Motif is a recurring element (a symbol, a feature, an expression, a concept) which, if used throughout a single work, suggests its theme (also leitmotif), and, if used across many texts, communicates a common topic of an almost archetypal nature (topos). Theme, on the other hand, is the main idea/subject matter that a literary work treats, or, put even more straightforward, the answer to the question “what is this work about?”

Whatever the subject of repetition, motifs are more often than not bound to the theme of the work, most of them implicitly hinting at it. Interpreted in this context, they are much more ambiguous—and grasped much more intuitively—than symbols that unequivocally stand for something else which is not necessarily the theme.

Throughout history, the words “motif,” “leitmotif,” “theme,” “topic,” “topos,” “symbol” and a few others, have been used interchangeably to describe many similar and related concepts. That’s why it is often difficult to say where the definition of either of them ends and the definition of a related term begins; which is why it should be noted from the start that it is neither a mistake to say that “many of Shakespeare’s sonnets are variations of the common memento mori motif” nor it is an exaggeration to claim that “many of Shakespeare’s sonnets focus on the theme of the passing of time.”

In other words, most distinctions between the terms “motif” and “theme” are tentative—see the definitions section below—and ours can’t be any different; but it is one which, if only because of its simplicity, is more generally accepted in primers and schoolbooks.

Definitions: Motif, Leitmotif, Topos, and Theme

As we said above, the words “motif” and “theme” are often used interchangeably; however, things get really messy when we add the terms “topos” and “leitmotif” to the mix. In fact, it is not a rare occurrence for a literary dictionary to list the definitions of at least two of these under one entry.

In A Dictionary of Stylistics (1990), for example, Katie Wales claims straightforwardly that the word “motif” is “a synonym for leitmotif: a recurrent theme or idea in a text or group of texts.” However, Kathleen Morner and Ralph Rausch in NTC’s Dictionary of Literary Terms (1991), make an intelligent distinction, claiming that motif is a synonym for leitmotif only “when applied to a single work;” however, “when applied to several different works, motif refers to a recurrent theme.”

This same sentiment is shared by Chris Baldick in The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms (2001), but though it is one which helps us differentiate between motif and leitmotif, it is also one which muddies the waters between motif and theme. The confusion goes so far that in A Dictionary of Literary and Thematic Terms (2006), Edward Quinn could claim both that motif “differs from theme [by being] a concrete example of a theme” (under the “motif” entry), and, under “theme,” that this word is “sometimes used interchangeably with motif.”

These last five words can be found in M. H. Abrams in A Glossary of Literary Terms (10th ed., 2012), but just a few sentences above them, Abrams also introduces the “older word” topos as an alternative for motif, when the latter term is supposed to refer to “recurrent poetic concepts or formulas” (see also: Jack Myers and Michael Simms, Longman Dictionary and Handbook of Poetry). In the same paragraph, he also points out the synonymity between the words motif and leitmotif when applied to “the frequent repetition, within a single work, of a significant verbal or musical phrase, or set description, or complex of images.”

Peter Auger, in The Anthem Dictionary of Literary Terms, supports this distinction: to him, topos/topoi denotes any intertextual reappearance of elements“ and leitmotif describes intratextual recurrences; the term “motif” implies both of these meanings.

So, in other words, when a motif starts reappearing across numerous literary works, it becomes a general, almost conventional, theme, i.e., a “topos.” If, however, we’re dealing with a recurrent element within a single work, then we’re actually talking about “leitmotifs,” constitutive elements of a certain idea, meaningful patterns which are suggestive of a certain mood or atmosphere or, else, hint at the larger theme of a work. Let’s try and further elaborate on these two meanings of the word “motif.”

Internal Distinctions: Two Types of Motifs

Topoi: Traditional Understanding of Motifs

Traditionally, the word “motif” has been understood in a rather general manner, i.e., as a synonym for a “commonplace topic,” or, to use a Greek term, a topos (topoi in plural). As such, motifs have been around since the earliest days of writing, and many of them are being constantly revisited and reworked with regards to different circumstances, occasions, or needs.

In cases such as these, motifs can sometimes be almost indistinguishable from themes. For example, both Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” and Robert Herrick’s “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time” are variations of the same carpe diem (“seize the day”) motif, but this is also very much their central theme (see our Examples of Motif in Literature).

Other traditional motifs often revisited by poets and authors are, say, the motif of the perfect place (Arcadia, Eden, Utopia, El-Dorado, Shangri-La…), the motif of the womanizer (Casanova, Don Juan, Lothario…), or the motif of the (hero’s) journey. Each of these three motifs has served as the premise for numerous wildly different works written by thousands of dissimilar authors.

