Shattered glass
  • A runaway (pet, teen, car)
  • An explosion
  • A scattered puzzle

Sometimes a motif can also be a study on contrast, like the theme of good versus evil, or "light and dark." A series of symbols that could represent this motif might be:

  • Moon shadows (shades of darkness)
  • A candle (a light in the darkness)
  • Storm clouds (temporary darkness)
  • A ray of sunshine (emerging from darkness)
  • A tunnel (through the darkness)

The symbols and motifs you discover in your reading will lead to the understanding of an overall theme of your book. To find the theme of a book, you should look for an overall message or lesson. If you do encounter the motif of "light and dark" in a book, you should think about a message that the author is trying to send about life.

The light and dark of a story might tell us:

  • Love survives death
  • Life renews itself
  • Knowledge conquers fear

Tip: if you see a series of symbols or a collection of motifs, but you can't come up with a theme, try inserting a verb to describe the object. If you see a lot of references to fire, for example, you can ask yourself what action we might associate with fire.

  • Fire burns
  • Fire destroys
  • Fire warms

Consider which of these behaviors make sense in the context of the novel or story you are reading.

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Your Citation
Fleming, Grace. "Symbols and Motifs in Literature." ThoughtCo, Sep. 8, 2021, Fleming, Grace. (2021, September 8). Symbols and Motifs in Literature. Retrieved from Fleming, Grace. "Symbols and Motifs in Literature." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 22, 2023).