Motif Definition

Motif is a recurrent element or concept, whether in a single work (when it is used interchangeably with the word “leitmotif”) or a group of works (when it has been used as a synonym for “topos,” “symbol,” and, sometimes, even a “theme”). Unfortunately, this has caused much confusion with regards to its definition or its relation to the associated concepts (see our Motif vs. Theme article for much more on this).

However, even in strictest terms, a motif can be anything which an author—or a group of authors—chooses to repeat: an image, a symbol, an object, a phrase, an event, an action, and even a character or an idea. Whatever it is, a motif is usually a concrete thing that suggests something bigger and more abstract, which literary scholars more generally describe as theme.

As a general rule of thumb, if the repetition of an element is limited to a single work, then its pattern is more commonly interrelated with the work’s mood and atmosphere than with its symbolism and meaning; in this case, motif is more precisely referred to as leitmotif.

If the same motif is repeated throughout many literary works, it becomes instantly recognizable, in which case some authors refer to it with the word topos, which is Greek for “place,” as if suggesting that these motifs can be readily taken from somewhere and reused.

Finally, if an element repeated within a single work (usually subtly and sparsely) stands for something else related to the theme and its meaning is more readily detectable, then we’re probably talking about a symbol.

Many renaissance poems are just variations of common motifs (topoi), such as “seize the day” or “remember you’ll die;” modernist authors, on the other hand, tend to use personalized and ambiguous leitmotifs.

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Examples of Motif

Motif in Poetry

Introduction and General Clarifications

In poetry—just like in all genres—motifs can both reappear across numerous works by different authors, and be a recurring element in a particular poem by a single author. However, the former seems a bit more common in poetry, possibly because poems are usually shorter and one needs some space to spin out a specific motif without sounding too pretentious or tedious. We look at how different poets treat identical motifs across centuries (topoi) in our 5 Examples of Motif in Literature article. Here, we provide an in-depth analysis of how a particular poet can use a motif in a single work of his. In addition, here is a list of a few other examples:

  • Motifs across the works of a single poet:
    • the motif of the death of the beautiful and dearly loved maiden in Edgar Allan Poe’s or Gerard de Nerval’s poetry;
    • the motif of the passing of time in Shakespeare’s sonnets;
    • the motif of Helen and Troy in Yeats’ poetry.
  • Motifs in a single poem:
    • repeated phrases in T.S. Eliot’s poetry, such as “hurry up, please, it’s time” in The Waste Land or “the women come and go…” in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock;
    • the repetition of patterns (garden, dress, fan, life) in Amy Lowell’s poem Patterns.

Example: Guillaume Apollinaire – The Mirabeau Bridge (1912)

Guillaume Apollinaire—an exceptionally influential French writer who, among other things, invented the words “cubism” and “surrealism”—is widely considered one of the most modern and avant-garde poets at the turn of the twentieth century; “The Mirabeau Bridge”—which you can read in no less than nine different English translations online (reference)—is, if not his most famous, surely his most universally beloved poem.

Supposedly inspired by the end—or, at least, one of the ends—of Apollinaire’s stormy and passionate affair with the French painter, Marie Laurencin, “The Mirabeau Bridge” is a lyrical meditation on the flight of time and love. Apollinaire uses two motifs to depict this atmosphere and evoke in the reader the appropriate feelings. The more obvious one is the motif of the incessantly running river, suggestive of the theme of the passing of time. “Under the Mirabeau Bridge there flows the Seine” is both the opening and the closing verse of the poem—if we disregard the refrain. Ever since Heraclitus’ enigmatic utterance that “ever-newer waters flow on those who step into the same rivers,” the image of the river has been used and reused by numerous authors to suggest the flow of time. For Apollinaire—who had, supposedly, often crossed the Mirabeau bridge with Marie—the river Seine has come to suggest the ephemerality of love as well; he makes this connection explicit in the third stanza when he asserts that “all love goes by as water to the sea.”