For reasons such as this, it is sometimes convenient to place all these writings into one class and to speak of the carpe diem genre or the utopian/dystopian genre. In folkloristics, in fact, there exists a wide-ranging classification, called the Aarne-Thompson-Uther Motif-Index, which lists, in a nested manner, all variations of all traditional motifs found in world folklore. We mention one in our main Motif article, under the section “Songs with Motifs.”

Leitmotifs: Modern Reinterpretation of Motifs

In modern literary studies, motifs are usually understood much more strictly and are used in a much more different manner than traditional topoi are by writers. To make a distinction, some authors use the term leitmotif for this modern meaning of the word “motif.”

The term leitmotif comes from music and is German in origin. It means “leading (guiding) motive” and was coined by Hans von Wolzogen to refer to a musical theme—repeated orchestral phrases—which evokes and/or can be identified with a specific character, situation, object, or emotion. Wolzogen used and developed the term with a specific reference to the operas of Richard Wagner, in which there are hundreds of leitmotifs, most of them related to a specific character or a situation.

To understand the musical meaning of the word leitmotif better, think of the ominous music which suggests an imminent shark attack in Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, or the sound of heavy breathing which indicates the presence of killer Michael Myers in John Carpenter’s Halloween.

First applied by the English physician Havelock Ellis in 1896 to the work of Émile Zola, the term leitmotif assumed a similar meaning in literature: a reminder of continuity which hints at the general theme of a work. Modernist authors consciously appropriated this device, especially since while composing their experimental works, they stopped relying on conventional narrative concepts such as plot, characters, story or symbols.  As a result, they had to use something different to create internal cohesion within their texts, “economically to build a unified work.” And they found that something in the idea of the recurring motif—or, more precisely, the leitmotif.

In this case, motifs are unifying elements, and they merely point to a theme; however, they are very different from it. For example, flying is an important (leit)motif in Toni Morrison’s 1977 novel, Song of Solomon, but the themes the novel explores have nothing to do with planes or birds, but, among other things, with one’s search for his/her own identity beyond the shackles of his immediate reality.

Motif vs. Theme: General Distinctions

“Motif and theme are two different things,” writes the great German scholar Ernst Robert Curtius in an essay on Hermann Hesse, “and critics would do well to distinguish between them.” But, unfortunately, due to the confusion over what exactly motif is, they haven’t. Curtius himself doesn’t offer particularly clear distinction, but he does well when he compares the motif to a plant: “it unfolds, forms nodes, branches out, puts forth leaves, buds, fruit.” In this analogy, the theme is something both more abstract and more straightforward, such as the Latin name of this plant or its place in a taxonomic table; often, the motif is what makes the theme tangible by adorning it with mood, ambiance, and overall atmosphere.

In the table below, we’ve tried summarizing the differences between this modern understanding of the word “(leit)motif” and the usual definitions of a “theme.” Hopefully, it can help you distinguish the terms “motif” and “theme” better in cases when you’re dealing with a single work.

TYPE (LEIT)MOTIF THEME
Element Recurring symbol, object, phrase, idea, situation Central idea; the subject-matter
Size A simple, Indivisible element; (an atomic thematic element) A dividable union of elements (a molecule of motifs, symbols, characters, relations, etc.)
Presence Local General
Visibility Concrete, tangible, directly expressed (e.g., the rain in Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms or the phrase “To Moscow” in Chekhov’s Three Sisters) Abstract, outside the text, indirectly expressed through motifs, images, characters, actions, symbols, etc.
Perceptibility Intuitively grasped through reading (e.g., rings and arches in D. H. Lawrence’s Rainbow) Can be rationally deduced through interpretation
Function Motifs can suggest some atmosphere (e.g., the color red and darkness in Macbeth), mood (e.g., the breaking of string in Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard), hint at a theme (e.g., mongooses in Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao) or contribute to the unification of a literary work (e.g., periodic striking of clocks in Mrs. Dalloway) The theme is what the writer wanted to say with his story, characters, motifs, etc.; it is not something he uses to say something; it is what he says by using something else
Communicability Can’t be rephrased or summarized; e.g. “the motif of the green light in Great Gatsby Can be paraphrased and recapitulated; e.g. “the theme of Hamlet is the conflict between human indecisiveness and duty”
(this, of course, is not the only way to summarize the theme in Hamlet, neither the only theme for that matter)
Commonness Usually more unique and more personalized; e.g., slippers and rackets in Nabokov’s Lolita A single theme can be reworked numerous times in thousands of different ways

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