Symbols and Motifs in Literature

What Is the Difference?

What are symbols and motifs in literature?
"It was a dark and stormy night," so what does that mean?. D. Sim/The Image Bank/Getty Images

A symbol is anything that represents another thing. Sound confusing? It's really simple! There are millions of symbols that you recognize every day.

  • Red light means stop
  • Arrow means "this way"
  • Light bulb means "new idea"
  • Numerals 1 and 0, put together, mean ten
  • A heart means love
  • A wink means "just kidding"

See how you really do recognize symbols in everyday life?

When you read literature, you should keep your mind open to possible symbols that may not be so obvious at first.

For example, if you read a scene that involves a skunk lurking in the background, you might wonder what that animal could signify.

Is there something that "stinks" in the works of your story, like a breakup or a bit of bad luck? This is how symbols work!

It often helps to practice with imagery, by asking yourself what a variety of everyday objects might stand for. For example, think about emotions or thoughts that come to mind when you see the following:

  • Flowers
  • Lightening bolt
  • Knife
  • Spider's web

Which of the objects might signify entanglement? What about beauty? Any time you read a piece of literature, you should consider whether certain objects have a double role. They might hold a hidden message or meaning.

So What Is a Motif in Literature?

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.

A motif could be expressed by a collection of related symbols. For example, the motif of fragmentation (of a family, for instance) could come from several symbols that appear in a book:

  • Shattered glass
  • An unfaithful spouse
  • A runaway (pet, teen, car)

Sometimes a motif can be a contrast, like "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! 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.