However, this is where this first motif of the flight of time and love is juxtaposed against the second, less obvious, motif—that of the desperate desire to halt it: “how slow life seems to me!” The two motifs are best contrasted in the lingering image of the memorable refrain:

Let night come on bells end the day
The days go by me still I stay

The bell which ends the day is another often-used motif suggestive of the merciless flow of time; however, the man who stands stationary against such a backdrop—think of any static time-lapse movie scene—calls to mind the very opposite: an existence outside of time. Even though aware that “neither time past/ nor love comes back again,” the despairing lyrical subject of “The Mirabeau Bridge” is somehow unable to accept this and would instead stop time so as to prevent the departure of love. Everything changes and nothing remains still, thought Heraclitus; yet, Apollinaire adds, I don’t want to change and would prefer to stay motionless here for all times.

Motif in Literature

Introduction and General Clarifications

In literature, motif is often confused with theme and symbol, even though, unlike the former, it is much more concrete, and, unlike the latter, it doesn’t necessarily stand for something specific. Since the use of motifs—and, especially, leitmotifs—is a technique introduced in literature from music, motifs are much more prominent in modernist novels. Fascinated by the ambiguity and universality of the medium of sound, modernist writers often drew on music, and, consciously imitating the likes of Richard Wagner—instead of relying on usual narrative strategies such as plot, action, and characters—they started composing their novels in a musical manner, spinning out symbolic leitmotifs in time through relentless repetition and variation. So, as a rule of thumb, as far as literary works are concerned, the more indecipherable and disintegrated the plot, the more necessary and conspicuous the motifs. Below we provide an in-depth analysis of the motif of snow in Joyce’s short story “The Dead;” here are a few other examples for your consideration:

  • Motifs across the works of a single author:
    • the ball/childhood grief motif in quite a few of Beckett’s plays;
    • the musical motifs in Proust, Woolf, and Joyce.
    • the motifs of hypersensitivity and premature burial in Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories.
  • Motifs in a single work:
    • the death-motifs in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice: the color red, the crouching tiger, the plague;
    • the elements-motif in Hermann Broch’s Death of Virgil;
    • the motif of ticking in Poe’s “Tell-Tale ”

Example: James Joyce – The Dead (1914)

It is an understatement to say that James Joyce pushed the boundaries of fiction to its extremes; if he did just that in Ulysses, in Finnegans Wake, as it has often been argued, he went even further, treating words in a manner a musician would typically treat sounds, and, thus, churning out a monumental literary work which defies both interpretation and categorization to this day.

Motifs are, more or less, the only thing which prevents Joyce’s last novel from falling apart, and one of the things literary scholars are most interested in talking about when interpreting the structure of Ulysses. However, Joyce began experimenting with motifs much earlier, and it is undoubtedly easier to comment on the ways he does this if we direct our attention to “The Dead,” the final story of his 1914 short story collection, Dubliners (reference); especially if bearing in mind the fact that “The Dead,” at least according to Joseph S. O’Leary, “is the first full-scale display of Joyce’s motival fireworks.”

The motifs in this story, goes on O’Leary,

“fall into two major clusters: motifs connected with music and dancing, which extend to include all the sounds and gestures of the characters, and motifs connected with death, which include the names of the many dead people mentioned, the pervasive coffin-symbolism, and the haunting symbol of the snow.”

O’Leary’s particularly informative 1996 essay, “The Musical Structure of ‘The Dead,’” demonstrates the full extent to which Joyce spins out the music-motif in his most famous short story; our analysis, however, focuses on what O’Leary himself refers to as “the central motif” of “The Dead”: namely, the snow.

First of all, it should be pointed out that (as many Joycean scholars have noted) Joyce borrows this motif from several places. For example, Thomas Moore’s poem “Oh, Ye Dead”—from where the title of Joyce’s story comes—makes a connection between snow and death in its final two verses (“To freeze ‘mid Hecla’s snow,/ We would taste it awhile, and think we live once more”), as do the scenic instructions which frame the action in Ibsen’s When We Dead Awaken. Perhaps most conspicuously, Bret Harte’s 1876 novel, Gabriel Conroy—which is, purposefully and allusively, the name of the main character in “The Dead”—begins with a description which should immediately call into mind the closing paragraph of Joyce’s short story (notice the death-imagery: “the likes of a monstrous grave”):

Snow. Everywhere. As far as the eye could reach—fifty miles, looking southward from the highest white peak,—filling ravines and gulches, and dropping from the walls of cañons in white shroud-like drifts, fashioning the dividing ridge into the likeness of a monstrous grave, hiding the bases of giant pines, and completely covering young trees and larches, rimming with porcelain the bowl-like edges of still, cold lakes, and undulating in motionless white billows to the edge of the distant horizon. Snow lying everywhere over the California Sierras on the 15th day of March 1848, and still falling.

It is difficult for the reader to miss the variations upon the snow-motif in “The Dead,” not only because of the much-commented-upon final paragraph of the story but also because Joyce recurrently brings the reader’s attention to it, mentioning the word “snow” no less than 21 times. This, in combination with the many references to music and ballads, helps Joyce paint a melancholic atmosphere against the backdrop of a seemingly warm familial setting at an annual Christmas gathering.

“Scraping snow from his galoshes” is the first thing Gabriel does upon arrival to this gathering, his overcoat caped with “a little fringe of snow.” We find out very soon that he wears galoshes because, in manners such as this, he is much more cautious than his wife Gretta, who apparently would “walk home in the snow if she were let.” In fact, despite the fact that she had caught a dreadful cold the previous year, and despite the constant pleadings of Gabriel, she refused to put on her galoshes yet again. Moreover, she thinks that they are “very funny because… the word reminds her of Christy Minstrels.” At first sight, there is no obvious connection between galoshes and Christy Minstrels. However, the muted links—the similar-sounding word “gollywogs” and the fact that the Christy Minstrels were a popular blackface group of balladeers—opens the snow-death motif to a host of associations in the short story, such as the images of dolls and dead children (Lily’s rag doll, Romeo and Juliet, the murdered princes), as well as the centerpiece of the second motif-cluster in the story, the song “The Lass of Aughrim,” which includes the lines “O, the rain falls on my heavy locks/ And the dew wets my skin,/ My babe lies cold…” and reminds Gretta of Michael Furey, who had once died for her beauty and love in the cold.

As indiscriminately as it does with the living and the dead, the snow from the final paragraph seems to mesh the motifs of the story even further:

It had begun to snow again. […] Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

There is something suggesting an epiphany in these lines, but literary scholars have never been able to discern its nature, with most of them arguing that it might be an ironic one, “signifying Gabriel’s ultimate defeat, and the confirmation of his identity as a loser and a sentimentalist.” But, that’s the thing with motifs: unlike symbols, they don’t need to stand for something explicitly, and can merely hint at the general theme by enriching it with a suitable atmosphere. It is beyond doubt that Joyce does precisely that with this powerful closing image, which seems to imply that if there’s anything which binds together the random events of the evening, it is the snow falling over everyone in just the same manner.

In Joyce, writes O’Leary, motifs tend to “form a hidden ‘figure in the carpet’ which readers have to discover for themselves.” However, even when discovered, Joyce’s motifs “often elude satisfactory exegesis. There is a poker-faced playfulness in the way Joyce plants the motifs and draws the reader into a game of ‘hunt the motif,’ a game that may seem to be only tangentially related to the story he is telling.” O’Leary goes so far to claim that “unless Joyce’s motifs work to generate epiphanies, they are damp squibs,” but this is certainly not true; for just like in music, literary motifs sometimes do nothing but generate an atmosphere or a mood which remains with us long after we’ve forgotten the words, the characters, and even the plots of the stories we love.

(Further Reading: Top 5 Examples of Motif in Literature)

Songs with Motif

Introduction and General Clarifications

In music, the word motif is usually used—rather naturally—in relation to melody and rhythm, and very rarely—if ever—in relation to text; as a matter of fact, as we explain in our Motif vs. Theme article, literary criticism has borrowed the concept of motif from music. To use a somewhat simplifying analogy, just like writers may use a particular object, event, phrase, etc. as a handy tool to unify a novel by reminding their readers of the earlier appearance of the motif in question, musicians use patterns of notes to similar ends; we experience music in a far more intuitive manner than we experience literature, so motifs are arguably far more important to musicians than to writers. With that being said, textual motifs are sometimes used in musical works as well, and this is particularly evident in concept albums; consider, for example, the recurrent appearance of wall-related imagery and phrases in the songs which comprise Pink Floyd’s 1979 album The Wall. There are, likewise, other interesting cases, such as the prominent “I’m better than the rest” motif in rap songs, the motif of nursery rhymes and children’s games in Harry Chapin’s Cat’s in the Cradle or the Tillamook burn motif in Sufjan Stevens’ Fourth of July. Below, we analyze in depth yet another one, which we believe should help you understand a lot about how motifs work in any textual creation.

Example: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Henry Lee (1996)

“This song is an old Scottish murder ballad that I read in a book somewhere and played around with,” notes Nick Cave before performing Henry Lee at BBC’s Songwriters’ Circle in 1999. “It’s, um, a story about the fury of a scorned woman” (reference). More or less, playing around with old songs is how you create a unique work within the confines of a traditional motif. For example—and unsurprisingly—the “story about the fury of a scorned woman” has been recounted thousands of different times in many world languages; as a matter of fact, there exist numerous variants of this story, not only in terms of different versions of this very same folk song (say, Dick Justice’s 1929 folk song “Henry Lee” or Bob Dylan’s 1993 retelling titled “Love Henry”), but, also in terms of diverse narratives which all treat the identical theme of the revenge of the rejected girl. The latter are grouped as a conventional folk-motif in the Aarne-Thompson-Uther Index under T71.2: the “woman avenges scorned love” motif.

However, we chose this song for a different reason: we believe that Cave’s version is an excellent example of the process by which a poet can transform a common motif (topos) through the use of his private, more unique motifs (leitmotifs). Speaking of the latter, consider the chorus to Cave’s Henry Lee:

And the wind did howl and the wind did blow
La la la la la
La la la la lee
A little bird lit down on Henry Lee

These lines are absent not only in the early versions of Henry Lee but also in each and every one of its subsequent variations. In addition, both the blowing of the wind and the little bird add little or nothing to the story and its meaning, but a lot to its mood and the overall atmosphere; this is especially evident in the third stanza when, after the murder of Henry Lee, the pre-chorus line is changed from “and the wind did howl and the wind did blow” to “and the wind did roar and the wind did moan.” This is precisely how a leitmotif works: it suggests and hints at the overall theme (you don’t expect for the wind to howl ominously in a Dr. Seuss poem), but, unlike a symbol, it doesn’t stand for something else directly connected to the theme (neither are the wind and the bird personified, nor they are straightforwardly related to the murder itself).

Interestingly enough, in two early versions of Henry Lee—called Young Hunting or Earl Richard—there is a bird playing so prominent part in the narrative that it is difficult to say that it is merely a motif (reference). However, by not mentioning it elsewhere, Cave has managed to strip down the bird-symbol or bird-character of further meaning in the chorus and has successfully turned it into a haunting atmospheric motif. Even though, it should be noted that at times—as, for example, in the above-mentioned BBC performance—he himself tries to make a further connection between the little bird of the refrain and the story retold in the stanzas (thus, broadening the motif). And he usually does this by dropping the merely descriptive line “till the flesh drops from your bones,” for the much more sinister variant: “till the birds pick clean your bones.”

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